Monday, 3 March 2014


The diagnosis was rather depressing:

You are what we call intellectually obese. Your symptom is constipation in using the word ‘why’ brought on by a diet of junk-literature ….there’s only one treatment.”

She slid a card across the table. 

P.O. Box 17
8127 Forch

Authorities view physical obesity as the most serious public health problems but no one is talking about an equally serious issue.

‘Obesity of the mind’, by which I mean having neglected one’s “thinking-diet” so badly that one becomes unable to think quickly, stops being inquisitive and becomes reliant on sound bites.  Politicians are full of concern about our children’s exam results but not about their capacity to think. 

Exams are easy to fix. It’s thinking that’s hard. 

Right now we are being bombarded with stuff on mindfulness. Gwyneth Paltrow even talked about it at Davos. Hopefully everyone there felt their feet on the ground, attended to their breathing and ‘noticed’ their thoughts. No, I’m not being sarcastic. Much of the mindfulness liturgy makes sense….we should live for now rather than dwelling on the past or speculating about the future. 

But as well as being ‘mindful’ we also need to be ‘thoughtful’.

Being thoughtful means taking nothing for granted. It means being a bit contrary. It means being prepared to ask “why” rather more than we are used to. It means saying “not necessarily”.  And it means accepting that in a rapidly changing world the old way may be the wrong way but equally the new way might be entirely misguided too. 

Nassim Taleb, a contrarian and passionate radical, is very expressive on what he calls the insanity of “neomania” -   believing that all things new are not necessarily great. 
The thinking person’s kit includes a large pinch of curiosity, voracious reading and a cheerful refusal to be bamboozled by anything. 

What’s strange about all this is we have, through technology, a better set of thinking tools than we’ve ever had. We have access to more information and more chances of asking “why?” but sometimes we seem disinclined to take advantage of them.

There are exceptions like the astonishing success of the Khan Academy – a not-for-profit website that’s the hottest educational phenomenon in the world.

No obesity here….just a constant muscular “why” driving the whole enterprise.
And finally my grandsons who asked after me reading them a story about a sausage destined for their tea escaping from the house followed by peas and fries:

“Grandpa what do you think?”

‘What do you think’ are the four most turbocharged words I know, meaning ‘what’s your opinion?’ or ‘what’s your decision?’ or ‘what’s on your mind?’ But from 5 and 7 year olds there’s a need for being direct with simplicity, clarity and honesty in your answer. No frills, waffle or sidestepping. 

With questions like that being asked there’s simply no chance of mental obesity.

No comments: