In praise of solitude in science

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Do scientists and innovators benefit from spending time alone?

In an age of big science and large collaboration consortia, the benefits of solitude may not always be evident. Perhaps many people too often confuse solitude with strained loneliness. Thus, being alone at regular intervals may be interpreted as evidence of a bizarre inability to belong or conform.

Here, solitude also means a minimum level of seclusion from the incessant electronic noise: the instant chatter, social media feeds and the like.

Solitude: Beyond productivity

Many people will accept that, in principle, you do more with fewer distractions that prevent you from prioritizing or completing a task. Thus, after all, solitude is even required for continually “getting things done”: that contemporary fascination, which is sometimes just a way to meet some measure of “performance”.

When you study or experiment, solitude can bring the right cadence. The impulse needed to let you focus on what is important, and not on what is the least expected from you.  This in turn can make us more creative or prepared for complex problem-solving.

Moments of isolation are also needed to help us go through the day and reconcile us with the world around us.  You can be there almost always surrounded by chatter or unsolicited intrusion, and suddenly you choose to go back to your own speed, to an innate serenity.  But such a natural rhythm is not necessarily imposed by inactivity and emptiness. It may represent a healing response to allow you to re-assess your work, or that of others. These are moments that can remind us of the reason behind a job or mission.  They are warranted breaks from the boredom of daily routines, and can even make us question what we take for granted.

Solitude and well-being

There is nothing wrong with a sprinkle of loneliness, and even idleness, in our working hours either. It could well represent the preamble to a new exploration, the trigger for deeper questions and their possible answers. Such periods also become crucial “move on!” or “go deeper!” flashes. These are not calls for laziness.  These are windows into possibility.

Hours in meetings, “connected” or in shared spaces may be effective in hurrying things up, or at least in giving the impression that we are moving towards an obligatory end. But unremittingly sharing spaces, for whatever managerial reasons, can also result in a succession of useless bustle and time waste.

Time for quiet individual work can give you a true sense of urgency. You accept the importance of the task at hand for what it is, and not as a mere measure of activity.

Solitude: Beyond individual experience

If individuality is a vital attribute of originality and invention, then we need to create and nurture, for us and for others, more opportunities to be alone.  Although discovery and innovation are collective enterprises, all starts, and may as well end, with a single voice. Novel insights and solutions are ultimately conceived as lonesome acts.

Thus, you do not have to feel secluded or justify to others the need to be in peace and quiet. Solitude is another companion to help us illuminate our purpose: at the desk, bench or field.  Solitude is a right and responsibility. It is also a right and responsible effort to wrestle the erosion produced by communal conformity and the illusion of consensus.

From these simple perspectives, solitude becomes an important work asset for promoting focus, encouraging novel problem-solving and facilitating deep thinking. With a little discipline and tenacity, solitude is transformed into a ritual for meticulously ordering your thoughts and aspirations. But also it is an experience that is worth sharing with others to help them dissipate noise and listen better to themselves.

This post was originally published in the United Academics Magazine.

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