Huxley’s Reminder Birds

Despite our best intentions, it can be difficult to remember to be mindful. Jonathan Rowson muses upon this challenge, with a little help from Huxley's mynahs. 

In English, attention is something we are asked to pay, as if it were a scarce resource, like money. ‘Pay attention!’ is also a negative injunction, like paying your taxes. But attention is not really scarce, and when practised, rather than paid, it is positive and rewarding. As positive psychologist, Czikzsentmihalyi once said: ‘Where attention goes, energy flows.’

The challenge is that we live in an increasingly distracting world, and need a method to make our attention, the touchstone of consciousness, more readily available to us. The challenge is that the speed of the world and the nature of our technology makes it difficult to make best use of this precious resource, which is a core component of mindfulness. John Teasdale captured the centrality of this point as follows:

“Mindfulness is a habit, it’s something the more one does, the more likely one is to be in that mode with less and less effort… it’s a skill that can be learned. It’s accessing something we already have. Mindfulness isn’t difficult. What’s difficult is to remember to be mindful”

So how can we remember?

Aldous Huxley is most famous for his dystopic novel Brave New World, but his final novel, Island, presents a more utopian vision of the future, in which attention pays a central role. Indeed, perhaps the defining quality of the island Huxley imagined was the mindfulness of its inhabitants.

The writer Borges once described Utopia as “a Greek word, which means ‘there is no such place’” and Huxley’s utopian vision honours that idea. The island, Pala, struggles to guard its beauty, simplicity and integrity from incursions from the world outside, and though I don’t want to give away the ending, it was Utopian in the Borgesian sense.

My abiding memory of Pala is the role played by the mynahs on the island, birds that are known for their capacity to imitate. The following two extracts are separated by several pages, but serve to show the role of ‘reminder birds’ on the island, as seen through the eyes of a cynical journalist, Will Farnaby:

[“Attention”,  a voice began to call, and it was as though an oboe had suddenly become articulate. “Attention”,  it repeated in the same high, nasal monotone. “Attention”  (…)

“Is that your bird?” Will asked.

She shook her head.

Mynahs are like the electric light”, she said. “They don’t belong to anybody.”

Why does he say those things?

“Because somebody taught him”, she answered patiently…

But why did they teach him those things? Why ‘Attention’? Why ‘Here and now?’

“Well …” She searched for the right words in which to explain the self-evident to this strange imbecile. “That’s what you always forget, isn’t it? I mean, you forget to pay attention to what’s happening. And that’s the same as not being here and now.”

“And the mynahs fly about reminding you—is that it?”

She nodded. That, of course, was it. There was a silence.]

The book is warmly recommended, but the key question for now is how we can create ‘reminder birds’ of our own.

Jules Evans, who writes a wonderful blog on the politics of well-being recently indicated that technology might play a role, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was already a mindfulness ‘app’ out there. I am trying to conceive of something more visceral and direct, but can’t quite picture it.

We don’t live on Pala, and mynahs are not always there when you need them, so what would a 21st century reminder bird look like? Who or what will remind us to be mindful?


This article was originally posted by Dr. Jonathan Rowson, Associate Director of the Social Brain Project at the RSA in London, on the RSA Projects blog. The RSA is a multidisciplinary organisation that is politically independent and combines cutting edge research and policy development with practical action.