P. M. Forni points out in his book The Thinking Life that we live in an age of distraction. The Internet, cellular phones, and ubiquitous media have made it possible for us to be in an almost constant state of stimulation. In a diet of constant feeding, our minds have no time to digest, so much of what comes in passes out mostly unchanged. We can find information in an instant, but it takes more than an instant to take it in and retain it.
Excellent thinking, reflection, introspection, and deep learning, take time and energy. Not only that, they require some devotion and discipline. I think one of the most useful points Forni makes is the importance of attention, the opposite of distraction. I have read the works of memory experts that suggest that we do not remember things because we did not pay close attention to them to begin with. If we want to know what is going on around us, especially with the people we care about, we have to be attentive. If we want to remember something, we have to pay attention when we experience it. If we want to do some serious thinking, we have to attend to some thoughts and put aside others, at least for a while.
Fortunately, our power of paying attention, and other abilities important to thinking like decision making, can be improved with practice. Throughout The Thinking Life, Forni provides advice on how to develop your thinking abilities. Each chapter ends with specific questions and exercises aimed at helping you increase your ability in some area of thinking.
In his argument for the benefits of thinking, Forni draws on an ancient Greek philosophy known as Stoicism. Famous Stoics include Zeno, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca. Forni doesn’t suggest that we be stoical. He suggests that we practice moderation and self-discipline so that we can set aside time and energy for the important task of thinking, which leads to better decisions and more happiness.
Moderation and self-discipline are virtues, something the Stoics held in high regard. Another virtue that Forni encourages is humility. I think humility is one of the greatest virtues. Humility is a condition for honestly assessing our place in the world so we can see where we need help, see where can help others, and learn.
These comments scratch the surface of Forni’s short book. He addresses a problem in our culture with thoughtful advice and concision.
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Forni, P. M. The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction. New York: St. Martin’s, 2011.Google