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Empty Brain Calories

Judith Peck, Ed.D.

Enjoying morning coffee on the patio, feet on a stool and looking out beyond the trees to the street beyond, I spied a runner jogging past. I’d seen this lithe, athletic female before and memory jogged along that she did 3 turns around this block. Was this the 1st, 2nd or 3rd? In some opaque, unreasonable quest for information I needed to know.

For an answer, I sat and waited. A turn around this block at jogging pace would take about ten minutes. It didn’t take me long to recognize this allocation of time as useless,  tantamount nutritionally to the empty calories of a 12 ounce soda. Yet I had to wait, my brain apparently like a frenzied computer wired for resolution. The woman did appear again and I was satisfied enough not to care if this was #2 or 3.

So, how often did I swig such empty brain calories?  Let me count the ways, I mused, not so much a song of Solomon as lament. As I gazed at the gentle breeze of treetops against the cloudless sky and watched the squirrels in their high-wire leap across tree limbs to balance on the slenderest of twigs and wondered how and when a bird would decide to stay or fly off, I contemplated if these too were empty brain calories. It took only an instant to know they were not.  For these were senses, not soda pop, my brain was taking in, a healing cocktail of sight and sound and even the sense of touch, each observation flowing through my system in some studied brain-way to persuade knowledge, emotional satisfaction, or action to occur. Sometimes, even wisdom.

What constituted empty brain calories? These were not hard to recognize even as I consumed them. A TV show that offered itself but gave nothing back, that scrubbed at my brain and rinsed it then left it limp. Not the same as the gift good acting offered, an intriguing plot, polished direction—enumerable messages my brain could engage with, nutritious on many levels.

What else comes under the banner of emptiness? Conversations consisting of an interplay of words and messaging, never ascending to a level compelling human interaction. When a thought articulated inspires only repetitious recollections from the other or reminders of personal complaints or are met with unrelated responses gleaned from semi-listening if at all. You sort of know when you are in a genuine conversation and not a 12 oz diet coke.

There is another extreme: the danger of mistaking for emptying the brain work of fumbling: false starts in writing, failing relationships, bumbling errands, wrong turns in driving, upset plans. This frailty is “life in all its manifestations,” a pithy phrase of Alfred North Whitehead, which translates to experienced life. The flip side, of course. is that change, growth and opportunity appear at every turn.

Finally, empty brain calories should not pejoratively be reckoned with as wasted time. Some waste is necessary in daily living: the physical effluent expelled from the body; the years with a spouse before divorce; the time devoted to tests and challenges that failed. Each of these efforts enabled others to function.

You know the difference between empty and full, sometimes by the gulp of guilt that washes down like a 12 oz soda. Just as you know that belly-full of happiness after a satisfying, brain-full gourmet meal.