Tag Archives: thinking

Attitudes that enhance vs. limit broad creative thinking

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What motivates you as you go about your life? Is your attitude more of approach or avoidance, the willingness to go for a reward or the desire to avoid harm?

I know it isn’t strictly either/or for anyone, but it’s helpful to think of your motivations in different situations and how they affect your thought processes, including your creativity and memory.

I came across an interesting study from 2001, The Effects of Promotion and Prevention Cues on Creativity. It centers on an experimental set-up where you have to get a cartoon mouse out of a maze by finding a route through the maze to the exit.

In one condition, there was a piece of cheese drawn outside of the maze, suggesting that if you successfully found the correct route out, the mouse would get the cheese. This condition was meant to evoke a style of thinking focused more on promotion: you complete a task in order to attain something new and nurturing.

In another condition, there wasn’t any cheese; instead, an owl hovered above the maze, making you think that if the mouse didn’t get out, the owl would eat it. The style of thinking evoked here was based on prevention: more about risk aversion and vigilance, avoiding bad outcomes.

So what happened in the experiment? The participants did well on solving the mazes (one would hope, given they were college students), but the interesting difference between participants who were in the promotion vs. prevention condition emerged later, when they were all given another task to complete. In one version of the experiment, they got a task that required them to detect images of simple objects embedded in a noisy visual. In another version, they had to come up with a list of ways that they could use a brick. In yet another, they had to complete word fragments by coming up with whole words that matched.

Independently of how much they enjoyed any given task, it seemed that overall, the participants in the promotion group were able to think more broadly and more creatively during the follow-up tasks. In contrast, an attitude of avoidance/prevention tended to make their thinking narrower. (And this wasn’t even tied to anything personal – the participants themselves weren’t going to enjoy the cheese or avoid a monster owl about to attack them, though they may have identified with the mouse; basically they were just cued into thinking within a certain framework, promotion vs. prevention).

You always have to be cautious when applying the results of one study to day-to-day life, but this does get me thinking about the implications. I’m more in the habit of avoidance than approach, which I don’t think always serves me well; while I don’t want to change this orientation completely, I don’t want to skew too much towards it either. Having risk-avoidance as a dominant approach may not be good in the long-run, in terms of thinking big and developing ideas creatively over time; it might limit you more to narrower, tried-and-tested paths.

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Attention smart people

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Don’t be complacent:

And here’s the upsetting punch line: intelligence seems to make things worse. The scientists gave the students four measures of “cognitive sophistication.” As they report in the paper, all four of the measures showed positive correlations, “indicating that more cognitively sophisticated participants showed larger bias blind spots.”

Why am I so…?

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On Google yesterday I typed in the phrase “Why am I so…” and waited to see what suggestions autocomplete would offer to finish the phrase (yes I was procrastinating, I admit it). Here are the top 10:

Why am I so…
1) tired
2) ugly
3) gassy
4) lazy
5) fat
6) depressed
7) hungry
8) itchy
9) bloated
10) cold

I did this little exercise out of curiosity about the kinds of questions we commonly ask of ourselves (at least on Google); from what I’ve read about the autocomplete algorithm, it draws on the search activities of the millions and millions of people using Google, along with phrases and keywords in Google-indexed web pages. (It could have drawn on my personal search history as well, but as I was logged out of Google and had disabled Web History a while ago, I’m not sure my own Googling affected the outcome much.)

Regardless, there are many, many webpages out there directly addressing these queries. So, what do we find on the internet in answer to them? Some good advice, some terrible advice, some people commiserating, others jeering. And there’s anguish. Lots of anguish. Our problems can consume our mental energy, and possibly our lives.

A few of the search terms are more blatantly medical than others (bloated, itchy, gassy) and more superficial; we want to find out why we have these symptoms and whether we should be alarmed, and how we can put an end to the unpleasantness and get some relief – but being gassy is rarely taken as a sign that we’re fundamentally defective. Others could definitely be medical and a result of certain lifestyle choices (tired, fat, etc.) but there are also deeper issues at work there; the possible answers are more complex and get at who we are (or who we think we are) as people.

Not that we’re always looking for answers. We want to work on ourselves, but sometimes we aren’t ready yet to make the effort. What we might hope to find – in addition to, or as a substitute for, any concrete suggestions for improvement – are opportunities to:
1) Confirm that we’re not alone. So many forums exist out there for people with depression for instance, who understand one another and maybe feel less alone as a result.

2) Absorb some sympathy. I don’t just mean in a “poor me” dramatically self-pitying “nobody has it this bad” sort of way (though depending on the individual there might be some of that) but just genuine warmth and support. Maybe we lack that from people in our lives.

3) Get encouragement. Doing anything about laziness or tiredness or other problems can be daunting. What we need are inspiring stories and kind words. This might give us a boost now or give us hope for the future, even if we feel as if we can’t manage the effort at the present time.

4) Satisfy our curiosity. We want to see what life is like for other people. That might include a comparison between us and them (e.g. they have it so much easier than I do… they might have succeeded in overcoming their problems, but I know for sure that I won’t).

5) Have our own suspicions or perceptions, however pessimistic, confirmed. There’s a kind of grim satisfaction we get from hearing that what we’ve thought all along is true: we’re screwed – by genetics, by poor choices, by any number of factors – and it will be terribly difficult to get well and turn our lives around. So there. If we can confirm that we’re hopeless, it means we don’t have to do anything, because nothing we’ll do matters. At least, this is what we tell ourselves.

6) Stall. We’ll find nothing that we don’t already know. We’ve done this web search before, multiple times, combed through dozens of sites. We’re searching again (and again) to no real purpose. Googling our problems gives us the illusion of doing something meaningful to improve our lives, when it’s really time for us to start acting on what we know. Are we delaying any changes we need to make because we’re afraid we’ll fail? Because the effort is too great? Are we using these self-help searches to sabotage ourselves? Maybe.

People are more than capable of using an opportunity to get better as a way to prevent themselves from getting better. We’re masters at both irony and self-sabotage.

You know which one broke my heart most? ‘Ugly’ (“why am I so ugly?”). Looking through some of the search results you see people who’ve already made up their mind that yes, they’re ugly. It’s an incontrovertible truth to them. Most have been repeatedly told they’re ugly, in subtle and not-remotely-subtle ways, and they live in anguish. Offline they may try to mask that anguish and carry on as usual, but it eats away at them.

It gives you tremendous pain to look at yourself and see ugliness. To feel it as others stare at you. To be convinced that you’ll be spurned and alone for the rest of your life. Unless you do something… but what? If you get plastic surgery, will you love yourself? What about new clothes? Will you be loved then? The self-perception of ‘ugliness’ is never only about your pronounced nose, your belly fat, your varicose veins, your acne, your asymmetrical face, or a combination of all of those… it’s a deep feeling of wrongness crawling through you.

The feeling is so deep and pervasive, so very much a part of how we define ourselves, that we think it can’t be anything but true. It comes to dominate everything.

“Why am I so ugly” echoes in some of the others (‘fat,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘depressed,’ ‘tired.’) Looking at ourselves and seeing a lump. A nothing. No beauty, no spirit, just a blob of inertia and pain. Other people can hurt us and do their best to grind us down. But when they’re not around, we take over and keep at it. We’re deeply convinced that there’s no other life for us, no real and lasting alternatives to the state we’re stuck in. We might want to change, and sometimes are overcome with a desire to make the effort, but it gives way to a belief that we’ll never be able to do it. Even if we think we can, we’ll likely fail, and any failure will prove once and for all that we really are stuck. (Failure proves no such thing, but it’s a convincing lie that we often buy into). In any case the concept of who we are is fixed in our mind and it colors everything in our life.

The things we miss out on when our minds are overrun with these thoughts. There’s so much to think about, to enjoy, to wonder about, to love in this world, to fight for, to care about, to learn and explore and live for. It’s a tragedy when our self-perceptions prevent us from seeing this goodness, this vast potential, and keep us from believing that we can ever be a part of it.

Much of our mental energy is consumed by our problems. Sometimes the solutions are relatively straightforward, if it’s a solution we’re really after (Gassy? Don’t eat certain kinds of food. Itchy? Here, try this cream.) Other times the problem is more complex. And our attempts at solving it can set us back further. Instead of working on our ambitions and projects, enjoying our hobbies, nurturing our relationships, cultivating our minds – in short, doing all the things that could give us a richer life and help us ease our pain – we tear ourselves apart in the process of trying to make ourselves better.

It can be useful to find a name for a particular problem. For instance, if we figure out that our tiredness, emptiness, and lack of pleasure might be depression, then calling it ‘depression’ – knowing it for what it is – can be the first step towards managing it so that we can restore ourselves to a healthier life. But when our negative labels feel permanent and all-encompassing (Fat? I’m nothing but fat. Lazy? Yep, can’t do a thing. Ugly? Everyone thinks so, and that’s all they see when they look at me) then it becomes much more difficult to believe that we could ever see ourselves differently – that we could ever be different, happier, more contented, and lead a rich, varied, meaningful life, where we aren’t weighed down so strongly by one particular definition of ourselves.

Understanding and addressing our perceptions of ourselves, particularly when they’re so cruelly negative, is necessary for good mental and physical health, and for a strong life well-lived; our thoughts are fundamental to the kind of life we’ll experience. Wrestling with self-defeating perceptions can be a lifelong struggle, but hopefully one that won’t end in resigned defeat, grim confirmation that we were “right about ourselves” all along.

On that note, here’s a related post I found today: 7 Common Habits of Unhappy People.

Things people do to get you to stop thinking

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You love thinking about things. You love asking questions, analyzing information, crafting arguments and counter-arguments, and wondering about life and its mysteries.

Assuming you don’t always keep your thoughts to yourself, you’ll likely find yourself inconveniencing, troubling or angering people who don’t want to have to deal with the fact that you think about things. I’m not talking about people who get annoyed if you happen to be nosy and intrusive or tactless (e.g. starting a debate about the existence and/or nature of the afterlife at a funeral), or if you’re arguing in bad faith. I’m talking about people who want you to accept things, fit in, do as you’re told, and not make them uncomfortable by exploring alternate possibilities or additional complexities.

Here are some patterns of behavior they might adopt to get you to stop thinking (or at least, to stop inflicting your thoughts on them, which might also discourage you from considering them on your own):

Belittling you and your thoughts

When you’re being sincere and willing to discuss something and learn more, and people tell you things like:

“What kind of a stupid question is that?”
“Would you just shut up?”
“Who cares?”
“Who thinks about these things?”
“You’re just trying to cause trouble, aren’t you.”
“Only messed up people think about these things.”
“You shouldn’t think about those things. What’s wrong with you?”
“Seriously? You have no life.”

You’re meant to regard yourself as an idiot or a shameful deviant. You’re told these things so that you’ll think twice before sharing your thoughts in the future, and even deeper than that, doubt yourself as a thinking person.

It’s especially terrible to say these things to a child. Children are starting to explore the world, and the questions they ask that may seem silly to us are logical or reasonable from their point-of-view. And notice how I say “seem silly” because many times their questions make us confront day-to-day aspects of reality that we take for granted and haven’t given much thought to. We might not have the answers. We might never have considered these things. But they’re legitimate questions and deserve a response, even if the response is something like, “I don’t know… why not look it up?” Because even if we don’t know the answer, we can at least allow for the possibility of further exploration, rather than shutting down a child’s thought entirely.

Even in the face of a sincere thought that’s based on false or ridiculous assumptions, there are ways of addressing the mistake without belittling the person. Mistakes go hand in hand with learning and growth.

Responding with abrupt finality

Attempts to cut off a train of thought and effectively nip a budding discussion; none of these have to be said in an insulting way.

“It is what it is.”
“Stop thinking about it.”
“That’s how things are. They’ve always been that way. The subject’s closed.”
“Because.”
“I don’t want to hear any more about it.”
“There’s no use thinking about it.”
“Don’t worry about it.”

You can also be told flat-out that thinking itself is problematic.
“You think too much.”
“You have better things to do than think about these things.”

Consistently exhibiting impatience

In addition to cutting you off or possibly insulting you, people can show signs of impatience: looking at their watches, fidgeting, sighing, giving you a look like you’re sucking the life out of their day.

People don’t always have time to hear you out. But if you get this attitude consistently from certain people, every day and at all times of the day, then they very likely don’t want you to bother them with your thoughts.

I’m also thinking of harried parents who’ve got a three-year-old who’s just discovered the word ‘why’. I sympathize with them, I do, but there are ways of dealing with children’s natural curiosity about how the world works that doesn’t involve shutting them down or showing them through impatience and frustration that their questions are nothing but a source of annoyance. For instance, you could use their questions as an opportunity to teach them how to work through problems and find things out on their own. You could also tell them to hold on to a thought and revisit it at a future time (via a book, a movie, a trip to a museum, an outdoor walk, etc.). You could keep a little notebook where you write down unanswered questions that both of you will think about more and return to. Even if you don’t have time at every hour of the day to answer a question or you don’t know the answer, you could still create an atmosphere where thoughts are valued and addressed, if not immediately then at some point.

Ignoring you

You and your pesky questions do not exist. Your thoughts are beneath notice. They don’t enter into discussions, either personal or communal. Maybe then you’ll go away.

Denying you access to intellectual resources

You’re denied opportunities for education. You aren’t given the means to try to educate yourself, even if no one around you wants to teach you. You’re restricted in your exposure to various viewpoints, beliefs, and opinions.

Denying that your thoughts are your own

“Who told you to say that?”
“Someone brainwashed you.”
“All those books you read have messed with your head.”

Unlike the examples of belittling above, which can make you feel stupid or wrong and unable to think, this kind of response makes you doubt your agency as a human being and doubt whether anything you think of really is your own. Even if you did hear about an idea from someone else, the fact that you’re bringing it up shows that it matters to you personally. In response you’re getting treated like a passive sponge absorbing and secreting things, instead of a mentally active human being.

Denying that someone like you can think about certain things

“Why do you want to know about that? You’re a girl.”
“Don’t worry your pretty little head.”
“Boys don’t read that stuff.”

A powerful way to get you to shut up and stop thinking is to persuade you that your biological makeup prevents the formation and development of certain thoughts and the acquisition of certain kinds of knowledge.

Even if you demonstrate that you can think and learn about topics that are supposedly beyond your reach, you’ll be told that you shouldn’t learn about them. ‘Can’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’ – two cherished words of people who want to shut down thought and keep you in line.

Making you feel like a social pariah

“Neerrrrrrrrd!!”
(Frankly I see this as a compliment, but most people don’t share my enlightened opinion.)
“Loser!”
(Not a compliment. Not by a stretch.)
“Who’d want to marry/date/befriend/work with/tolerate someone who cares about these things?”
(There are almost definitely people who would, but unfortunately you might be surrounded by people who wouldn’t.)
“I’m going to fix a label on you so that I can oversimplify everything you think about, and based on that label I will decide whether I like you or despise you, ok? That’ll make life so much easier for me.”
(Granted, usually people aren’t as blunt as that.)

If you’re interested in exploring and thinking about topics that aren’t popular or given broad sanction by your culture (particularly for people of your sex, race, age, etc.), then there will be many who will delight in teasing, belittling, excluding, and/or tormenting you.

Even among circles of people who do care about similar things, you’ll find those who try to ostracize you for not holding the “correct” opinions and subscribing to the “correct” beliefs.

People who genuinely care about discussion and exploration (instead of needing to always be right and overpowering others who think differently) have always struck me as being in the minority.

Threatening you

“Nice brain you’ve got there. Shame if anything should happen to it.”

Threats are the second to last resort of people who’ve tried other things to get you to drop a line of questioning or stop verbalizing your thoughts, and now need to use real fear to keep you in line. Fear of being marginalized or ostracized can be a part of it, but there’s also fear of physical harm to you and others, and the loss of valued privileges or rights.

Punishing you

Why punish you? To hurt you, to drive home the point that you’re wrong, wrong, wrong, and they’re right and just. If you haven’t submitted yet, maybe now you will. It isn’t your place to think, and they’ll make sure you know it.

Enforcing and intensifying mental submission is gratifying to many people. It’s not enough to have control over another person’s body – to have control over the mind, now that’s something. To wrench it down well-trodden paths no matter how hard its trying to weave its way into the deep woods – that takes some persistence and ingenuity. Thoughts are dangerous. It’s best to drive them out, or barring that, keep a lid on them.

Claiming good intentions

In most cases people who do these things will tell you that it’s for your own good. They can be genuinely convinced of that. They tell themselves, and you, that they’re stopping you from wasting everyone’s time, including your own. They’re keeping you from alienating others. They might be convinced that they’re saving your soul or your social status or your happiness. They want you to be normal and keep quiet and be satisfied with what you know; if you must ask questions, ask only the right ones, whatever those might be for a person like you. Think only about the things they tell you you’re meant to think about. That way you fit in and no one is bothered.

If they hurt you, well, it’s for your own good. And for the greater good. For everyone’s good.

That’s what they say.

Do you believe them?

Getting the mind to pipe down

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An article in More Intelligent Life called “Non Cogito, Ergo Sum” brings up the following point: thinking too much can make you mess up. Examples are given of tennis players who fumble when they think too much about their backhand, opera singers who falter if they start to think about whether their voice is at its best, and songwriters who can barely string together lyrics because their thoughts are interfering with their creative processes.

It’s not just any kind of thinking that messes you up, but badly timed self-conscious thinking, when you’re thinking about what you’re doing as you’re doing it (and on top of that, maybe thinking about how you appear to your audience). This cripples creativity and makes you second-guess yourself at the worst possible moment. What you may be hoping for instead during those moments of performance or creative functioning, is what the article calls “unthinking”:

Unthinking is the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation.

How do you best remove yourself from the equation? That’s definitely something I’d like to explore in future posts. I know what it’s like when I’m writing, and critical voices intrude during that first draft when everything should be coming out uninhibited. My mind is hamstringing itself.

In large part dealing with badly timed self-conscious thinking has to be a matter of mental flexibility and discipline. There are times when you want to evaluate your own thinking – revising your assumptions, checking yourself before you do or say something you’ll regret, evaluating your performance (after the fact, not during). It’s not good to always operate unselfconsciously. But you need to command the ability to switch between one mindset and another so that self-conscious thoughts don’t overtake your mind at exactly those moments when you should be acting with unthinking clarity and focus. Any advice on how to do this well? (There’s a topic for several future posts.)

Also it takes trust – the ability to let go and trust yourself. At the right moment you have to forget what you know and what you don’t know, what others think of you, what you think of yourself – you become a conduit for creativity, talent, ingenuity and unselfconscious thought. You have to trust that what you know and what you can do is enough, more than enough, and that for the moment at least you are sufficient and complete. All considerations of success and failure must disappear from your mind, because you’re entering a state of mind where the typical yardsticks measuring failure and success don’t exist anymore.

Easier said than done. How do you get to that state of mind when you most need to?