The Anthill

Anthill 28: On nothing

Why is it so hard for us to just sit and do nothing? We don’t mean mindlessly scrolling through social media, while you watch TV. Actually sitting still and letting your mind wander.

Busyness seems to be a status symbol of our time. Everybody everywhere is busy – busy with work, busy with family, busy exercising, busy meditating. Busy being busy. Busyness is associated with success and fulfilment in most societies, so we view busyness as something to aspire to.

But what if you could achieve more by doing less? Psychologist Giulia Poerio shares some of her research about the benefits of daydreaming.

We also explore what it’s like when this is taken to the extreme and all you have are your own thoughts for company. Solitary confinement has been used systematically in prisons since the 19th century. Historian Hilary Marland explains the thinking behind what was called the “separate system” and how time alone was meant to give prisoners room to reflect on their crimes and repent of their sins. But as prison memoirs of the time reveal, solitary confinement was blamed for huge numbers of mental breakdowns, and its purpose as a tool for rehabilitation began to be questioned.

Peter Scharff Smith then talks us through how and why solitary confinement is still used in prisons around the world today, despite clear evidence of its negative health effects. And neuroscientist Ross Vanderwert explains why our brains react the way they do when we are deprived of meaningful social contact for long periods.

Finally, we explore the physics of nothing with astronomer royal, Martin Rees. By explaining how physicists are trying to understand what empty space is, he takes us on a journey from the beginning of the universe to the end.

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The Anthill theme music is by Alex Grey for Melody Loops. Music in the daydreaming segment is Ant! Stop Daydreaming! by Just Plain Ant. Music in the solitary confinement segment is Falling into Darkness by Ascetic. And music in the physics of nothing segment is The Idea of Space by Lee Rosevere

Click here to listen to more episodes of The Anthill, on themes including Twins, Intuition, and Confidence. And browse other podcasts from The Conversation here.

Thank you to City, University of London’s Department of Journalism for letting us use their studios to record The Anthill.