Mind Wandering, or Getting Your Einstein On

Does your mind tend to wander? Most people believe that their minds wander about 10% of the time. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara put that figure at more like 30%.  When engaged in well-rehearsed tasks like driving a car on a wide-open highway, it’s estimated that mind wandering can be as high as 70%.

In her book How to Get People to Do Stuff, behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk makes the important distinction between mind wandering and daydreaming.

According to Weinschenk, daydreaming involves an aspect of fantasy, like imagining you’ve been asked to star in the next Hunger Games flick opposite Jennifer Lawrence, or you’ve just won the lottery.

Mind wandering occurs when your subconscious brain is engaged in a habituated activity, like driving, and at the same time you’re thinking about some other task or wrestling with some other problem.

Doing one thing while your brain focuses on something else might sound an awful lot like multi-tasking. However, the key to multitasking is performing multiple simultaneous conscious activities. In fact, scientists haven’t definitively proven true multitasking even exists. Humans seem to lack the cognitive firepower to pull off multiple independent-thinking operations at the same time.

What feels like multitasking is actually the brain flipping back and forth between separate mental processes, but because of the speed of the flipping, you have the illusion of synchronicity. Psychologists call this “task switching.” It helps to explain a common downside to this behavior, what’s sometimes called the 50/50 rule: when you try to do two things at once, both tasks tend to take 50% longer and involve 50% more mistakes.

So mind wandering is not multitasking or daydreaming. Mind wandering, according to researchers at UC Santa Barbara, is tied to creativity.  Weinschenk notes that the ability to perform a rote task while mind wandering and, more specifically, to switch on this mental meandering at will is “the hallmark of the most creative people.”

There are numerous stories of great thinkers like Nicola Tesla and Albert Einstein’s daydreaming or “thought experiments” helping to fuel some of the greatest achievements of modern time. Weinschenk would probably be quick to point out that these geniuses were not mere daydreamers, but accomplished mind wanderers.

I suppose that’s a blow to all of us daydreamers who up until now could take solace in our former moony-eyed patron saints, Tesla and Einstein. I, for one, vow to pay more attention to my own mind wandering in the future.

Anyway, I’ll get right on that after I finish winning the lottery…

Beyond the Punchline: the Real Meaning of Laughter

“What keeps a dyslexic agnostic up at night? Wondering if there really is a dog.”

You can debate whether that’s funny or not, but either way, we’ll probably agree that the opening statement is a joke—or at least, an attempt at one.

When many of us contemplate the concept of laughter, it goes hand-in-hand with jokes. Unless you happen to be Robert Provine.

Robert Provine’s book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation attempts to understand what actually happens during spontaneous human laughter. Provine’s research team observed over 2000 cases in a wide variety of circumstances and situations. The study included men and women, and a range of ages.

The verdict? Laughter resulted from jokes or funny stories only about 20% of the time. So if it’s not all about the punchline, what’s going on?

Provine postulates that laughter has a deeper meaning. He sees it as an evolutionary advantage associated with group bonding and social communication.

Laughter shows up in infants as early as four months of age. This, of course, supports the idea that it’s not always joke-driven, most babies not being renowned for their senses of humor.

According to Provine, laughter exists across all cultures, most often accompanying statements that demonstrate knowledge of a person or people in one’s group. For instance, Hey Bill, how are the kids? or Here comes the hardest working person on the team. Accompanied by laughter, these mundane announcements reinforce a basic connection with between others and ourselves.

And interestingly, it’s the speaker who tends to do the laughing, at a rate of two to one over the listener.

You’re thirty times more likely to laugh in a group situation, and in fact the study suggests it’s pretty rare that we actually laugh out loud when alone. Go ahead and give it a try; since laughter is an unconscious act, laughing on command is always going to be an act of counterfeit.

You’re probably not surprised to find out that laughter is contagious. We tend to laugh when we hear others laughing—regardless of whether or not we know what they’re laughing at.

Provine tells us that women on average laugh twice as often as men, and the lower your social status in a particular group, the more comfortable you are laughing around them. Conversely, having a higher social in a group means you’ll be less likely to laugh.

There’s the old saying that “laughter is the best medicine.” It’s meant to underscore the importance of humor, of jokes. And even if we amend it to “laughter is the best medicine, at least 20% of time,” as a stress reliever, it can’t be beat.

The idea of laughter as an ancient group unifier makes sense, but if Provine is right, and funny stories and jokes only constitute about 20% of laughter worldwide, maybe it’s time we agree to rev up our joke production.

So Robert Provine, an agnostic, and a four-month-old walk into a bar…

Jonesing for a Soda? Here’s Why

When we think of addiction, we might think of the heroin junkie lying on a dirty mattress with a needle in his arm, or a sweaty rockstar snorting a line of coke right after some mega concert.

We are probably less likely to think about ourselves. But when it comes to hijacking the brain’s reward system, none of us are entirely clean.

In an article from Experience Life entitled “This is Your Body on Soda: the effects of drinking one of America’s most cherished refreshments”, a 12 ounce can of soda takes on an ominous tone.  The average soft drink packs about 10 teaspoons of sugar per can. Stack this up against the American Heart Association’s daily guidelines: 6 teaspoons for women and 9 for men.

The effects of pop on your system go something like this: about twenty minutes after you chugged that can, a blood-sugar spike overwhelms your liver’s ability to process the glucose load. What your liver can’t process is converted into fat. And as the article points out, “There’s practically no limit to how much fat your body can store.”

At the thirty-minute mark, the soda’s caffeine has kicked in, dilating your pupils and driving up your blood pressure. The increase in blood pressure sends a signal to your beleaguered liver to release even more sugar into your bloodstream. That aftershock means another little fat storage opportunity for your body.

Forty minutes after the soda washed over your lips, the levels of dopamine in your brain’s nucleus accumbens (essentially, the pleasure center) go wild. Since dopamine is a feel-good chemical, designed to reward beneficial behavior, the result is a kind of ‘high’.

As with a heroin user, your system has no way of knowing it’s been hijacked, that it’s been manipulated into rewarding you for something that is actively hurting you.

Now fifty minutes have passed and you’ve suddenly got the urge to urinate, thanks to the diuretic quality of the caffeine. You’re not just losing fluids, though; soda contains phosphoric acid, which binds to calcium, magnesium, and zinc. So as the article notes, “you’ll soon be flushing those vital nutrients down the toilet.”

One hour after you knocked back the soda, you sugar crash big-time, and then begin to go into withdrawal. You’re irritable, your energy levels flag—and you’re thirsty.  Your solution? Another can of soda.

If you’re watching calories and your drink of choice is diet soda, does the above still apply? Yes. In fact, it applies more. Artificial sweeteners in diet soda have an even greater impact on your brain than regular soda.

The net result? You’ve just completed a lap in the addiction cycle. If you do enough of these laps, which is to say you’ve been drinking soda regularly for at least two months, your brain has wired itself for the soda addiction.

Over time, as a natural course for reaching equilibrium and control, your brain’s dopamine levels begin to drop.  You are no longer impacted as much by your soda intake. This means you find yourself drinking more and more to get the same high you felt before.

According to government statistics, nearly 23 million Americans are addicted to something, and one in ten is addicted to drugs or alcohol. This is because hustling our evolutionary reward system is not that difficult. Our culture has developed numerous keys that fit the lock in the brain’s nucleus accumbens.

When it comes to addiction, mega concerts and dirty mattresses are optional.

The Reptile Brain Fights Back: Extinction Bursts

Let’s suppose that you’ve got a habit you want to break. You’ve followed the following five habit-breaking rules:

1. Tell a friend you’re going to break a habit to help put pressure on yourself to actually follow through

2. Be persistent; whether making or breaking a habit, it’s generally believed you need about 60 days of reinforced behavior to cement a change

3. Enlist a friend for moral support when you find your will weakening

4. Plan out a meaningful reward to give yourself once the habit is eradicated

5. Keep track of your daily progress towards breaking the habit to reinforce positive habit-breaking behavior

Everything’s going smoothly, and then just when you think you’ve rewired your brain, you’re blindsided by a sneak attack from within.

Once you understand that your rational brain is up against an internal conspirator, you might not be surprised to discover the nemesis is your emotional brain, sometimes known as your reptilian brain, which has some habit maintenance shenanigans up its proverbial sleeve.

The shenanigan in question is known as extinction burst. And your reptilian brain cleverly waits to spring the trap only after you’ve essentially overcome your bad habit, and you are literally in the very final stage of habit change, with a given habit all but eradicated.

An extinction burst is much like a Hail Mary play in football, where desperation drives an all-or-nothing strategy for success. Your reptilian brain makes a final push to reestablish your old habit.

Take healthy eating, for example. Suppose you’ve managed to avoid dessert for weeks and you’ve seen your hard-earned reduction in sugar intake showing in a positive way on the bathroom scale. It’s that big piece of chocolate cake that up until now you’ve been able to walk past that seems to reach out and grab at you, taunting you like the sirens in the Odyssey.

You can thank your reptilian brain for ramping up the chocolate cake craving to almost unbearable level. This might explain why dieters succumb to binging behavior after they’ve been so diligent in their efforts to kick their sugar addiction.

One theory for why your emotional brain might initiate a final extinction burst is that the wiring for a longtime habit is so deeply ingrained that the habit could be misidentified by part of your brain as something vital to survival. In much the same way that your body’s immune system can misidentify a food source as allergen.

Extinction bursts are extremely dangerous, largely because they are part of a process that originates from inside your brain. Unfortunately, there is no well established playbook for fending off an extinction burst.

Odysseus solved his problem and fear of succumbing to the siren song of temptation by having his shipmates lash him to the mast of his ship. That might have worked for the famous Greek, but ship masts aren’t always easy to find, especially when it comes to the dessert isle of your grocery store.