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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Getting lost in Brandeis spaces

Published: February 26, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

A peripheral scan of the room: Brandeisians hunched over computers, one bopping to a silent tune, another swilling coffee while jabbing at his keyboard chopsticks-style, others lounging on overstuffed chairs, limbs akimbo with laptops perched precariously on knees—thinking. I walk the boundary of the room, backpack slung over my shoulder and a thermos in hand.

Should I sit next to the guy mouthing the words to his music, clearly on the precipice of breaking out the air guitar? Or would that distract me? Should I sit by the window looking out onto Usdan’s entrance? Or would I daydream? Of course, there’s always the silent depths of the library, where someone could live in a study carrel for weeks without being discovered. Or would that be too quiet?

Nowhere seems to have the right—for lack of a better word—vibe. It’s clearly one of those unproductive days in which a paragraph will be considered to be an achievement because it has somehow emerged from the time-suck that is Facebooking, IMing and/or staring off into the nothingness that we call space.

Often I wonder how much thinking relies on the environment a person studies in, how much the outer world impacts the formulation of ideas. Maybe I have better thoughts when I’m writing in a notebook at Einstein’s, surrounded by people munching on bagels. Or maybe inspiration hits when I’m in my room at my desk with its burn marks and drawer that falls open when I get too enthusiastic at the keyboard.

Yet, perhaps physical location doesn’t matter so much. After all, when a person is in deep thought the surroundings melt away. When there is more focus on the interior landscape, the exterior one seems to decrease in significance. There are some people who study in Usdan in the midst of crowds of their peers who talk, chew, laugh and generally make noise. If any work gets done, if any constructive thinking at all occurs, it’s because the person has managed to block out the cacophony that encircles him. This suggests that the ideal environment to think in is the one that you can ignore.

Curators in traditional museums seem to go along with the idea that, in order for people to reflect, the environment needs to be muted. At the National Gallery in London, the walls were painted a boring tan, shades were drawn over windows and the lighting was dimmed. All the emphasis was on the paintings. Perhaps brilliant ideas are like paintings in museums: they must be housed in banal surroundings.

However, if that were entirely true, then people should sit and think in undecorated dorm rooms. Surely it’s easy to ignore the white painted cinderblocks, the gray carpet and the speckled ceilings. I don’t know about you, but I cannot think in that type of environment, and, furthermore, I don’t want to spend any time there. I need my posters, wall-hangings and pictures of friends.

It could be that an environment has to have the potential to inspire. At night, from the roof of Usen Castle, a person can see the lights of Boston. Maybe those distant lights will be the catalyst that sparks the beginning of a poem, story or theory.

One of the most famous examples of an environment inspiring an idea is the myth of how Sir Isaac Newton thought to develop the theory of gravity. One day hewas sitting beneath a tree when he observed an apple fall to the ground. If he had not been in that location at that time, would he still have come up with that particular idea?

Instead of physical location, perhaps a better word would be ‘space.’ Far from just a geographical spot, space encompasses a period of time, the area’s place in society and its connections with other spaces. When someone goes to a place to think, it’s not just the tree or the earth that the person is confronted with, it’s the time of day, the time in that person’s life, the spot’s history, how society views that spot, where it fits in the social realm. French philosophers, in particular Henri LeFebvre, have filled books with this concept and have discussed it more intelligently than I have, so please read them if you’re interested.

Nevertheless, the fact is Newton probably would still have thought of the concept of gravity without watching an apple fall and most people don’t need Boston’s lights to think.

Perhaps the ideal environment to think in simply doesn’t exist because it must be one that can inspire and one a person can simultaneously ignore. Perhaps these spaces are simply fleeting, transitory and dependent on the individual. Some of mine are outside the Shapiro campus center at 9 a.m. as leaves float to the ground, at dusk by the Louis Brandeis statue on the cusp of summer, or in a friend’s suite, over-caffeinated, as a new day begins.