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Posts tagged with ‘psychology’

We want to believe in talent. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “What people would like is that a coward or a hero be born that way.”, knowing that it protects us by degrading the very achievements that it pretends to elevate; magically separating us from those that are great athletes, ensuring that we are incompatible with them; and relieving those of us who are not excellent of responsibility for our own condition. “To call someone ‘divine’” Friedrich Nietzche once wrote, “means ‘Here we do not have to compete.’” In the mystified notion of talent, the unanalyzed pseudo-explanation of outstanding performance, we codify our own deep psychological resistance to the simple reality of the world, to the overwhelming mundanity of excellence.

Daniel Chambliss, The Mundanity Of Excellence

Excellence, Chambliss shows us in his study of great swimmers, does not arise from talent — usually discovered only after athletes begin to win regularly — nor from hard work, as he found by comparing the routines of the great and not-so-great. Excellence comes from deliberate practice:

the doing of actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, habitualized, compounded together, added up over time. While these actions are “quantitatively different” from those of performers at other levels, these differences are neither unmanageable nor, taken one step at a time, terribly difficult.

Ignacy Paderewski, the musician, once said, ‘Before I was a genius, I was a drudge.’ 

So, be aware that ‘talent’ is an afterthought, and working ‘hard’ is optics. The tie that connects those involved in great work is their focus on their process, their obsession on deliberate practice: writing every morning before work, swimming the laps with the hands and feet just so, or playing the same concerto, very carefully but with brio, 100 times.

The most important takeaway is to work on your practice: it is a tool above all others, and one that we use to shape ourselves, a tiny bit every day.

Feeling Anxious? Take A Walk in the Park - Nicole Capo →

This story should be titled ‘Feeling Fatigued?’ because a walk in the woods — or just looking out the window at nature — can recharge us.

Feeling Anxious? Take A Walk in the Park - Nicole Capo

A new study out of Scotland proves that our minds actually calm down when we’re surrounded by nature instead of the bustling chaos of the city, allowing us to reach a more meditative state. The study used mobile electroencephalograms (or EEGs, for short) to measure the brainwaves of participants as they took a walk through a quiet — but still urban — historic district, a park, and a noisy city center in Edinburgh. What the researchers found was that wave patterns related to frustration and “directed attention” occurred during the city walks, and that the brains of the volunteers became mentally quieter during the walk through the park.

Professor Jenny Roe, who oversaw the study, explained that natural environments still engage our brains, but the attention is involuntary and effortless, meaning we can enjoy the environment around us but still contemplate other things. The beneficial effects of natural environments can even be enjoyed just by looking out your window at a nice, green landscape, and people who live near green areas tend to have lower levels of cortisol — a stress-related hormone — in their saliva. Likewise, children with attention deficit disorders have an easier time focusing on their work if they take a break to stroll through the park.

And we are all of us a bit stressed after a few hours of city life, or just swimming in the stream on line.

Attention blindness is the fundamental structuring principle of the brain, and I believe that it presents us with a tremendous opportunity. My take is different from that of many neuroscientists: Where they perceive the shortcomings of the individual, I sense an opportunity for collaboration. Fortunately, given the interactive nature of most of our lives in the digital age, we have the tools to harness our different forms of attention and take advantage of them. It’s not easy to acknowledge that everything we’ve learned about how to pay attention means that we’ve been missing everything else.

It’s not easy for us rational, competent, confident types to admit that the very key to our success—our ability to pinpoint a problem and solve it, an achievement honed in all those years in school and beyond—may be exactly what limits us. For more than a hundred years, we’ve been training people to see in a particularly individual, deliberative way. No one ever told us that our way of seeing excluded everything else.

I want to suggest a different way of seeing, one that’s based on multitasking our attention—not by seeing it all alone but by distributing various parts of the task among others dedicated to the same end. For most of us, this is a new pattern of attention. Multitasking is the ideal mode of the 21st century, not just because of information overload but also because our digital age was structured without anything like a central node broadcasting one stream of information that we pay attention to at a given moment. On the Internet, everything links to everything, and all of it is available all the time.

Unfortunately, current practices of our educational institutions—and workplaces—are a mismatch between the age we live in and the institutions we have built over the last 100-plus years. The 20th century taught us that completing one task before starting another one was the route to success. Everything about 20th-century education, like the 20th-century workplace, has been designed to reinforce our attention to regular, systematic tasks that we take to completion. Attention to task is at the heart of industrial labor management, from the assembly line to the modern office, and of educational philosophy, from grade school to graduate school.

Creativity Increased By Multitasking

I love stories that debunk conventional wisdom, especially cobwebby corporate wish fulfillment. In this case, a wholesale frontal assault on creativity training:

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, Forget Brainstorming

Brainstorming in a group became popular in 1953 with the publication of a business book, Applied Imagination. But it’s been proven not to work since 1958, when Yale researchers found that the technique actually reduced a team’s creative output: the same number of people generate more and better ideas separately than together. In fact, according to University of Oklahoma professor Michael Mumford, half of the commonly used techniques intended to spur creativity don’t work, or even have a negative impact. As for most commercially available creativity training, Mumford doesn’t mince words: it’s “garbage.” Whether for adults or kids, the worst of these programs focus solely on imagination exercises, expression of feelings, or imagery. They pander to an easy, unchallenging notion that all you have to do is let your natural creativity out of its shell.

Bronson and Merryman do go on to make some concrete recommendations and observations:

  • Physical activity loosens up creativity muscles.
  • Throw away the suggestion box: it’s demotivating.
  • Don’t watch TV.
  • 'Do something only you would come up with — that none of your friends and family' — and co-workers — 'would come up with.' - Mark Runco

But the one I found most compelling is that multitasking seems to support creativity:

Take a break.

Those who study multi-tasking report that you can’t work on two projects simultaneously, but the dynamic is different when you have more than one creative project to complete. In that situation, more projects get completed on time when you allow yourself to switch between them if solutions don’t come immediately. This corroborates surveys showing that professors who set papers aside to incubate ultimately publish more papers. Similarly, preeminent mathematicians usually work on more than one proof at a time.

Perhaps my bias toward multitasking is based on the nature of the work I do, and that I think is central to most professionals: it’s creative work. So putting something down when you have come to a halt, and turning your mind to something else for a while actually increases our capacity for creative thought.

Again, proof that we aren’t chairs, we are people.

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Mind Wandering

Scientists are discovering that our minds wander a lot more than we are aware of. And this is apparently a good thing, despite the bad rap it gets in the self-help section at Barnes&Noble.

John Tierney, Discovering the Virtues of a Wandering Mind

In the past, daydreaming was often considered a failure of mental discipline, or worse. Freud labeled it infantile and neurotic. Psychology textbooks warned it could lead to psychosis. Neuroscientists complained that the rogue bursts of activity on brain scans kept interfering with their studies of more important mental functions.

But now that researchers have been analyzing those stray thoughts, they’ve found daydreaming to be remarkably common — and often quite useful. A wandering mind can protect you from immediate perils and keep you on course toward long-term goals. Sometimes daydreaming is counterproductive, but sometimes it fosters creativity and helps you solve problems.


Mind wandering, as psychologists define it, is a subcategory of daydreaming, which is the broad term for all stray thoughts and fantasies, including those moments you deliberately set aside to imagine yourself winning the lottery or accepting the Nobel. But when you’re trying to accomplish one thing and lapse into “task-unrelated thoughts,” that’s mind wandering.

During waking hours, people’s minds seem to wander about 30 percent of the time, according to estimates by psychologists who have interrupted people throughout the day to ask what they’re thinking. If you’re driving down a straight, empty highway, your mind might be wandering three-quarters of the time, according to two of the leading researchers, Jonathan Schooler and Jonathan Smallwood of the University of California, Santa Barbara.


“People assume mind wandering is a bad thing, but if we couldn’t do it during a boring task, life would be horrible,” Dr. [Jonathan] Smallwood [of the University of California, Santa Barbara.] says.


There’s an evolutionary advantage to the brain’s system of mind wandering, says Eric Klinger, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota and one of the pioneers of the field.

“While a person is occupied with one task, this system keeps the individual’s larger agenda fresher in mind,” Dr. Klinger writes in the “Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation. “It thus serves as a kind of reminder mechanism, thereby increasing the likelihood that the other goal pursuits will remain intact and not get lost in the shuffle of pursuing many goals.”

Of course, it’s often hard to know which agenda is most evolutionarily adaptive at any moment.


To measure mind wandering more directly, Dr. Schooler and two psychologists at the University of Pittsburgh, Erik D. Reichle and Andrew Reineberg, used a machine that tracked the movements of people’s eyes while reading “Sense and Sensibility” on a computer screen. It’s probably just as well that Jane Austen is not around to see the experiment’s results, which are to appear in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science.

By comparing the eye movements with the prose on the screen, the experimenters could tell if someone was slowing to understand complex phrases or simply scanning without comprehension. They found that when people’s mind wandered, the episode could last as long as two minutes.

Where exactly does the mind go during those moments? By observing people at rest during brain scans, neuroscientists have identified a “default network” that is active when people’s minds are especially free to wander. When people do take up a task, the brain’s executive network lights up to issue commands, and the default network is often suppressed.

But during some episodes of mind wandering, both networks are firing simultaneously, according to a study led by Kalina Christoff of the University of British Columbia. Why both networks are active is up for debate. One school theorizes that the executive network is working to control the stray thoughts and put the mind back on task.

Another school of psychologists, which includes the Santa Barbara researchers, theorizes that both networks are working on agendas beyond the immediate task. That theory could help explain why studies have found that people prone to mind wandering also score higher on tests of creativity.

Mind wandering is so tightly linked with creativity that it is probably impossible to be — or act — creatively without your mind squirreling about for hours every day.

So, one thing to take away from this is that we might be better offletting our minds wander a bit, rather than slavishly forcing ourselves back to piecework when we are uninclined to do it. We are heeding a deep evolutionary imperative, to cast about in the wilds inside our heads, searching for meaning, clues, or distant analogies.

I am reminded of Rilke, the poet, who rejected treatment for depression, saying “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.”

We need to drift in the cool caverns of subterranean thought if our actions and thoughts are to take definite shape in the hot light of day.

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