The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction

The fundamental premise of improv theater is the “Yes, And” rule. While this rule is often subtle—improv actors rarely use those exact words—it can be used to prevent a scene from hitting an awkward dead end or taking a confusing detour. Once you accept the fact that you’re a drunken fraternity brother, an arthritic grandparent, or an unemployed model train collector, it’s much easier for the audience to believe your character. At that point, the humor comes naturally.

The “Yes, And” mantra has unfortunately evolved into a eye-rolling business cliché. Improv theaters from New York to Los Angeles regularly conduct corporate workshops to encourage employees to embrace their colleagues’ ideas and not dispute or reject them. And in an era where it’s fashionable to talk about disrupting the status quo, these sessions have become very appealing to unimaginative middle managers charged with “making the company more innovative.” The essential insight of “Yes, And” lends itself almost too well to the sterile concept that there is no such thing as a bad idea.

I thought about “Yes, And” as I read The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction by Matthew Crawford, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

In his first book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, Crawford—who worked at a think tank in Washington D.C. before opening a motorcycle repair shop in Virginia—writes about the difference between intellectual work and manual work, insisting that even though knowledge workers are hired to analyze information and generate original ideas, they spend most of their time performing cognitively monotonous tasks. “Knowledge work” is much more intellectually bankrupt than we might think.

In The World Beyond Your Head Crawford picks up on one theme from his first book—attention. Just as food engineers have carefully studied our taste buds to design snacks that deliver the perfect combination of sugar, salt, and fat—there is a reason why only eating one Oreo is so damn hard—corporations have carefully studied attention to design experiences, interfaces, games, ads and apps that are impossible to resist. One of Crawford’s central claims, which emerged from his experience at the check out line in a grocery store, where he was prompted with an ad in between swiping his credit card and confirming the total, is not that businesses are constantly fighting for our attention. It’s that we risk losing the right to not be addressed.

Taken at face value, this idea might appear to be the tip of a broader inquiry into the perils of advertising and, to take an example from a Domino’s commercial I saw last week which advertised 34 million different pizza combinations, the consequences of living in an era of choice overload. It takes just a few paragraphs to notice that Crawford is scratching the surface of a much deeper question about the nature of the self and human flourishing. If we’re willing to forgo our right to be addressed—not just to real people who speak to us face-to-face but to nameless corporations who don’t—then what will happen to the individual who gives that right away?

To appreciate Crawford’s concern it helps to appreciate how Enlightenment thinkers shaped how we understand the relationship between the world and us. Very broadly, the Enlightenment project shifted the burden of epistemic responsibility from higher authorities to the individual. We became the ultimate source of knowledge and reason evolved into an impersonal tool used to process information. Importantly, the standard of truth relocated from an outside source to our own heads. “We are to take a detached stance toward our own experience and subject it to critical analysis from a perspective that isn’t infected with our own subjectivity,” Crawford says.

This mental shift influenced an understanding of the brain that we are just beginning to overturn. In the old view, the brain passively processes sensory inputs and creates “representations” of the world. In this view, which was fueled not just by Enlightenment assumptions but the digital revolution, the brain is treated as a powerful all-purpose computer. The new view considers the obvious fact that a brain is connected to a neck, which is in turn connected to a body that moves through physical space. “We think through the body,” Crawford says. Perception is not something that happens. It’s something we do.

For Crawford, accepting this new perspective forces us to rethink how we engage the world with tools and activities. In his first book Crawford emphasized the experience of seeing a “direct effect of our actions in the world”—hitting a three-pointer, finishing a manuscript, fixing a broken diesel engine—and how the feeling of agency, a key component of well-being, arises when we submit to these activities. That’s why he describes knowledge work, which tends to strip away the feeling of agency, as “intellectually bankrupt.”

In his new book, Crawford emphasizes that submitting to these activities—activities that require skill and rely on immediate feedback from the world—is a potent source of pleasure and fulfillment because they blur the boundary between mind and environment. The hockey player’s stick becomes an extension of his cognition. The experienced motorcyclist, who pays close attention to subtle vibrations in his bike and the contours of the road, becomes part of the traffic. “To understand human cognition it is a mistake to focus only on what goes on inside the skull,” Crawford says. Perception is intimately bound up with action—that is, how we move in the world.

If Enlightening means embracing autonomy and thinking for oneself, Crawford is prescribing the opposite. To be washed up in an activity is to rely on a higher authority—not a political authority, but a community of professionals who maintain the rules and uphold the history of their profession. I like golf because unlike office work, which can be maddeningly opaque, I can see the direct output of my skills. But there is something else going on that makes this frustrating sport so enjoyable. For four hours I subject myself to a notoriously strict set of rules and social norms that actually limit my autonomy. If you think about it, the condition of being subjected to an outside force—heteronomy—“brings out facets of experience that don’t fit easily into our Enlightenment framework,” Crawford says.

Crawford quotes the British philosopher Iris Murdoch, who said that when she is learning Russian she is “confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect.” A prerequisite for acquiring skills is trust in the broader community that appreciates those skills. “What it means to learn Russian is to become part of the community of Russian speakers, without whom there would be no such thing as ‘Russian.’”

The World Beyond Your Head is not a book about technology written by a frustrated Luddite. It’s a book about what we should give our attention to, and therefore what we should value, written by a blue-collar academic. Crawford isn’t trying to persuade you to stop checking email and smell the roses. His project is much deeper than that. He is urging us to pay more attention to how we pay attention.

Think back to “Yes, And.” I wrote that it is “unfortunate” that this rule has become an eye-rolling cliché not to tease chubby middle managers but to remind them that the purpose of the rule is not only about agreement. It’s about teaching improv actors to pay attention. After all, the best way to undermine good improv is to worry about what you’re going to say next. As soon as you direct your attention inward and frantically scrutinize the contents of your own thoughts, you by default ignore everything that’s happening on stage—the actors, the story, and the general flow of each scene. But, if you’re willing to redirect your attention outward and give yourself to the contents of the stage, you’ll be in a much better position to contribute to the story as it unfolds.

Although the difference between these two perspectives might only seem relevant to improvisers, it highlights a central question Crawford poses in his book. Should we think of ourselves as independent subjects within an “objective,” neutral environment? Or are we fundamentally situational, constantly bound up in and shaped by context? Even though the feeling of being an autonomous self as distinct from the environment is convincing, the second view is more consistent with the evidence. Our thinking, scientists now believe to varying degrees, arises from how the brain interacts with the world and not just how it processes information from the world. That is, our involvement with an object, another person, or an improv performance is influenced by the agenda we bring and what we learn along the way.

In an era where businesses diligently fight for the spotlight of our attention by putting shiny objects in front of it, we risk forgoing the opportunity to fully submit ourselves to an activity. I like philosophy because it makes my inner monologues seem less boring. That’s why, for example, I enjoy riding the elevator and eating lunch in a quiet restaurant. They provide space to think and, more importantly, a chance to become competent in a discipline.

And yet, I’ve noticed that in moments of low-level anxiety, instead of immersing ourselves in the current situation—the real thing—we turn to our devices and engage the world through a representation. We prefer, in other words, a quick digital binge to a moment of reverie. I suppose that’s why corporate improv classes have become so popular. We go to learn how to pay attention to the world beyond our heads.

Sam McNerney