“Life moves pretty fast,” said Ferris Bueller. “If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” And according to a new study published in Psychological Science, he was dead right: Thinking about things too much makes you miss what’s going on around you.
In an study designed to find out how much we miss when we’re carrying a mental load, cognitive neuroscientist Moshe Bar and graduate student Shira Baror found that our minds are predisposed to creativity. “Innovative thinking, not routine ideation, is our default cognitive mode when our minds are clear,” writes Bar in the New York Times.
When we are under a mental load, though, creativity goes out the window. We fall back on routine, on the mental ruts worn into our minds by repetition.
One simple experiment tasked participants with remembering a number. Half were given a two-digit number, the other half a seven-digit number. Then they were asked word-association questions. Those remembering the short number came up with more creative responses. Bar gives the example of “cloud” as a response to “white.” Those struggling to hold a seven-digit number in their head came up with “the most statistically common responses.” “Black” for “white,” for example.
Another experiment showed that, when under load, coming up with even a dull, clichéd response took longer. Those free to let their minds wander not only came up with more creative responses, but they did so more quickly.
Bar describes our minds as existing between two states: exploratory, and exploitative. “When we are exploratory, we attend to things with a wide scope, curious and desiring to learn,” he writes. This happens more when traveling, for example. Exploitation happens when we are doing something familiar, when we “exploit” what we already know. “We are more inclined toward exploitation when returning home after a hard day at work.”
Our days are filled with little things that load our minds. Shopping lists, composing emails in our heads, and the constant mental to-do lists we all carry with us. “All these loads can consume mental capacity,” says Bar, “leading to dull thought and anhedonia—a flattened ability to experience pleasure.”
Bar’s personal solution to mental overload is meditation, specifically week-long, silent meditation. But you don’t have to stop speaking for a week just to stop thinking about where you parked the car. Regular meditation is one answer, as is anything else that unburdens the mind. Playing a musical instrument, knitting (seriously, try it), or anything else that lets your mind wander away from your daily responsibilities will help.
And the results are worth it. Bar says that meditation lets him look at a single flower for 45 minutes, so it looks like you can save your marijuana money, too.
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