CULTURE: by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
Standing up for day-dreaming
, March 15, 2014
Curious as I am about all sorts of odds and ends involving human behaviour, especially anything involving brainwork, it was only a matter of time before I came across the “standing desk”. It’s exactly what it sounds like — a desk at which one stands to work, rather than sits.
It’s become something of a thing in the tech set, a fashion which has its passionate fans and ardent opponents.
Working with one’s head is often seen as a sedentary activity. In other words, you sit down and stay down, leading to the common charge that such people don’t really “work”.
They’re daydreaming, or lounging, or staring into space. Heaven forbid — they may be doing something leisurely and recreational, such as reading or writing.
Whatever they’re doing, it certainly ain’t working — at least as understood by someone who, say, digs ditches or stacks shelves or walks a beat.
In one sense this is quite silly. Working with one’s head takes energy and time and skill. It’s a useless exercise to try to compare two different types of work and it leads to odd studies claiming that an hour spent acting is physically equivalent to seven hours’ manual labour, or some such apples-and-oranges comparison.
In another sense, however, it can be quite apt. While mental work may be quite draining and intense, it’s still only mental work. One’s brain and psyche are getting the workout, while one’s body may be almost inert.
Moreover, being almost inert is not the best thing for the human body, structured as it is in such a way that it benefits from a great deal of movement, or else it risks breaking down.
And when the body breaks down, the mind’s capacities go with it. We’re not souls inhabiting a machine made of meat, to paraphrase the artificial intelligence (AI) researcher, Marvin Minsky. We’re human persons, a unity of the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul; and both are needed for proper functioning. A healthy body is therefore of great benefit to a healthy mind.
Healthy bodies do not benefit from inertia, leading to studies which result in such headlines as “Excessive sitting is just as bad as smoking”.
Standing while working, however, offers a solution. While standing, one moves about more; correct posture becomes more important; more muscles are used; more blood is pumped; and more oxygen circulates.
It is, in short, a workout in miniature, a long steady use of the body that keeps it active without taxing it too much.
Keeping the body active keeps the brain active and the worker more awake. It also aids the worker in sleeping, because, after a day on one’s feet, one is more naturally tired.
The tech industry, which involves a lot of sitting and staring at screens, has adopted standing desks so much that Facebook and Google offer them to their employees, and other companies have been doing the same.
This has led to a lot of hype, with some websites even featuring different standing desk set-ups on a regular basis so folks can see how others do it.
Standing desks, however, are not a new development so much as a resurgence of how things used to be done. Monastic scriptoria, where monks copied books and studied, featured high desks at which one would sit on a high stool or stand.
Before the Reformation, Christian churches lacked pews, and the congregation would stand and move about for the liturgy. This remains the practice in Russian churches and was only phased out of other eastern churches in the last century.
Many famous writers wrote standing, including Charles Dickens, Søren Kierkegaard, Virginia Woolfe, Thomas Jefferson, Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill (when he wasn’t lying in bed).
It’s said that John Henry Cardinal Newman stood for at least eight hours a day to both read and write.
Impulsively, I tried working from a standing position last year.
My set-up was improvised and my sister, among others, considers it rather amusing. I got a chair and placed it on a desk, then tapped away at my iPad. That is what I am doing while I write this column. I found that it worked.
It wasn’t magical, but I found that I was able to stay awake during the day and sleep at night.
I found myself more focussed, and it did wonders for my back pain and posture. I even took to standing while at the cinema, which meant that I could even stay awake during some of the more tedious films whose reviews I have not inflicted upon News Weekly readers.
Standing and moving reinforce the notion that mental work is work, that it’s not just lazing about, and that it even sharpens the mind. It allows one to appreciate even more the importance of rest.
Time for a lie-down, methinks.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).