Tag Archives: mind

Stumbling on Happiness

The second book in the Transformative Journey series for September is Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness.

am10_books_04

This book was also mentioned in the TED Talk series  “Talks to watch when you don’t know what to do with your life”. It’s an easy-to-read overview of all the little quirks and psychological tricks that your mind plays on you when interpreting reality around you.

Engaging and thought-provoking, it’s “a fascinating new book that explores our sometimes misguided attempts to find happiness.” – Time

Stay tuned!

Leave a comment

Filed under Bookmarks, Scribbles

Rethinking the Placebo Effect: How Our Minds Actually Affect Our Bodies

 

“In 2013, Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted a mind-bending debate on the nature of “nothing” – an inquiry that has occupied thinkers since the dawn of recorded thought and permeates everything from Hamlet’s iconic question to the boldest frontiers of quantum physics. That’s precisely what New Scientist editor-in-chief Jeremy Webb explores with a kaleidoscopic lens in Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion(public library) – a terrific collection of essays and articles exploring everything from vacuum to the birth and death of the universe to how the concept of zero gained wide acceptance in the 17th century after being shunned as a dangerous innovation for 400 years. As Webb elegantly puts it, “nothing becomes a lens through which we can explore the universe around us and even what it is to be human. It reveals past attitudes and present thinking.”

Among the most intensely interesting pieces in the collection is one by science journalist Jo Marchant, who penned the fascinating story of the world’s oldest analog computer. Titled “Heal Thyself,” the piece explores how the way we think about medical treatments shapes their very real, very physical effects on our bodies – an almost Gandhi-like proposition, except rooted in science rather than philosophy. Specifically, Marchant brings to light a striking new dimension of the placebo effect that runs counter to how the phenomenon has been conventionally explained. She writes:

It has always been assumed that the placebo effect only works if people are conned into believing that they are getting an actual active drug. But now it seems this may not be true. Belief in the placebo effect itself – rather than a particular drug – might be enough to encourage our bodies to heal.

She cites a recent study at the Harvard Medical School, in which people with irritable bowel syndrome were given a placebo and informed that the pills were “made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.” As Marchant notes, this is absolutely true, in a meta kind of way. What the researchers found was startling in its implications for medicine, philosophy, and spirituality – despite being aware they were taking placebos, the participants rated their symptoms as “moderately improved” on average. In other words, they knew what they were taking wasn’t a drug – it was a medical “nothing” – but the very consciousness of taking something made them experience fewer symptoms.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

This dovetails into recent research confirming what Helen Keller fervently believed by putting some serious science behind the value of optimism. Marchant sums up the findings:

Realism can be bad for your health. Optimists recover better from medical procedures such as coronary bypass surgery, have healthier immune systems and live longer, both in general and when suffering from conditions such as cancer, heart disease and kidney failure.

It is well accepted that negative thoughts and anxiety can make us ill. Stress – the belief that we are at risk – triggers physiological pathways such as the “fight-or-flight” response, mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. These have evolved to protect us from danger, but if switched on long-term they increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes and dementia.

What researchers are now realizing is that positive beliefs don’t just work by quelling stress. They have a positive effect too – feeling safe and secure, or believing things will turn out fine, seems to help the body maintain and repair itself… Optimism seems to reduce stress-induced inflammation and levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. It may also reduce susceptibility to disease by dampening sympathetic nervous system activity and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter governs what’s called the “rest-and-digest” response – the opposite of fight-or-flight.

Just as helpful as taking a rosy view of the future is having a rosy view of yourself. High “self-enhancers” – people who see themselves in a more positive light than others see them – have lower cardiovascular responses to stress and recover faster, as well as lower baseline cortisol levels.

Marchant notes that it’s as beneficial to amplify the world’s perceived positivity as it is to amplify our own – something known as our “self-enhancement bias,” a type of self-delusion that helps keep us sane. But the same applies to our attitudes toward others as well – they too can impact our physical health. She cites University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, who has dedicated his career to studying how social isolation affects individuals. Though solitude might be essential for great writing, being alone a special form of art, and single living the defining modality of our time, loneliness is a different thing altogether – a thing Cacioppo found to be toxic:

Being lonely increases the risk of everything from heart attacks to dementia, depression and death, whereas people who are satisfied with their social lives sleep better, age more slowly and respond better to vaccines. The effect is so strong that curing loneliness is as good for your health as giving up smoking.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

Marchant quotes another researcher, Charles Raison at Atlanta’s Emory University, who studies mind–body interactions:

It’s probably the single most powerful behavioral finding in the world… People who have rich social lives and warm, open relationships don’t get sick and they live longer.

Marchant points to specific research by Cacioppo, who found that “in lonely people, genes involved in cortisol signaling and the inflammatory response were up-regulated, and that immune cells important in fighting bacteria were more active, too.” Marchant explains the findings and the essential caveat to them:

[Cacioppo] suggests that our bodies may have evolved so that in situations of perceived social isolation, they trigger branches of the immune system involved in wound healing and bacterial infection. An isolated person would be at greater risk of physical trauma, whereas being in a group might favor the immune responses necessary for fighting viruses, which spread easily between people in close contact.

Crucially, these differences relate most strongly to how lonely people think they are, rather than to the actual size of their social network. That also makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, says Cacioppo, because being among hostile strangers can be just as dangerous as being alone. So ending loneliness is not about spending more time with people. Cacioppo thinks it is all about our attitude to others: lonely people become overly sensitive to social threats and come to see others as potentially dangerous. In a review of previous studies … he found that tackling this attitude reduced loneliness more effectively than giving people more opportunities for interaction, or teaching social skills.

Illustration by André François for Little Boy Brown, a lovely vintage ode to childhood and loneliness

Paradoxically, science suggests that one of the most important interventions to offer benefits that counter the ill effects of loneliness has to do with solitude – or, more precisely, regimented solitude in the form of meditation. Marchant notes that trials on the effects of meditation have been small – something I find troublesomely emblematic of the short-sightedness with which we approach mental health as we continue to prioritize the physical in both our clinical subsidies and our everyday lives (how many people have a workout routine compared to those with a meditation practice?); even within the study of mental health, the vast majority of medical research focuses on the effects of a physical substance – a drug of some sort – on the mind, with very little effort directed at understanding the effects of the mind on the physical body.

Still, the modest body of research on meditation is heartening. Marchant writes:

There is some evidence that meditation boosts the immune response in vaccine recipients and people with cancer, protects against a relapse in major depression, soothes skin conditions and even slows the progression of HIV. Meditation might even slow the aging process. Telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, get shorter every time a cell divides and so play a role in aging. Clifford Saron of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, and colleagues showed in 2011 that levels of an enzyme that builds up telomeres were higher in people who attended a three-month meditation retreat than in a control group.

As with social interaction, meditation probably works largely by influencing stress response pathways. People who meditate have lower cortisol levels, and one study showed they have changes in their amygdala, a brain area involved in fear and the response to threat.

If you’re intimidated by the time investment, take heart – fMRI studies show that as little as 11 hours of total training, or an hour every other day for three weeks, can produce structural changes in the brain. If you’re considering dipping your toes in the practice, I wholeheartedly recommend meditation teacher Tara Brach, who has changed my life.

But perhaps the most striking finding in exploring how our beliefs affect our bodies has to do with finding your purpose and, more than that, finding meaning in life. The most prominent studies in the field have defined purpose rather narrowly, as religious belief, but even so, the findings offer an undeniably intriguing signpost to further exploration. Marchant synthesizes the research, its criticism, and its broader implications:

In a study of 50 people with advanced lung cancer, those judged by their doctors to have high “spiritual faith” responded better to chemotherapy and survived longer. More than 40 percent were still alive after three years, compared with less than 10 percent of those judged to have little faith. Are your hackles rising? You’re not alone. Of all the research into the healing potential of thoughts and beliefs, studies into the effects of religion are the most controversial.

Critics of these studies … point out that many of them don’t adequately tease out other factors. For instance, religious people often have lower-risk lifestyles and churchgoers tend to enjoy strong social support, and seriously ill people are less likely to attend church.

[…]

Others think that what really matters is having a sense of purpose in life, whatever it might be. Having an idea of why you are here and what is important increases our sense of control over events, rendering them less stressful. In Saron’s three-month meditation study, the increase in levels of the enzyme that repairs telomeres correlated with an increased sense of control and an increased sense of purpose in life. In fact, Saron argues, this psychological shift may have been more important than the meditation itself. He points out that the participants were already keen meditators, so the study gave them the chance to spend three months doing something important to them. Spending more time doing what you love, whether it’s gardening or voluntary work, might have a similar effect on health. The big news from the study, Saron says, is “the profound impact of having the opportunity to live your life in a way that you find meaningful.”

Philosopher Daniel Dennett was right all along in asserting that the secret of happiness is to “find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.”

Each of the essays in Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion is nothing short of fascinating. Complement them with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss on the science of “something” and “nothing.”

Leave a comment

June 30, 2014 · 6:51 pm

lifetip #21

lifetip #21

Leave a comment

January 28, 2013 · 5:00 pm

A Brief History of the To-Do List and the Psychology of Its Success

by 

“On reconciling the fussy with the fuzzy, or what Benjamin Franklin has to do with Drew Carey.

“The list is the origin of culture,” Umberto Ecofamously proclaimed. (Leonardo da Vinci,John Lennon, and Woody Guthrie would have all agreed.) But the list, it turns out, might also be the origin of both our highest happiness and our dreariest dissatisfaction. So argue New York Times science writer John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. While the book is fascinating in general — an unconventional “self-help” tome that, much like Timothy Wilson’s Redirect, grounds its insights and advice in thirty years of serious academic research into willfulness and self-control — its third chapter, titled “A Brief History of the To-Do List, From God to Drew Carey,” is particularly interesting. In it, Tierney and Baumeister dissect the sociocultural anatomy of our favorite organizational tool, from the storytellers who crafted the Bible and wrote the Genesis myth with its six-step world-creation plan, to Benjamin Franklin’s fastidious pursuit of virtue bound by goal-setting lists, to comedian Drew Carey’s quest for supreme personal productivity.

These anecdotes and pieces of cultural mythology are interwoven with ample psychology experiments from the past century and, ultimately, distilled into insight on how to make the to-list a tool of fulfillment rather than frustration.

Franklin, for instance, demonstrated one of the greatest pitfalls of the to-do list: trying to do too much at once, letting different goals come into conflict with one another:

Franklin tried a divide-and-conquer approach. He drew up a list of virtues and wrote a brief goal for each one, like this one for Order: ‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.’

When, as a young journeyman printer, he tried to practice Order by drawing up a rigid daily work schedule, he kept getting interrupted by unexpected demands from his clients — and Industry required him to ignore the schedule and meet with them. If he practiced Frugality (‘Waste nothing’) by always mending his own clothes and preparing all his own meals, there’d be less time available for Industry at his job — or for side projects like flying a kite in a thunderstorm or editing the Declaration of Independence. If he promised to spend an evening with his friends but then fell behind his schedule for work, he’d have to make a choice that would violate his virtue of Resolution: ‘Perform without fail what you resolve.’”

The result of conflicting goals, the authors argue, is unhappiness instead of action. But deciding on the right goals can be a daunting task.

Tierney and Baumeister recount a revealing experiment: When a psychologist was invited to give a talk at the Pentagon on managing time and resources, he decided to warm up the elite group of generals with a short writing exercise. He asked them all to write a summary of their strategic approach limited to 25 words.

The exercise stumped most of them. None of the distinguished men in uniform could come up with anything.

The only general who managed a response was the lone woman in the room. She had already had a distinguished career, having worked her way up through the ranks and been wounded in combat in Iraq. Her summary of her approach was as follows: ‘First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three down.’”

Unscrupulous, perhaps, but the authors argue this is a simple version of an important to-do list strategy for reconciling the long-term with the short-term, or “the fussy with the fuzzy.”

Comedian Drew Carey took a different approach to mastering his to-do list — he outsourced his strategy to productivity guru David Allen, author of the cultish, modern Bible Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, who taught him how to adhere to specific next steps rather than abstract larger goals. The latter loom in the back of our mind like a nagging mother, never fully silenced until specific actionable steps are taken.

In fact, our brain appears to be wired to nag about unfinished to-do list items as uncompleted tasks and unmet goals continue to pop up into our minds. This is called the Zeigarnik effect and explains phenomena like earworms — when you hear only a portion of song, the song is likely to run through your mind at odd intervals as your brain struggles to finish it. Originally, the Zeigarnik effect was believed to be the brain’s way of ensuring goals are eventually accomplished, by prodding you into urgency until they are. But recent research has shed new light on the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious in our cognitive to-do lists.

[It] turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.”

The moral, then? Unless you are Woody Guthrie, keep your to-do list to a few very specific, actionable, non-conflicting items, then go fly your kite in peace.”

2 Comments

January 7, 2013 · 5:53 pm

How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes: Lessons in Mindfulness and Creativity from the Great Detective

by 

““A man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.”

“The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts,” wrote James Webb Young in his famous 1939 5-step technique for creative problem-solving“becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.”But just how does one acquire those vital cognitive customs? That’s precisely what science writer Maria Konnikova explores inMastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (UKpublic library) — an effort to reverse-engineer Holmes’s methodology into actionable insights that help develop “habits of thought that will allow you to engage mindfully with yourself and your world as a matter of course.”

Bridging ample anecdotes from the adventures of Conan Doyle’s beloved detective with psychology studies both classic and cutting-edge, Konnikova builds a compelling case at the intersection of science and secular spiritualism, stressing the power of rigorous observation alongside a Buddhist-like, Cageianemphasis on mindfulness. She writes:

The idea of mindfulness itself is by no means a new one. As early as the end of the nineteenth century, William James, the father of modern psychology, wrote that, ‘The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. … An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’ That faculty, at its core, is the very essence of mindfulness. And the education that James proposes, an education in a mindful approach to life and to thought.

[…]

In recent years, studies have shown that meditation-like thought (an exercise in the very attentional control that forms the center of mindfulness), for as little as fifteen minutes a day, can shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that has been associated with more positive and more approach-oriented emotional states, and that looking at scenes of nature, for even a short while, can help us become more insightful, more creative, and more productive. We also know, more definitively than we ever have, that our brains are not built for multitasking — something that precludes mindfulness altogether. When we are forced to do multiple things at once, not only do we perform worse on all of them but our memory decreases and our general wellbeing suffers a palpable hit.

But for Sherlock Holmes, mindful presence is just a first step. It’s a means to a far larger, far more practical and practically gratifying goal. Holmes provides precisely what William James had prescribed: an education in improving our faculty of mindful thought and in using it in order to accomplish more, think better, and decide more optimally. In its broadest application, it is a means for improving overall decision making and judgment ability, starting from the most basic building block of your own mind.

But mindfulness, and the related mental powers it bestows upon its master, is a skill acquired with grit and practice, rather than an in-born talent or an easy feat attained with a few half-hearted tries:

It is most difficult to apply Holmes’s logic in those moments that matter the most. And so, all we can do is practice, until our habits are such that even the most severe stressors will bring out the very thought patterns that we’ve worked so hard to master.

Echoing Carl Sagan, Konnikova examines the role of intuition — a grab-bag concept embraced by some of history’s greatest scientific mindscultural icons, and philosophers — as both a helpful directional signpost of intellectual inquiry and a dangerous blind spot:

Our intuition is shaped by context, and that context is deeply informed by the world we live in. It can thus serve as a blinder — or blind spot — of sorts, much as it did for Conan Doyle and his fairies. With mindfulness, however, we can strive to find a balance between fact-checking our intuitions and remaining open-minded. We can then make our best judgments, with the information we have and no more, but with, as well, the understanding that time may change the shape and color of that information.

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose,” Holmes famously remarked. Indeed, much like the inventor’s mind, the problem-solver’s mind is the product of that very choice: The details and observations we select to include in our “brain attic” shape and filter our perception of reality. Konnikova writes:

Observation with a capital O — the way Holmes uses the word when he gives his new companion a brief history of his life with a single glance — does entail more than, well, observation (the lowercase kind). It’s not just about the passive process of letting objects enter into your visual field. It is about knowing what and how to observe and directing your attention accordingly: what details do you focus on? What details do you omit? And how do you take in and capture those details that you do choose to zoom in on? In other words, how do you maximize your brain attic’s potential? You don’t just throw any old detail up there, if you remember Holmes’s early admonitions; you want to keep it as clean as possible. Everything we choose to notice has the potential to become a future furnishing of our attics — and what’s more, its addition will mean a change in the attic’s landscape that will affect, in turn, each future addition. So we have to choose wisely.

Choosing wisely means being selective. It means not only looking but looking properly, looking with real thought. It means looking with the full knowledge that what you note — and how you note it — will form the basis of any future deductions you might make. It’s about seeing the full picture, noting the details that matter, and understanding how to contextualize those details within a broader framework of thought.

But while our minds might be wired to wander, argues Konnikova, multitasking is a myth that only detracts from our productivity and intellectual efficiency:

As neurologist Marcus Raichle learned after decades of looking at the brain, our minds are wired to wander. Wandering is their default. Whenever our thoughts are suspended between specific, discrete, goal-directed activities, the brain reverts to a so-called baseline, ‘resting’ state — but don’t let the word fool you, because the brain isn’t at rest at all. Instead, it experiences tonic activity in what’s now known as the DMN, the default mode network: the posterior cingulate cortex, the adjacent precuneus, and the medial prefrontal cortex. This baseline activation suggests that the brain is constantly gathering information from both the external world and our internal states, and what’s more, that it is monitoring that information for signs of something that is worth its attention. And while such a state of readiness could be useful from an evolutionary standpoint, allowing us to detect potential predators, to think abstractly and make future plans, it also signifies something else: our minds are made to wander. That is their resting state. Anything more requires an act of conscious will.

The modern emphasis on multitasking plays into our natural tendencies quite well, often in frustrating ways. Every new input, every new demand that we place on our attention is like a possible predator: Oooh, says the brain. Maybe I should pay attention to that instead. And then along comes something else. We can feed our mind wandering ad infinitum. The result? We pay attention to everything and nothing as a matter of course. While our minds might be made to wander, they are not made to switch activities at anything approaching the speed of modern demands. We were supposed to remain ever ready to engage, but not to engage with multiple things at once, or even in rapid succession.

[…]

Attention is a limited resource. Paying attention to one thing necessarily comes at the expense of another. Letting your eyes get too taken in by all of the scientific equipment in the laboratory prevents you from noticing anything of significance about the man in that same room. We cannot allocate our attention to multiple things at once and expect it to function at the same level as it would were we to focus on just one activity. Two tasks cannot possibly be in the attentional foreground at the same time. One will inevitably end up being the focus, and the other — or others — more akin to irrelevant noise, something to be filtered out. Or worse still, none will have the focus and all will be, albeit slightly clearer, noise, but degrees of noise all the same.

Indeed, that allocation of attention to one thing at the expense of another produces a phenomenon known as “attentional blindness,” wherein our intense focus on a specific element makes us practically blind to all else. But there is hope in training. Konnikova offers:

The Holmes solution? Habit, habit, habit. That, and motivation. Become an expert of sorts at those types of decisions or observation that you want to excel at making. … If you learn first how to be selective accurately, in order to accomplish precisely what it is you want to accomplish, you will be able to limit the damage that System Watson can do by preemptively teaching it to not muck it up. The important thing is the proper, selective training — the presence of mind — coupled with the desire the motivation to master your thought process.

No one says it’s easy. When it comes right down to it, there is no such thing as free attention; it all has to come from somewhere. And every time we place an additional demand on our attentional resources — be it by listening to music while walking, checking our email while working, or following five media streams at once — we limit the awareness that surrounds any one aspect and our ability to deal with it in an engaged, mindful, and productive manner.

Konnikova argues that, not unlike willpower and habit loops, attention is analogous to a muscle that can get strained, but can also be bolstered with training and purposeful repeat use. She goes on to offer four key strategies for optimizing your attention:

  • Be Selective

 

Our vision is highly selective as is — the retina normally captures about ten billion bits per sec of visual information, but only ten thousand bits actually make it to the first layer of the visual cortex, and, to top it off, only 10 percent of the area’s synapses is dedicated to incoming visual information at all. Or, to put it differently, our brains are bombarded by something like eleven million pieces of data — that is, items in our surroundings that come at all of our senses — at once. Of that, we are able to consciously process only about forty. What that basically means is that we ‘see’ precious little of what’s around us, and what we think of as objective seeing would better be termed selective filtering — and our state of mind, our mood, our thoughts at any given moment, our motivation, and our goals can make it even more picky than it normally is.

[…]

Our minds are set [for selective attention] for a reason. It’s exhausting to have the Holmes system running on full all the time — and not very productive, at that. There’s a reason we’re prone to filter out so much of our environment: to the brain, it’s noise. If we tried to take it all in, we wouldn’t last very long. Remember what Holmes said about your brain attic? It’s precious real estate. Tread carefully and use it wisely. In other words, be selective about your attention.

At first glance, this may seem counterintuitive: after all, aren’t we trying to pay attention to more, not less? Yes, but the crucial distinction is between quantity and quality. We want to learn to pay attention better, to become superior observers, but we can’t hope to achieve this if we thoughtlessly pay attention to everything. That’s self-defeating. What we need to do is allocate our attention mindfully. And mindset is the beginning of that selectivity.

 

    1. Be Objective

 

It’s psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s theory about believing what we see taken a step further: we believe what we want to see and what our mind attic decides to see, encode that belief instead of the facts in our brains, and then think that we saw an objective fact when really, what we remember seeing is only our limited perception at the time. We forget to separate the factual situation from our subjective interpretation of it.

[…]

Setting your goals beforehand will help you direct your precious attentional resources properly. It should notbe an excuse to reinterpret objective facts to mesh with what you want or expect to see. Observation and deduction are two separate, distinct steps — in fact, they don’t even come one right after the other.

 

    1. Be Inclusive

 

Attention is about every one of your senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch. It is about taking in as much as we possibly can, through all of the avenues available to us. It is about learning not to leaveanything out — anything, that is, that is relevant to the goals that you’ve set. And it is about realizing that all of our senses affect us — and will affect us whether 35N or not we are aware of the impact.

To observe fully, to be truly attentive, we must be inclusive and not let anything slide by — and we must learn how our attention may shift without our awareness, guided by a sense that we’d thought invisible.

 

    1. Be Engaged

 

When we are engaged in what we are doing, all sorts of things happen. We persist longer at difficult problems — and become more likely to solve them. We experience something that psychologist Tory Higgins refers to as flow, a presence of mind that not only allows us to extract more from whatever it is we are doing but also makes us feel better and happier: we derive actual, measurable hedonic value from the strength of our active involvement in and attention to an activity, even if the activity is as boring as sorting through stacks of mail. If we have a reason to do it, a reason that engages us and makes us involved, we will both do it better and feel happier as a result. The principle holds true even if we have to expand significant mental effort — say, in solving difficult puzzles. De- spite the exertion, we will still feel happier, more satisfied, and more in the zone, so to speak.

What’s more, engagement and flow tend to prompt a virtuous cycle of sorts: we become more motivated and aroused overall, and, consequently, more likely to be productive and create something of value.

In a section on the importance of distance in creative thinking, Konnikova echoes previous insights on the need for unconscious processing that allows forideas to align:

One of the most important ways to facilitate imaginative thinking is through distance. In ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,’ a case that comes quite late in the Holmes-Watson partnership, Watson observes:

One of the most remarkable characteristics of Sherlock Holmes was his power of throwing his brain out of action and switching all his thoughts on to lighter things whenever he had convinced himself that he could no longer work to advantage. I remember that during the whole of that memorable day he lost himself in a monograph which he had undertaken upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus. For my own part I had none of this power of detachment, and the day, in consequence appeared to be interminable.

Forcing your mind to take a step back is a tough thing to do. It seems counterintuitive to walk away from a problem that you want to solve. But in reality, the characteristic is not so remarkable either for Holmes or for individuals who are deep thinkers. The fact that it is remarkable for Watson (and that he self-admittedly lacks the skill) goes a long way to explaining why he so often fails when Holmes succeeds.

Psychologist Yaacov Trope argues that psychological distance may be one of the single most important steps you can take to improve thinking and decision-making. It can come in many forms: temporal, or distance in time (both future and past); spatial, or distance in space (how physically close or far you are from something); social, or distance between people (how someone else sees it); and hypothetical, or distance from reality (how things might have happened). But whatever the form, all of these distances have something in common: they all require you to transcend the immediate moment in your mind. They all require you to take a step back.

[…]

In essence, psychological distance accomplishes one major thing: it engages System Holmes.

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes is fascinating from cover to cover — highly recommended.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

Leave a comment

January 7, 2013 · 5:02 pm