American Idle

American Idle
Amy Alkon

Amy Alkon

My girlfriend is beautiful, highly intelligent, and interesting. She’s smart for a living (as a strategic planner in advertising), so I find it sad that she watches so much television — maybe two hours of it upon coming home from work. She could be spending her time doing so many other things.


There comes a point in the day of a brainy person when she’s about a half step from being entertained by cat toys.

But this is nothing to be boohooing about. Engineering professor Barbara Oakley explains in her neuroscience-based book on learning, “A Mind for Numbers,” that our brain has two modes of problem-solving that it shifts between. There’s the “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go!” focused mode and the resting-state, brain-in-the-La-Z-Boy diffuse mode. Focused-mode thinking is what we’re using when we put our attention on a problem or on learning, writing, or memorizing. It’s direct and intense, like shining a flashlight on a raccoon.

But your brain is not a Denny’s and should not be expected to be “always open!” In fact, Oakley explains, you will be far more efficient if you take breaks and let your diffuse mode take over. This is the subconscious processing that goes on when you turn your focus away from a problem, like by taking a walk, cleaning the gerbil cage, or — horrors! — watching something dopey on TV. And while the focused mode can get you roadblocked into an overly narrow set of potential solutions, diffuse mode involves big-picture thinking that draws on a wide range of neural networks. This means that afterward, when you refocus on the problem, answers come more easily, and sometimes — almost magically — you experience the mental equivalent of going to sleep, having mop-wielding elves crawl out of your heat vent, and then waking up to a blindingly clean kitchen floor.

Consider the sort of “slackers” who watch TV — like the late crime writer Elmore Leonard, who was awarded the National Book Foundation’s 2012 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. After a long day working on one of his 45 novels, he’d be on his couch watching “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune.” As my boyfriend (his researcher of 33 years) put it, “you could say, ‘Elmore, the Martians just landed on your tennis court,’ and he’d say, ‘Wait! It’s Final Jeopardy!’”

Sure, your girlfriend could be “doing so many other things,” like staring blankly into a bookcase or tossing back four martinis and passing out on the sofa with an olive in her ear. But TV-watching is the brain vacation that works for her. It’s only “sad” if her boyfriend, despite the neuroscience mini-tour above, remains too entrenched in his beliefs to respect a TV-watching woman. Unfortunately, once disgust for a partner is afoot in a relationship, the thing is probably shot. Though, rather incredibly, “the idiot box” can help a person be a smarter decision-maker at work, scientists have yet to discover any similarly unbelievable lowbrow cures for ailing romantic partnerships, like a month of eating Big Macs for a relationship-saving McDonald’s cleanse.

Jurassic Spark

I’m a 45-year-old woman, and my new boyfriend is 30. I look good for my age, but I keep making “old” jokes, which he finds disturbing. Although he seems really into me, I guess I’m worried that a much younger man won’t be around for long.

—Mrs. Robinson

When you’ve got a bit of funny clawing to get out of its pen, it’s tempting to undo the latch: “Waiter, a glass of chardonnay for me and a box of crayons for my date.” But consider that some jokes are jokes and some are fear with a laugh track.

Your fears that this won’t last aren’t exactly unfounded. Men evolved to be attracted to signs of peak fertility — youth being a biggie — but some use older women as sexual grazing areas while between relationships. There are exceptions — May/December pairings that make it to twin rocking chairs on the porch of the senior living facility. However, the reality is nothing’s forever — including relationships between two hot 22-year-olds. The trick to fully enjoying this (or any) relationship is accepting that it will end and resolving to have the absolute best time you can while it lasts. To take possession of older-woman sexy, consider that some men are into the sexual confidence women tend to gain with age, as well as what the French call being “bien dans sa peau” (comfortable in one’s skin). Whatever you do, avoid regularly exhuming the late Groucho Marx to inform the guy of all the ways 45 is actually the new 75. If you’re doing that, you might as well cut to the chase: Yank up your support hose and run after him with your cane, yelling, “Hey, kid, get off my lawn!”

Categories: Advice, Advice Goddess