Opinion » Column | Sept. 24
I have always been, as my mother and I fondly call it, “an over-thinker.” This, as with most things, has its good and its bad sides. Here at Princeton, thoughts are the currency that buys success. The more you churn them out and arrange them in a convincing way on a page, the better. The entire purpose of our being here is to engage and exercise our brains, to educate them and widen the horizons of the variety and types of thoughts we can have about the world and ourselves.
But how much thinking is too much?
I’m aware of the irony that in writing this piece I am thinking about thinking: metacognition, if you want to get fancy. But over-thinking is the same as over-exerting yourself physically — you’re just using neurons instead of muscles. Often I feel as though at Princeton we are asking our minds to run marathons, every day, without enough down time in between. There are clear guidelines for how we should take care of our bodies when we exert ourselves physically — proper nutrition, stretching, warming up — and, normally, the results of excess physical exertion are obvious. But the thing about an overstrained brain is that it is harder to recognize from the inside and the outside. Especially in this age of technology, when we have no constraints on the amount of time we spend absorbing information by surfing the web or texting friends, our brains are becoming frazzled and exhausted, and we don’t even know it.
In the brain, the basic gist is that information from all of our senses must be processed at various levels of sophistication before being integrated and stored throughout as memories or traveling out to be manifested in the body as physical feelings. Each of us has a different capacity for how much information we can cope with at one time, but whoever you are and whatever your makeup, there is a limit. When we overload our brains by reading, working or thinking too much — which includes not just active deliberation, but even just letting our thoughts run wild beyond our consent — the proper integration of information is disrupted. We also deplete the energy stores in the brain without leaving them proper time to recover (thinking is an energy-expensive process). Because of this stressful overload our bodies click into anxiety mode, activating the fear response and heightening the emotional areas, preparing our bodies for fight or flight, even when we don’t need either. According to the current theories of many psychologists and neuroscientists, this constant state of elevated mental stress serves as the root of many mood disorders that the nation suffers from today.
Over-thinking is the human curse. No animal on this planet — with the exception, perhaps, of certain monkeys or dolphins, though it is hard to know for sure — thinks so much that it causes itself harm, the way humans can. Our brains create emotional turmoil in reaction to stimuli that are not tangible. We think ourselves in circles, ignoring the physical reality around us in the present moment. The mere idea of something in the past or future can cause us to panic — our hearts to race and a knot to tie itself up in our bellies. There’s a reason that we gain so much comfort from being surrounded by small children or pets, whose realities are much more confined to the sensory outside world than the world of thoughts. The older we get, the more we realize the gift that they unwittingly have, and long to return to that childlike state of peace of mind.
The world of thoughts can be a scary place. There are some dark corners that we all have within us, areas of thought whose existence is inevitable, but perhaps best left only lightly explored. Sometimes we may choose to take a flashlight into these corners, to speculate about some of the unanswerable questions about who we are and why we are here, or why there is so much suffering in the world — through philosophy, perhaps, or through religion or spirituality — but, as I have experienced, sometimes thoughts from these dark corners will assault us unbidden and leave us fearful and paralyzed. Intensive, active, academic study of these areas can provide our fearful minds with too much fodder and in some cases actually turns out to be counterproductive. There is a limit to how much I personally can take on thinking about these big existential questions, as I recently discovered.
I’ve said it before, and I’m saying it again to myself now: Balance is the key, balance between exercising and resting both the brain and the body to find contentment. For me, perhaps that means dropping a class when I can’t cope with the amount of thinking required, or risking a worse grade by not planning my essay a week in advance, as I once used to do before my mind became more easily overwhelmed. The costs of overtaxing our brains are high, so make sure you give yours some R&R. As the beautiful fall weather settles around campus, try putting down your smartphone, sitting quietly and letting your mind drift contentedly in the present moment — no thinking required.
Lauren Davis is a philosophy major from London, England. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.