Psychology Magazine

Think Less, Think Better.

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

In an NYTimes piece, Moshe Bar translates the psycho-speak (which caused me to completely miss the point of the work) of an article describing research done with with graduate student Shira Baror. Some clips from the NYTimes pieces, then the article abstract:

Shira Baror and I demonstrate that the capacity for original and creative thinking is markedly stymied by stray thoughts, obsessive ruminations and other forms of "mental load." Many psychologists assume that the mind, left to its own devices, is inclined to follow a well-worn path of familiar associations. But our findings suggest that innovative thinking, not routine ideation, is our default cognitive mode when our minds are clear.
...we gave participants a free-association task while simultaneously taxing their mental capacity to different degrees...they were given a word (e.g., shoe) and asked to respond as quickly as possible with the first word that came to mind (e.g., sock)...We found that a high mental load consistently diminished the originality and creativity of the response: Participants with seven digits to recall resorted to the most statistically common responses (e.g., white/black), whereas participants with two digits gave less typical, more varied pairings (e.g., white/cloud).
In another experiment, we found that longer response times were correlated with less diverse responses, ruling out the possibility that participants with low mental loads simply took more time to generate an interesting response. Rather, it seems that with a high mental load, you need more time to generate even a conventional thought. These experiments suggest that the mind's natural tendency is to explore and to favor novelty, but when occupied it looks for the most familiar and inevitably least interesting solution...Our study suggests that your internal exploration is too often diminished by an overly occupied mind, much as is the case with your experience of your external environment.

After practicing vipassana meditation:

My thoughts - when I returned to the act of thinking about something rather than nothing - were fresher and more surprising...It is clear to me that this ancient meditative practice helps free the mind to have richer experiences of the present. Except when you are flying an F-16 aircraft or experiencing extreme fear or having an orgasm, your life leaves too much room for your mind to wander. As a result, only a small fraction of your mental capacity remains engaged in what is before it, and mind-wandering and ruminations become a tax on the quality of your life. Honing an ability to unburden the load on your mind, be it through meditation or some other practice, can bring with it a wonderfully magnified experience of the world - and, as our study suggests, of your own mind.

Now, here is the abstract of their article titled "Associative Activation and Its Relation to Exploration and Exploitation in the Brain," which, when I first scanned it, gave me no clue of the exegesis above!

Associative activation is commonly assumed to rely on associative strength, such that if A is strongly associated with B, B is activated whenever A is activated. We challenged this assumption by examining whether the activation of associations is state dependent. In three experiments, subjects performed a free-association task while the level of a simultaneous load was manipulated in various ways. In all three experiments subjects in the low-load conditions provided significantly more diverse and original associations compared with subjects in the high-load conditions, who exhibited high consensus. In an additional experiment, we found increased semantic priming of immediate associations under high load and of remote associations under low load. Taken together, these findings imply that activation of associations is an exploratory process by default, but is narrowed to exploiting the more immediate associations under conditions of high load. We propose a potential mechanism for processing associations in exploration and in exploitation modes, and suggest clinical implications.

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