Here’s a puzzle to play with. Look at the picture below. Logically, what image belongs in the empty space? In my experience, most people struggle to solve it by simply concentrating on the images until an answer emerges. Work at it a bit and then walk away, let your mind wander, don’t become overly attached to your first few guesses about the pattern. When you come back to it, you may experience an insight that brings to mind the missing image in a way that suddenly makes the solution feel obvious. When you’re ready to see the answer, follow this link.
While sheltering in place, I’ve been reading up on the neuroscience of the feeling we experience as being stuck. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve also been binge-watching a lot of TV shows. My ability to concentrate has its limits, which as it turns out, is precisely the point of what I have been learning about our brains. Let me sum it up for you. It turns out that our brains are lazy. Our brains take shortcuts. Decades of research by psychologists bolstered by more recent studies from neuroscientists and behavioral economists demonstrate that sometimes our neural pathways become cognitive ruts. It’s worth noting that our brains have evolved to take shortcuts. Our brains take shortcuts because shortcuts are efficient and require less effort. It’s helpful for example, that we don’t have to relearn how the world works every time we wake up in the morning. Sometimes, however our brains apply shortcuts that predispose us to getting stuck, often without us realizing that we’re stuck. The beneficial feature of our brain circuitry that helps us learn from experience can become a programming bug we refer to as a bias.
Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky introduced the concept of cognitive bias in the early 1970’s. The term cognitive bias refers to a broad array of mistakes in human perception that lead to irrational conclusions and poor judgement. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for applying his research into the psychology of decision making to economic theory. Much of Kahneman and Tversky’s research conclusions support the idea that our brains are designed to reduce mental effort. About a decade later, in related research, the Australian educational psychologist John Sweller coined the term, “cognitive load” to describe the impacts of mental effort on our ability to solve problems.
To reduce cognitive load, our brains take mental shortcuts. Psychologists refer to these mental shortcuts as heuristics. A heuristic (from the Ancient Greek: “find” or “discover”) is a rule-of-thumb that we substitute for the more cognitively demanding work of figuring something out from scratch. For example, if you have a method for fitting suitcases into the trunk of a car (e.g. put the largest cases in first), you’re applying a heuristic. I described a heuristic when I taught my daughters to estimate a 20% tip at restaurants by moving the decimal one place to the left on the total charge and then doubling the number to the left of the decimal.
Neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex become the literal shortcuts for the electrical currents we recognize as habits of thought. We are wired to interpret current situations according to the rules developed from prior experience. To our brains, the familiarity of prior experience amounts to following a well-traveled neural pathway. Being stuck in a rut may not get us where we want to go, but it feels safer than making a change. Creative solutions and insights often require getting out of neural ruts to break a pattern of thought, which is why a new solution often emerges from going for a walk or taking a shower instead of concentrating on the problem at hand.
As we age, it takes more effort to form new neural pathways. Perhaps we feel as though we have all the cognitive capability required to make our way in the world and so we stick to the comfortable neural pathways already in place. Whatever the cause, it just feels harder to learn new things (how to play a musical instrument, how to speak a new language, how to listen to people we disagree with etc.) as adults. The research suggests that reducing mental effort is a priority for our brains. The more complex and stressful our environment, the more our thoughts seek the refuge of our neural ruts.
Here’s the good news. According to research on neuroplasticity, we can continue to develop neural pathways as we age by challenging our brains. One way to challenge your brain is to reframe the questions you’re asking about a situation that you want to change. In his 2017 book, Tinker Dabble Doodle Try, Harvard psychiatrist and brain-image researcher Srini Pillay recommends changing your questions as a way to shift focus and get unstuck (p. 128). Pillay tells the story of Serena Williams’ comeback against Victoria Azarenka during the 2012 U.S. Open tennis tournament. Williams described her thinking in an interview after the match. When asked about the moment when she was down by two games in the last set, Williams explained that instead of wondering about her probability of losing, she focused on the question, “What will it take to win?” She calculated that she would need twelve more points and made it her mission to achieve her goal one point at a time.