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…

What Your Grandma and Corporations Have in Common

Imagine your grandma just celebrated her 85th birthday. She’s beginning to forget things, but her doctor has reassured you that since, if given enough time, she can eventually pull the information through, it’s probably not Alzheimer’s.

You take some comfort in a recent study that suggests memory retrieval problems might not necessarily be the deterioration of synaptic connections, but more of a space issue.

Think of Grandma’s hippocampus like a library that, over time, has run out of shelving for the books. As they begin to pile up on the floor, the librarian can still find that edition of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn you’re after, but it takes a a little more time to scour all the nooks and crannies of the library to locate it. The same might be true for the hippocampus, the memory library.

In any event, modern medicine has been good to Grandma. The old family general practitioner has been replaced by a whole bevy of doctors who specialize in any number of medical fields. She’s got her heart specialist, her eye, ear, nose and throat doctor, her podiatrist, her diabetes doctor, her osteopath, and so on.

As a result, she finds herself traveling a regular circuit of doctors, each dedicated to improving the quality of her life and each taking advantage of the latest discoveries in pharmaceutical science.

Pharmaceutical science, like all science, operates on the principal of reduction theory—in essence, that the key to solving problems is to break them down into their smallest components and observe cause and effect. Molecular biology, and thus virtually every modern drug, is the result of this process. This systematic approach has literally built the technological world of modern humans.

There is one key problem with this approach. When you begin to examine complex systems like the human body, the reductionist technique begins to falter. Humans are composed of a myriad of structures that interact with each other, and depend on each other. The tangle of where one system begins and another end is difficult to understand, let alone observe.

For this reason, it makes more sense to understand a human being not as a series of mini structures or systems, but as one giant complex system. We need to think holistically.

When the heart doctor prescribes a heart medication, unless he knows what all the other speciality doctors have prescribed Grandma, and further understands the dynamic effect that might be created through the intermingling of medications, he might be setting her up for catastrophe and a trip to the ER. All of this despite his best intentions.

This is the peril of not recognizing that in a complex system, cause and effect relationships with other parts of the system can be significantly delayed and mask the dangers of your actions. Furthermore, the fact that internal organs are connected means the medication Grandma’s taken doesn’t necessarily move through her system in an isolated or linear fashion. Her heart medication might affect her heart, other medications, and/or other organs in unpredictable ways.

The effects of a medication can travel through the body like a metastasizing cancer, moving out in all directions simultaneously. The net result shows up as a cascading series of outcomes, leaving the simple, reductionist-driven ER doc in its wake.

Like Grandma’s body, today’s corporations have their own dizzying structure of interdependencies. Departments like sales, marketing, manufacturing, logistics, human resources, IT, and a slew of other departments abound, with more bound to come on the heels of new technological developments.

In many corporations, the depth of departmental interconnectivity and dependency is not completely recognized or understood, just like Grandma’s specialists don’t always understand the compounding effect of their actions in relationship to the body as a whole.

The nonlinear aspects of complex systems and delayed cause and effect loops can doom a company in the same way Grandma’s new heart medication may negatively impact her other medications.The end result can put Grandma in the ER, and a corporation on its back.


Stay tuned for Part 2. Next week we’ll learn the tricks to keeping your Grandma—and your favorite corporation—alive.

The Brain’s Allergy to the Big Picture

Do you suffer from Systems Blindness? You almost certainly do.

The problem is that your brain’s hardwiring is designed primarily to keep you alive. Which is fair. But as a result, we specialize in snap-second judgments.

Our living strategy is largely built on using association to connect causes and effects, which in turn drives our decision-making. See a school bully in action and we go out of our way to avoid him. Watch a fellow office worker grown lean through jogging and we might be tempted to hit the pavement ourselves in the morning. In short, we observe, draw inferences and plot our course. This strategy has served humanity well; after all, there are over 7 billion of us on the planet.

Individually, we are amazing at making day-to-day decisions that afford us a certain amount of comfort. But what happens when our comfort is besieged by a huge, unnervingly complicated system like weather or traffic? Here is where Daniel Goleman in his new book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, weighs in.

Take traffic, for example. When we’re stuck in rush hour, we might be tempted to think the way my diminutive little grandmother used to: “Why don’t all these damn people stay home?” Aside from the fact that, by her very presence, she is contributing to the problem, this is probably an issue of oversimplification. Too many people = traffic jam.

We might be tempted to answer my grandmother with, “What we really need is more roadways.” Engaging in this kind of reasoning is known as the “illusion of explanatory depth,” Goleman explains. “…we feel confidence in our understanding of a complex system, but in reality have just superficial knowledge.”

We don’t realize, for instance, that access to new highways can energize nearby industry, which can grow communities, which in turn supports restaurants, shopping, and recreation, thereby attracting even more families, which puts more people like my grandmother on the road, which of course means more traffic jams.

Our brains understand cause and effect at a local level, but as the causes and effects grow larger and more distant, our reasoning suffers. The effect of slamming your fingers in a car door is pretty immediate: the amygdala, the fear center of your brain, fires off a warning and your sensory system administers a shot of pain. Global warming, on the other hand, operates on an almost impossible level of remove.

We are designed to create short-term solutions, and as our societies have grown larger and more complex, system blindness becomes increasingly more dangerous. I can’t see the seas rise as the result of a carbon-loaded atmosphere, so I don’t merely dismiss the impending long-term threat, my amygdala is as complacent as the Maytag repair man.

Luckily, as our ability to generate and analyze large quantities of data has improved, our awareness of systems is growing too. Google’s foray into plotting flu epidemics is but one example.

Hopefully the more data mining that takes place for things like global climate change, the more each of us will begin to consider that we are part of something far larger than the hunk of land on which we live and drive. In the meantime, in regards to our carbon footprint, maybe my grandmother was onto something. “Why don’t all these damn people stay home?”

Defragging Your Brain’s Hard Drive, a Handy Guide

Stanford neuroscientists have determined that 72 hours after someone delivers information verbally, we tend to remember only about 10% of what we’ve heard. That’s right: we forget 90% of what people tell us. This explains a lot. Our working memory dumps out faster than a guy on an all-prune diet. (Prunes are basically mummified plums––brutal way for a fruit to age)

Teenagers and the elderly have been taking a bad rap for years. It turns out those of us who are neither teens nor elderly have bragging rights when it comes to short-term memory.  What was I talking about again? Continue reading

The Information Diet: Slimming Down on Brain Clutter

Let’s talk about diet. No, I’m not going to lecture you on your food choices this week. This entry is designed to make everybody feel a little crummy (I mean enlightened), regardless of the contents of your fridge.

This is a story about what you’re feeding to your brain–your information diet, if you will. In The Information Diet: a case for conscious consumption, Clay Johnson likens the explosion of information technoligies to the industrialization of the food business.

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Your Brain on Bias

Last year, roughly 40,000 people died in automobile crashes on America’s highways. This is a tragic number, but it has been much worse in the past. Thanks to seatbelts and more crash-resistant vehicles, highway fatalities continue to creep downwards.

It is estimated that around 17 people die each year from getting crushed by heavy furniture, including TVs. This is also a tragic number, for many reasons–if nothing else, no one imagines being betrayed by their flatscreen.

In 2010 and 2011, not counting war zones, 17 American civilians were killed each year in terrorist attacks on foreign soil.

Yes: the same number that fell victim to toppled credenzas and/or falling televisions.

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Measuring the Unmeasurable

“Metric” is a kind of sexed up word for measurement, popular among the corporate crowd.  The interesting thing about “metric” is that it has moved beyond its institutional role, denoting a specific calculation, to one that implies actual value.

I can evaluate your sales output in dollars, but judging the impact of education on a sales force is a Herculean task. To that end, when budget time rolls around, a ‘soft asset’ like education is frequently eliminated. The devaluation of education is a common theme in corporate America, where the spreadsheet reigns supreme.

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Gaming the memory: the ‘Peak-end’ Rule

How do you decide on whether to go back to the same restaurant again, buy the same breakfast cereal, or even whether to read this blog one more time?

This is the beauty of the memory, which does you the favor of storing neural code from your past to rescue and remind you of the outcome of some past experience. Like a trailer from a movie, your brain replays a snippet or two from a past event to give you context for future decisions. That seems pretty straightforward, except for a couple of minor glitches discovered by Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman and his fellow researchers.

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