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Think Less to Think Better

IF WE’RE HONEST, our minds are too active to immerse in what’s right in front of us.  There’s a biological reason, since the brain can’t possibly drink every detail of the Central MTR station.  However, it would be a real shame to fade out too much, which flattens our experiences and draws us away from feeling pleasure.  All the delicious meals, connective conversations, delightful aromas and the colors of Pokfulam sunsets without us being truly ‘there’.

Moshe Bar, a neuroscientist and professor at Harvard Medical School, noticed how much we overlook in the world and how much we miss of our inner life, when our mind is cluttered.  According to his study published in Psychological Science ruminations, stray thoughts and other “mental loads” hinder our creative thinking.  He and graduate student Shira Baror found that, when the mind is clear, innovative thinking and originality – not routine ideation – is our default cognitive mode.  Also, he found people with a high mental load need more time to generate even a conventional thought.  The experiments conclude that the mind is naturally inclined to favor novelty, but when it’s cluttered, it seeks the most familiar and least interesting correlations.

According to Bar, our brain relies mainly on 2 modes – to Explore and to Exploit.  When we explore, say when traveling to a new holiday destination, our minds are curious and open.  When we exploit, say after a brain-frying day of meetings, our mind relies on familiarity and predictability.  Certainly we need both modes – for going home after a (very) long day or for holding a newborn baby for the first time – but there’s a healthy balance.

Daily we load our minds with tasks like reminders, lists, memorization and daydreaming.  Sometimes though, there is more serious overloading, with stress and anxiety.  All these take up brain cells, leading to delayed, dull thinking and the flattened ability to experience pleasure.

Increasingly people collect experiences over things.  Bar gifted himself a silence meditation retreat to still his mind.  Many who do such a mental bootcamp find it gratifying to be able to still the mind long enough to appreciate the beauty of a leaf or a rock.  Then when we come back to active thought, it’s fresher and more original.

Ruminations, brain-clutter and stray thoughts take us away from engaging with life and becomes a tax on the quality of your life and ideation generation.  Today, convenience to whatsapp or access to Instagram further distracts the mind with other I-must-do-now’s.  Meditation or other stillness practices can strengthen our ability to discipline and unburden the mind.  It can also wonderfully enrich our experience of the world.

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