The Decline of Higher Thinking

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If you are reading these words sitting amidst your friends, relatives, colleagues, or just among the public—and if you are reading quite intently—you are definitely going to have your share of curious glances, and depending upon where you live, strange frowns. While the very exercise of reading something printed on dead wood seems to be increasingly seen with the same feeling with which one sees the skeleton of a dinosaur in a museum of natural history, reading something with concentration for a span of more than a few minutes is seen as revolutionary or something that only people engaged in academics ought to do. We live in a world where pulp fiction has more currency than classic literature, where magazines are flipped through mainly for the photographs, and where a four-hundred-word piece of writing is considered ‘profound’, irrespective of the content, only because of the length.

No, this is not a debate about the decrease of the reading habit, though that may be one of the causes of the issue being discussed here: the decline of higher thinking. It is quite incredible that a discussion about the major questions of life and death is considered ‘heavy’ or ‘deep’ and pop psychology tells one to ‘just live the moment’. Fun has become serious business and serious business has ‘gone with the wind’. What we discuss over coffee has often been the yardstick of the level of thinking of the human civilisation of the time. And the unfortunate truth is that today, when, and that is a big when, friends meet over coffee or for any other meal for that matter, our electronic gadgets pull our eyeballs more than the contours of the faces of our fellow beings. Higher thinking today translates into the various tips and tricks one needs to know to find one’s way through the intricate maze of apps one’s device is crowded with. We have given the word ‘hoarding’, a totally different dimension. Instead of hoarding wealth, or along with it, today we like to hoard apps. In the spree of speed we thus artificially create, we have no time for the good old talk. And most people talk only to their counsellors!

Without higher thinking, the human being would cease to have any uniqueness

The problem with our thinking faculties today is that they are seldom used for thinking independently. We are mostly stuck in the grooves we have created or have been asked to follow. This is the problem, but what led to this? To think one needs solitude. And we live in a time when even the penguins of Antartica do not seem to get that solitude they were naturally endowed with because of their remote location. We human beings have wrecked their shores too in the name of geological explorations. The result is that these penguins, like countless other living beings, and the human beings are increasingly losing solitude and consequently, sanity. We could easily use technology to create solitary spaces much like we use it to create soundproof studios, but we seldom do that, probably because solitude does not pay!

The second reason of a decline in higher thinking is a plethora of readily-accessible options. With a variety of choices, one becomes busier in selecting from them and in understanding their different natures. Also, because they are easily available, there is not much striving, at least not to the extent of one’s predecessors. A struggle forces the mind to think innovatively to meet the goals with the minimum effort. However, when the goal is met with no struggle, the mind is left with very little to do. This creates a vacuity and when this state of the mind goes unattended for a long time, various psychological ailments develop. In effect this means that since the human mind is very efficient, the horizons of thinking should be raised higher and higher if human beings must maintain their sanity. To remain at peace, the mind should be given higher avenues of engagement. For this to happen, our focus should not be on quantitative but qualitative enrichment and that too, not from an objective perspective, but from the subjective standpoint. The mind should be constantly striving to attain a subjective qualitative fulfilment in life. The present-day society is not focussing on this aspect and therefore, we have created the third reason for the decline in critical thinking.

The third cause of our problem is an increase in entertainment. Entertainment could never become an addiction till the recent decades. Human beings had no respite from existential struggles and the little leisure was not addictive. Today, our basic needs and even elaborate luxuries are taken care of by the minute, and modes of entertainment have become so alluring that many of us have nothing to do but to get immersed in entertainment. That which was supposed to give a break from the humdrum routine is breaking our daily lives. Electronic games, movies, television series, social media, and a host of other such distractions prevent us from doing anything meaningful. That these are all available at a click of the mouse has only aggravated the crisis. Addictions involving these kinds of entertainment have been classified as mental illnesses by psychologists around the world. It is imperative for maintaining the quality of being human that we reduce or stop outright the frenzied pace of entertaining that we are deluded into.

The fourth and the most important cause of the decline in higher thinking is noise. Sound is produced by friction and the present-day world seems to be having that in large quantities and almost everywhere. While technology has shown us the dream of an exceedingly comfortable life, it has increased the physical noise of our surroundings. It has robbed our minds of the constant analysis that it had to do in the past and in its stead the mind has been filled with noise. This noise is the noise of expectations. It is the din caused by the cries of the agony of insecurities about the present and the future. This sound of vacuum has created sleepless nights for many a person. Silence, both external and internal, gives birth to higher thoughts.

The subtler the manner of connecting with the universe, the higher would be our thoughts. Touch is the grossest connection with the external world and the perception thus acquired is also the grossest. The perception through the mind, that is, through reading or thinking, is the subtlest and is a natural way of heightening the sublimity of our thinking. Without higher thinking, the human being would cease to have any uniqueness and would be on a par with the other living beings. The death of the characteristic human quality of higher thinking would lead us to a world of savages, which in many ways we have already created. Therefore, it is necessary that we inculcate a regular habit of higher thinking and pass it on to our successive generations. This is the only way to save all that is good and humane from perishing.

About Author: Swamiji is Editor of Prabuddha Bharata.

This article was first published in the Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata (www.advaitaashrama.org). I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. You can subscribe online at www.advaitaashrama.org. Cost is Rs 180/ for one year, Rs 475/ for three years, Rs 2100/ for twenty years. To know more Click here