Back and Forwards
Moral Stupefaction

Mental Inertia

Highland Steam Train It troubles me how often I am derailed by my mental inertia. As long as my mind is building up steam on a single track, I can develop an endless capacity to apply myself to charging down that route. But ask me to change track, and suddenly all my head of steam is squandered and my figurative engine soon grinds to a halt. To put this same idea in less metaphorical terms: give me one task, no matter how vast or impossible, and I will sink myself joyfully into its resolution. But as soon as I am given many tasks, my momentum begins to sag. It is not that I cannot multi-task so much as it is that my mental constitution seems to lend itself to the obsessive rather than the manifold.

I can picture how this might come about in the depths of my biology, for what it is worth. The neurobiology of reward involves a capacity to be swayed by imagined future state, as when the gambler persists with the slot machine because they feel it is about to pay out. I wonder if this coupling of imagination and reward is the substrate of my obsessiveness – I can hold one image and pursue it to the hilt, but trying to imagine many things at once is unbridled anarchy. Perhaps those more suited to a massive parallelism in tasks imagine the situation differently – abstracting away from the incompatibility of the individual tasks to some other way of perceiving the situation. Perhaps it is simply a case of different habits  manifesting in different situations.

This principle of mental inertia seems to apply to all manner of aspects of my life, both in work and in play. I would far rather be playing one game than many, at least in the case of videogames as I seem to be more flexible with board games. It is particularly true of my work – the problems it causes me when in the midst of a book manuscript I have to apply myself to other things! So it is this week when, after three weeks of concentrating on Chaos Ethics I have to return to teaching and marking. What a savage change of focus! Once I have mastered the transition, everything will get done, but for a while I will be caught between the two and it will seem correspondingly harder to get anything done. Thus it is that I delay the bulk of the marking by applying myself to other tasks that seem less daunting. Only once my mental train is on the track of marking will I steam through it to the end. It is just the transitioning that I find hard.

I used to meditate to help silence the voices that would draw me into obsessiveness, now I simply don’t have the time to do anything but push through the endless successions of situations that hurl themselves at me like waves crashing upon the cliffs. I miss the stillness of mind that meditation would afford me, but it is far from clear how I could recover it into my bustling routine. Yet having meditated in the past, I feel calmer and more able to handle the carnage of the present. If I lost the habit of taking time to meditate, it seems I did not entirely lose the benefits of having meditated. To bring all things to a halt, to let the mental inertia hold me still instead of propel me forward – these are rare treasures indeed. Sometimes it is important to let the locomotive stand and softly hiss as all its power of steam dissipates quietly into the air, and vanishes.


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I know this feel bro! ;)

I wish I could explain to my wife that when she walks in while I am working and asks if I can do something else, this mental intertia explains why I don't just happily drop everything and do it right then!

I think that those of us who work primarily in thought-based work feel this a lot. If you've never done intense thinking over a long period of time, it just doesn't register that this can happen. In the same way that people can't understand how you can be exhausted after sitting down at a desk all day.


Rodeoclown: I hadn't thought of this as relating to 'working with thought', but of course those of us that do tend to have a similar mental constitution in many respects. It's nice to know I'm not alone in this, although I think I always knew this was not something peculiar to me.

Where did you go for your Google Reader replacement, by the way? I went to The Old Reader which has been fine so far.


Sounds like you're describing myself! Including the part about meditation. I don't seem to make time for that these days, though that might be changing... (reading The Power of Full Engagement has helped give me a reason to value mental breaks throughout the day)

I don't see this as having anything to do with the neurobiology of reward, myself. It just seems like the way my brain works, to be immersed in one thing at a time.

Hi axcho - thanks for letting me know this also affects you! As for neurobiology, my head is in this space so often these days that I can almost always provide a picture from this angle, but I never expect it to supplant the actual experience - this must always take precedence. ;)

All the best!

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