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Lessons Learned

How Solitude Can Change Your Brain In Profound Ways

A little time alone can go a long way in spurring your creative thinking and strengthening relationships.

[Photo: Flickr user Gaëtan Zarforoushan]

Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 business lessons of 2015. See the full list here.

I recently got back from a week of solitude in a house off Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts. I was there to focus on finishing my book of short stories without distraction, conversations, emails, deadlines, and the thrum and pulse of New York City life, all competing for my attention.

It was a gift, to say the least. Time alone to think and do and be as you please, no intrusions allowed, is such a rarity these days. Not just because we're naturally social creatures, but because we are so intensely connected to each other and the world, that disengaging even for a brief period can feel nearly impossible.

Amid the bustle of our lives, it's easy to lose sight of those moments of solitude that can be so invaluable and rewarding. "Solitude is a crucial and underrated ingredient for creativity," Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet, told Scientific American. "From Darwin to Picasso to Dr. Seuss, our greatest thinkers have often worked in solitude."

But the reality and demands of daily life mean we can't just hightail it to a cabin in the woods like Thoreau for two years. And let's be honest—many of us simply don't want that kind of seclusion. A 2014 research study found that people can be so irked by solitude and quiet thinking that they'd rather administer electric shocks to themselves than be left alone with their thoughts.

But moments of solitude—even small ones—when self-imposed, intentional, and fully appreciated, can have profound effects on our productivity and creative thinking.

Living In A World Of Undercover Introverts

Hesitant as people can be in embracing moments of quiet and seclusion, research has shown many of us are in fact predisposed to seek such environments. One in every two or three people is an introvert—preferring quiet alone time to stimulation and large groups of people, according to Cain. "You’d never guess that . . . because introverts learn from an early age to act like pretend extroverts," she says.

What's lost when we deny ourselves that time alone? From my own personal experience, I can tell you that stepping away from the routine and rowdiness of daily life allowed me to connect ideas I'd been wrestling with in new ways, follow creative impulses, and simply think about one thing at a time.

Thinking about one thing at a time. How often are you actually doing that? According to MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller, our brains simply aren't built to multitask well, which means we end up diluting the quality and efficiency of what we're doing in the process.

Focusing on just one thing—without allowing distractions to intrude—becomes its own form of sacred solitude.

Photo: Flickr user Leo Hidalgo

Creativity And Efficiency Need Solitude To Thrive

Being alone is uncomfortable at times and often difficult—hence the impulse to reach for an electric shock rather than having to sit alone with one's thoughts. But when it comes to creative work and thinking, it's important to take a long-term view on those moments of discomfort, say psychologists.

Take for example the research of Reed Larson, professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has studied the effects solitude has on the development and long-term well-being of teens and adolescents. He found that while being alone is "not a particularly happy state" in the moment, it nonetheless has what Larson calls a "kind of a rebound effect. It’s kind of like a bitter medicine," he says, creating more positive emotions and less self-reported depression down the line.

Giving Your Mind What It Needs On Demand

Time alone allows us to order our priorities according to what we need, rather than the needs of others. "The paradigm experience of solitude is a state characterized by disengagement from the immediate demands of other people—a state of reduced social inhibition and increased freedom to select one's mental and physical activities," write researchers Christopher Long and James Averill.

In other words, when you're able to disengage from the demands of other people, you've suddenly freed up the mental space to focus on longer-term, bigger-picture projects and needs.

Solitude Feeds Our Relationships

Building these moments into our daily lives is important. According to Sherry Turkle, researcher and founder of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, it's important for people to intentionally set aside time each day when they abstain from "social snacking" activities like texting, tweeting, and Instagram—often the social junk food of choice for many of us.

"The moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device. Just think of people at a checkout line or at a red light," Turkle says in her TED Talk "Connected, But Alone?" "Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved. And so people try to solve it by connecting. But here, connection is more like a symptom than a cure."

Turkle, author of the book Alone Together, goes on:

"How do you get from connection to isolation? You end up isolated if you don't cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. When we don't have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we're not able to appreciate who they are. It's as though we're using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self."

She urges people to create sacred spaces where solitude can be embraced, and where you don't allow yourself to check your phone or reach for distraction—an hour every morning, or a lunch outside the office.

Photo: Flickr user Georgie Pauwels

Make A Weekly Date With Yourself

In her seminal book The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron takes this notion a step further and offers an exercise she calls the "artist date"—a time once a week when you make sure to do something inspiring and creative by yourself. "A weekly artist date is remarkably threatening—and remarkably productive," writes Cameron.

She's talking about taking a long walk alone, watching a sunrise, going to an unfamiliar church to hear gospel music, visiting a museum or neighborhood you haven't been to, just to experience something new and unfamiliar. And if you feel like this is silly or a waste of time, "recognize this resistance as a fear of intimacy—self-intimacy," says Cameron.

Embrace The Space

Often we can get solitude and loneliness confused. But according to Sara Maitland, author of the book How to Be Alone, the two are entirely different. "Solitude is a description of a fact: You are on your own," Maitland says in an interview with The Observer. "Loneliness is a negative emotional response to it. People think they will be lonely, and that is the problem—the expectation is also now a cultural assumption."

But make the assumption that you'll be finding the time and space to reconnect with yourself and your ideas, and suddenly the sound of solitude has a delicious ring to it.