Slow Thought in a Fast City


Experience is an end in itself, not measured in time or goals.

slow thoughts



We are in New York City, navigating between my participation at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) here and my Brazilian wife and young daughter’s first visit to the city. Both the meeting and the city are in a perpetual, inexhaustible hubbub, an infusion of espresso on an IV drip.

My nervous system feeds on a large metropolis like NYC (population: 8.3 million), having lived in London, England (Greater London: 8.9 million) for my postgraduate work in psychology almost 50 years ago and visiting my family in São Paulo, Brazil (12.4 million; Greater São Paulo: 22 million) for the last 30 years. Montreal, Canada’s second largest city where we live, is practically a town in comparison (1.8 million).

Frank Sinatra’s voice singing the “Theme from New York, New York1 is in my mind everywhere we go. I love the energy, the openness, and the plurality and of this “city that never sleeps.” And yet.

As in Montreal where I live, I see a lot of individuals walking around NYC plugged in to their headphones or walking down the street looking at their smartphone screens, barely avoiding running into others or cars. In a week in the city, I saw precisely 1 person on the subway reading a book. She was standing and had it down to an art—with a bookmark clipped on the page, feet planted widely apart, and leaning back on a divider to stabilize herself against the starts and stops of the train. There were fewer bookstores than I remember just a few years ago. Two of my favorites—Rizzoli and The Strand—are still there but there are no bookstores anywhere in sight in Times Square or on Broadway.

Where are the spaces for reflection in this city? Central Park surely, where we spent the first afternoon on a leisurely stroll. In his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, Italian semiotician Umberto Eco2 has a chapter called, “Lingering in the Woods” where he describes the pleasures of a slow, digressive text and Central Park is like that. You do not go there with a purpose—the experience is an end in itself, not measured in time or goals. New York’s museums are another place for reflection—my return visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), a ritual for an unrepentant modernist like me, is like going home. Henri Matisse’s large canvas, “Dance,” with its exuberant nudes dancing in a circle against a flat background of primary colors, never fails to lift my spirits and invite me to sit and watch them. And Giorgio de Chirico’s mostly unpeopled cityscapes are a striking contrast to this densely populated city. The ironies abound.

Until recently, I would have added Washington Square encircled by those redoubtable bastions of liberal thought, New York University and The New School, where I have former professors and friends. It was calm and peaceful during a sunny afternoon, but the shadow of illiberal anti-Israel and anti-Semitic protests cast a pall on our visit. I wanted to visit the bookstore at The New School where Simon Critchley, one of my mentors in philosophy teaches, but a pro-Palestinian protest with signs like “Shame On You Shalala” (a reference to The New School’s President, Donna Shalala, a highly respected academic and former politician in the Carter and Clinton administrations) kept me away.

Instead, we went into a Greenwich Village gallery to see Bob Dylan’s paintings, “The Beaten Path,” not far from folk clubs like The Bitter End where he got his start. After becoming a master of the American songbook (see his The Philosophy of Modern Song),3 Dylan is now painting the American landscape. A former New Yorker, Dylan’s paintings reflect both its density and its intensity, fused with a capacity to observe it seriously, soberly, slowly. There is nothing rushed about these canvases which stretch from drab run-down cafés and old signs into riots of colors where lurid neon lights bleed into magenta and indigo skies. Like de Chirico’s, Dylan’s cityscapes are populated with the artifacts of our culture but not its people.

Paradoxically, New York is the perfect place to repeat my pitch for slow thought. And to practice it.

My call for Slow Thought4 is part of the global Slow Movement instigated by Italian journalist Carlo Petrini5 with his protest against the opening of an American fast food franchise near Rome’s famous Spanish Steps in 1986. Against fast food, Petrini called for Slow Food which morphed into the worldwide Cittàslow or Slow Cities movement, based in Orvieto, Umbria. The Slow Movement has now reached into every aspect of contemporary life, from Slow Medicine to my own Slow Thought.4,6

Slow Thought Versus Developmentalism

As I wrote in my column on the Global South, Slow Thought has a critical relationship to globalization and critiques of development.7 Both the metaphor and the reality of development, from its application to stages of life (child development) to economics, have adverse effects.

“Developmentalism” is always in a rush, represented in our work in child psychiatry and developmental psychology by the notion of stages and the Western urge to accelerate them.8 When Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was asked if it was possible to accelerate a child’s cognitive development, he paused and said, “Ah yes, the American question.” American scholar of comparative mythology and religion, Joseph Campbell told the story of presenting Dante’s Convivio in Eugene, Oregon, with its 4 stages of life: youth, maturity, wisdom, and old age. A woman in the audience rose to counter that, “In America today, Mr. Campbell, we go directly from youth to wisdom.” “That’s really wonderful,” Campbell replied. “All you’ve missed is life.”

What Is the Opposite of Slow?

It is an error to divide people into the living and the dead: there are people who are dead-alive, and people who are alive-alive. The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in torment.

—Yevgeny Zamyatin9

When it comes to thought, the opposite of slow is not speed but mindlessness. Zombies are mindless. What Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin called the “dead-alive.” In a future column, I will offer my take on the “two kinds of people” of today’s popular culture—vampires and zombies. For now, I will focus on zombies. Recall the individuals speeding along the streets of New York or Montreal—plugged in, earphones on, talking to the air, eyes glued to their smartphone screens, oblivious to their social surroundings. Stoked on industrial doses of caffeine at places that rhyme with “Barstruck” everywhere or “Jim Norton’s” in Canada.

Count me among Zamyatin’s “alive-alive,” constantly searching, often in error, tormented by what I see. Skeptical of received wisdom, scarcely arriving at certainties. Not for nothing do I call this column, “Second Thoughts.” And yet, zombies walk among us, busy by their actions, dead in their thoughts. Being busy is a fence against reflective thought. If you stop, you may have to actually think about what you are doing. As the Nike ad says, “Just do it.” And my Slow Thought rejoinder is: Don’t just do something, stand there! Or sit there. Even better—think.

In an upside-down update on Timothy Leary’s counter-culture mantra from the 1960s, “Tune in, turn on, drop out,” the world is telling you: Turn on (your smartphone), tune out (the social world), and join the crowd (where you can easily lose yourself).

Change Versus Traumatic Repetition

Change. But start slowly, because direction is more important than speed.

—Paulo Coelho

There is a popular anecdote about the Johnstown flood in Pennsylvania. A man who survived that flood (that had some 2200 victims) spent the rest of his life telling stories about the “Great Flood of 1889,” tirelessly recounting each detail he recalled. When he dies and arrives at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter announces that everyone who gets to Heaven must give an inaugural lecture, advising him, “You have all eternity, take your time.” And the man replied quickly, “I know what I want to talk about.” “Yes,” says St. Peter wearily, “but remember that Noah will be in your audience.”

This old anecdote is very instructive for our times. The man who survived the Johnstown flood experienced traumatic repetition. Through constant retelling, he reexperienced his trauma in a futile effort to master it (the devastating flood he survived). But he never does even when faced with a much larger perspective on his trauma (Noah’s Biblical flood). Change is unlikely when someone is stuck in an endless loop of traumatic repetition. Today’s “busy-ness” is like that; you must interrupt the loop to stop and think for change to happen.

In The Art of Stillness, British essayist Pico Iyer10 offers an antidote to this endless movement and mindless repetition:

In an age of speed … nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing could feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.

“Walking the Talk”

Do I practice what I preach? One of my friends in Montreal told me when my Slow Thought Manifesto4 was published that it was ironic coming from someone he sees as a rather quick person. Maybe that’s the point—“Physician heal thyself”! In any case, Slow Thought does not mean being dull-witted. Above all, it is a call for calm deliberation before action. I call it, “Walking the talk.” Have your say and the practice follows.

And what about the other part of my visit to New York City—the Annual Meeting of the APA (well documented in several posts in Psychiatric Times)? Let me share a secret with you: I was very busy slowing down! I participated in the APA Assembly for 3 days, where our committee gave out Assembly Awards, leisurely; I attended several receptions at the APA and the Indo-American Psychiatric Association (IAPA) with my wife and daughter where we danced; and I attended the annual meeting of a caucus I cofounded and chaired on Global Mental Health & Psychiatry.

The luncheon meeting of the American Association of Social Psychiatry (AASP) was sandwiched between 2 award presentations for the AASP Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award which went to my friend and fellow Psychiatric Times columnist, H. Steven Moffic, MD, and the George Tarjan Award which went to another dear friend, Rama Rao Gogineni, MD. We schmoozed, we joked, we dined, we danced, and we drank—and I helped to bring 2 new national associations for social psychiatry in Mexico and West Africa into the World Association of Social Psychiatry (WASP) fold. I did not attend a single scientific session (but please do not tell the Program Committee). Too busy having fun and slowing down in the world’s fastest city!

Like the man who survived the Johnstown flood, we should think carefully before choosing what we are going to say and do. As Bob Dylan sang, “I’ll know my song well before I start singin’” …

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’

– Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (1963)11

That’s why Slow Thought means calm deliberation before action.

Thoughts for the Seventh Day

Let me leave you with a few suggestive—and hopefully instructive—bon mots for calm reflection. I call them thoughts for the seventh day. If you are not religious, you can call them thoughts for a rainy day. The first 3 are from New Yorkers …

Slow down, you move too fast

You got to make the morning last

– Songwriter Paul Simon, “59th Street Bridge Song”12

As a general rule, do not take in any more information after seven or eight o’clock at night.

–Educator and cultural critic Neil Postman13

Eat at a local restaurant tonight. Get the cream sauce. Have a cold pint at 4 o’clock in a mostly empty bar. Go somewhere you’ve never been. Listen to someone you think may have nothing in common with you. Order the steak rare. Eat an oyster. Have a negroni. Have two. Be open to a world where you may not understand or agree with the person next to you, but have a drink with them anyways. Eat slowly. Tip your server. Check in on your friends. Check in on yourself. Enjoy the ride.

– Celebrity chef and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain14

Finally, Leo Szilard was a Hungarian Jewish physicist on the Manhattan Project who later rued his contribution to the making of the first atomic bomb. Szilard’s “Ten Commandments”15 are all about rhythm and timing with a gentle nondeterminism, bowing to the “connections of things” and the “laws of conduct of men.” I will close with my favorite of his commandments:

Do your work for six years; but in the seventh, go into solitude or among strangers, so that the memory of your friends does not hinder you from being what you have become.


Dr Di Nicola is a child psychiatrist, family psychotherapist, and philosopher in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, where he is professor of psychiatry & addiction medicine at the University of Montreal and President of the World Association of Social Psychiatry (WASP). He has been recognized with numerous national and international awards, honorary professorships, and fellowships, and was recently elected a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences and given the Distinguished Service Award of the American Psychiatric Association. Dr Di Nicola’s work straddles psychiatry and psychotherapy on one side and philosophy and poetry on the other. Dr Di Nicola’s writing includes: A Stranger in the Family: Culture, Families and Therapy (WW Norton, 1997), Letters to a Young Therapist (Atropos Press, 2011, winner of a prize from the Quebec Psychiatric Association), and Psychiatry in Crisis: At the Crossroads of Social Sciences, the Humanities, and Neuroscience (with D. Stoyanov; Springer Nature, 2021); and, in the arts, his “Slow Thought Manifesto” (Aeon Magazine, 2018) and Two Kinds of People: Poems from Mile End (Delere Press, 2023, nominated for The Pushcart Prize).


I would like to dedicate this column to Brooklyn author Paul Auster who passed away on April 30, 2024. His New York Trilogy (City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room)16 reads at once like 3 detective novels, an alternate history, and a skeleton key to the “City of Glass” which may or may not be New York.


1. Theme from New York, New York. Wikipedia. Accessed May 11, 2024.,_New_York

2. Eco U. Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. Harvard University Press; 1994.

3. Dylan B. The Philosophy of Modern Song. Simon & Schuster; 2022.

4. Di Nicola V. Take your time: seven pillars of a slow thought manifesto. Aeon. February 27, 2018. Accessed May 11, 2024.

5. Petrini C. Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should be Good, Clean, and Fair. Rizzoli Publications; 2013.

6. Honoré C. In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed. HarperSanFrancisco; 2004.

7. Kothari A, Salleh A, Escobar A, Demaria F, Acosta A, eds. Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary. Tulika Books/Columbia University Press; 2019

8. Di Nicola V. Development and its vicissitudes – a review of Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary, ed. by A Kothari, A Salleh, A Escobar, F Demaria, and A Acosta. Tulika Books/Columbia University Press, 2019. Global Mental Health & Psychiatry Review. 2023;3(1):17-19.

9. Zamyatin Y. On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters (1923), ed. & trans. Ginsburg M. In: A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin. The University of Chicago Press; 1970.

10. Iyer P. The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. TED Books/Simon & Schuster; 2014.

11. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. Wikipedia. Accessed May 11, 2024.

12. The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy). Wikipedia. Accessed May 11, 2024.

13. Sternberg J. Neil Postman’s advice on how to live the rest of your life. ETC: A Review of General Semantics. 2006;63(2):152-160.

14. This quote attributed to Anthony Bourdain is possibly apocryphal but it is too good not to be true. So, to honor that wonderful free spirit and guide to the good, slow life, let us pretend they really are his words.

15. Szilard L. The Ten Commandments of Leo Szilard. In: The Voice of the Dolphins & Other Stories. Stanford University Press; 1992.

16. Auster P. The New York Trilogy: City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room. Penguin; 2006.

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