Not everyone reads books or listens to music actively. Some never visit museums and art galleries. Quite a lot of people don’t dance or sing, or play an instrument. They don’t design, craft or make anything. They have no relationship with tools and never apply their minds to research or investigation. There are a lot of people for whom intellectual curiosity isn’t a vivid, engaging, vibrant, indispensible part of their life.
It took me quite some time to realise that not everybody did the sorts of things I do in my spare time and in my working life. I used to think that everybody was fundamentally interested in improving themselves intellectually. It was impossible for me to conceive of an existence where you didn’t pursue interesting questions for the sheer joy of finding out, or exercise possibilities in your mind, just so that you could imagine alternative outcomes. I no longer think that’s the case. Some people make precious little effort to do anything purposeful with their brains. We live among virtual zombies. They breathe and move, but their imaginative life is all but lifeless.
Sure, they entertain themselves. They pass their time. They might even engage in a wide variety of activities, but not the kind that exercises their intellect. Some people just don’t make much effort to upgrade the quality of their thoughts, add to their knowledge, seek out learning opportunities or revise their beliefs. Analogous to people that don’t exercise their bodies, these people don’t exercise their minds.
It’s funny that, as a society, we frown upon those that don’t exercise their bodies and judgementally pronounce that they deserve all the ill health that accompanies physical inactivity. We say it’s their own fault for not putting in the effort and adjudicate them indolent. Yet, when it comes to intellectual inactivity, that’s almost a badge of pride. They wear their chosen ignorance defiantly, as if they have discovered some magic secret of life denied to “over thinkers”. We don’t wag fingers at them and suggest that their life chances and the political regime they must toil under is a deserved consequence of their failure to develop their ideas and minds. There are no personal trainers for intellectual exercises, only for physical exercise.
Intellectually inactive people have a relationship to art that is passive, not active. They consume, rather than produce. There is precious little analysis or understanding of the art they encounter. Rather, their reaction to it is visceral and often based on prejudice. If it doesn’t conform to a very narrow vision of what art ought to be like, they reject it out of hand as stupid. Adolf Hitler’s “degenerate art” fits this description. Because he had no intellectual grasp of art, he was both a lousy artist and a lousy art interpreter, blind to genius because he couldn’t grasp it or fit it into his dogmatic ideological framework.
Intellectual inactivity is corrosive to humanity and breeds obedience. If you don’t learn to think critically and develop that skill, as one develops any other skill, through diligent practice and consistent application, over a long period of time, then you can be told anything by anyone and you’re likely to believe it. Your gullibility is increased because your thinking facilities are weak and flaccid. You have no capacity for intellectual self-defence because your thinking habits have lain fallow and have become flabby and out of shape.
Ask somebody intellectually lazy to come up with a new idea or do something creative and it exhausts them, because they have not built up the stamina, through vigorous and regular exercise of their faculties, to engage with the task at hand and see it through to its conclusion. Inspiration escapes them, because their imaginations have not been fed with ideas and concepts. The creative centres of their brain are effectively malnourished.
I recently watched a rather disturbing video of a rock star’s abandoned Oxfordshire mansion. It hadn’t been inhabited (or maintained) for eleven years, when the video was made. Two housebreakers (who call themselves “urban explorers”) broke in and took a video of the interior of the house. It was as if time had stopped. Board games were left in mid play. Pool tables still had their balls in place on the table, as they had rolled, after the previous shot. A chess game was left half-completed. Pictures still hung on the walls, white goods were still there, bed clothes were strewn about bare mattresses and the crockery and trinkets were all where they had been left, in cupboards, on sideboards and on mantle shelves. There was a coffee machine that had made its last cup of coffee some eleven years ago, when the mansion was last occupied. A small portable television stood silently in one of the bedrooms. Place settings were still on the dining table.
What disturbed me was the absence of books, music, tools, crafts, magazines, media of any kind. There was an upright piano, chess board and Scrabble, but scant evidence of a deeper intellectually active life. Instead, there were the accoutrements of pass times, but very little to indicate that the inhabitants valued creativity or intellectual development. The brain food seemed to be missing. It’s true that somebody wedded to intellectual self-improvement might not abandon their tools and information as readily as they would coffee machines, furniture, washing machines, cups, saucers and the other paraphernalia of life, but it’s equally likely there was nothing to abandon.
How do you begin to contribute to popular culture from such a barren intellectual environment, lacking cultural references or the means to explore and create with your mind? Clearly, this rock star had contributed iconic works to the cannon of popular culture, but it was hard to see where they came from, given the lack of evidence of intellectual and cultural stimulation apparent in his abandoned artefacts. I can only hope that he compartmentalises his creative time and engages his mind elsewhere, at other places and times. Maybe travel provided the stimulus Perhaps that’s why he couldn’t stand living in this place any more.
For me, intellectual self-development never ceases. It’s constant. I have something going on in my brain all the time. If I’m not creating, I’m investigating. I find mindless entertainment insufficiently satisfying to hold my attention for long. Instead, my mind wanders and I begin living inside my head once more. I’ve always enjoyed dwelling in my own imagination. To me, the biggest obstacle to physical exercise and travel is making both intellectually stimulating enough to endure. I realise now, though, that this is not the situation for everybody.
You need knowledge to get inspiration, insight and to make your own unique contribution. If you’re intellectually inactive most of the time, you’re going to struggle to perform at peak levels, when required to create. I may be wrong because I only have my own perspective, but I can’t see how.
Exercise your head as seriously as you do your body.