- Brendan Stec
For the brain, less can be more
"Take it easy, take it easy
Don't let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy"
– Eagles, "Take It Easy" (1972)
When managing my brain – a delicate organ prone to overheating and overwhelm – sometimes I find that less is more:
For overcoming the impasse: When my conscious mind has been churning through a problem "I'm stuck on" for several hours, the "aha" moment frequently comes when I ease up on the gas pedal for a few minutes, give my brain a rest, and let my unconscious mind connect the dots. We've all been in the shower, on a casual walk, or lying in bed when the brain decided to deliver some miraculous insight we'd been digging for so eagerly earlier in the day.
Research by Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis confirms that the unconscious mind is a powerful and often overlooked cognitive resource for solving problems and executing decisions. But it can only be leveraged if we embrace less: less time spinning our wheels in front of the whiteboard, less distractions and noise clouding our thoughts, less effort analyzing the same three or four played-out solutions.
Truly creative ideas and solutions typically draw from seemingly unrelated connections in the mind. We can almost think of these unique insights as quiet signals that require us to really take a pause and hush the brain’s chatter to actually hear them. When faced with a challenging impasse, if we take a quiet break, get some fresh air, and actually try less, we may finally hear the creative insights our unconscious mind has been trying to push to the surface.
For clearing the mind: Most of us wake up to a stream of notifications from social media, the pings and posts from friends and co-workers, the meeting invites and reminders, the crushing over-stimulation of our constantly-connected modern world. On the walk or drive to work, we can broadcast, at our fingertips, the podcasts, music, or dramatized political crises of our choice. And at the workplace, as we sit down to focus on our work, we typically sort through the 120 emails a day we Americans get on average. The result: we're always "busy", we crave distractions, we have trouble sleeping, and we have shorter attention spans.
And the impacts are lasting: studies show that the chronic multitasking and stimulation from technology actually re-wires our brain and reduces our cognitive ability to concentrate and think deeply and creatively. (1) Look at a brain scan of someone scrolling through the Internet and you'll see a lot more of the brain lighting up than someone reading a book. That's not necessarily a good thing: reading, exercising, and cooking are therapeutic activities because the under-stimulation of the brain has a deeply calming effect. Again, more stimulation, more firing of the neurons, cramming more inputs into the brain, is not necessarily better for the mind.
Consider meditation: it's the practice of basically doing nothing. No inputs to the brain. No checking email. Eyes closed in a quiet room. Very simple. You can do it almost anywhere. And studies consistently report that focused meditation can relieve perceived levels of anxiety and depression and can improve attention and concentration. It actually changes the brain too: a study at Harvard found that meditation is associated with increased "cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory" and "decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress."
Our culture may fetishize being “busy” all the time, but constantly juggling two to three tasks at once is likely not nearly as productive or healthy as we think. Instead, for better concentration, reduced anxiety, and deeper thinking, less activity, input, and stimulation can provide the greater impact.
For managing the unwanted thoughts: Now I want you to try an experiment. Simply obey the following command:
Don't think about a yellow gorilla.
I told you NOT to think about them, but I can guarantee 99% of you imagined a very odd-colored primate almost instantly.
It's a classic paradox: the more we try to control our thoughts, the more they seem to control us. We push and push to forget embarrassing memories or past traumas, only to inflame these same memories in our head. While laying in bed, the more we desperately lecture our brain to relax so we can fall asleep, the longer we lie awake, stressing about that important obligation we need the rest for.
Harvard psychologist David Wegner describes why this occurs. "The funny thing is that when you're trying not to think about things, you have to remember what it is you aren't thinking about. That memory, that part of your mind that's trying to keep it fresh, in a way is going to then activate thought."
Instead of fruitlessly pushing and pushing to control our thoughts, we can embrace the less is more strategy and avoid actively suppressing them. It can be helpful to write down the unwanted thoughts in a journal, a practice linked to reduced stress and improved mental health. Discussing them with a trusted confidante can also bring them out of the emotional mind and into objective reality, where they can be logically deconstructed.
(1) The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (pp. 140-142)