More from Jonah Lehrer’s ImagineHe’s describing a study by neuroscientists at Harvard and the University of Toronto:

…the ability to ignore outside stimuli…is typically seen as an essential component of productivity….[Those test subjects] who had a tougher time ignoring unrelated stuff were also seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers” based on their previous accomplishments.  (The association was particularly strong among distractible students with high IQs.)  According to the scientists, the inability to focus helps ensure a richer mixture of thoughts in consciousness.

The distractible subjects took in more information and had a less rigid view of what might be relevant to the task at hand.  They were more open to unexpected relationships between concepts — the essence of creativity.

I’m glad to hear this, because I’ve noticed that my own mind seems to be more — what’s that sound?  Oh, sorry. — distractible than it used to be.  (Or perhaps I’m just noticing it more.)  In any case, my irritating inability to focus when a radio’s on in the background might actually be a fount of creativity.

What was I saying?

Interesting little story (by Valerie Ross) in the current issue of Discover magazine that might shed some light on why we make dumb mistakes when we’re tired.  Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin at Madison kept rats up past their bedtime with interesting new toys to explore. The rats seemed alert, but their EEGs showed that little groups of neurons went offline for brief periods, sometimes resulting in clumsiness or other rat errors. The longer the rats stayed awake, the more often these little neuro-naps occurred.

I wonder if that’s the reason why…oh, sorry.  I’m a little tired this morning.  What was I saying?

Powerful article in the New York Times over the weekend about employee satisfaction and productivity.  The authors, Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School and Steven Kramer, point out a connection that should be obvious but isn’t: dissatisfaction on the job connects directly to a lower bottom line.

Employee engagement may seem like a frill in a downturn economy. But it can make a big difference in a company’s survival…. Conventional wisdom suggests that pressure enhances performance; our real-time data, however, shows that workers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do.

What do employees find most engaging?  Amabile and Kramer’s study showed a clear result:  “of all the events that engage people at work, the single most important — by far — is simply making progress in meaningful work.”

Managers can facilitate this progress.  But Amabile and Kramer found that they’re missing the boat:

Unfortunately, many companies now keep head count and resources to a minimum and this makes progress a struggle for employees. Most managers don’t understand the negative consequences of this struggle. When we asked 669 managers from companies around the world to rank five employee motivators in terms of importance, they ranked “supporting progress” dead last. Fully 95 percent of these managers failed to recognize that progress in meaningful work is the primary motivator, well ahead of traditional incentives like raises and bonuses.

Here’s a clear call to action:  let’s humanize the workplace, encourage creativity and meaning, and help people feel that their presence makes a difference.  It’s not just good-heartedness; it’s good business sense.


Photo:  Creative Commons

We’ve all had that horrible moment. The presentation where we suddenly can’t get the words out. The big exam, and we can’t remember anything we’ve studied. The music performance where our fingers won’t work any more.
What’s behind this painful self-sabotage? Jonah Lehrer discussed the latest research on his always-excellent blog, The Frontal Cortex. Choking could be described as the analytical function of the mind interfering with an “automated” action — one that we’ve learned so well that our own verbal prompting impairs our ordinarily smooth operation. (Think of what happens to your golf swing when you’re telling yourself, “Wrists straight! Head down!)
Surprisingly, we can actually help prevent choking by concentrating not on the details of our action but on what the experimenters called a “holistic cue word,” such as “smooth” or “balanced.”
This finding reminds me of a practice my teacher Cliff Missen showed me when I first learned African-style drumming. If you focus on your hands or try to count beats, you’ll mess up every time. But you can keep yourself in the rhythm if you make up a little phrase (nonsense is fine) that recites your part. For example, one drummer had a rhythm that was played exactly like “I’m ex-TREME-ly late.” All she had to do was mentally recite that sentence and play along.
This technique was fabulous for me, since I’m prone to verbal intrusions into everything and tend to argue and discuss with myself while I’m trying to do something else. Reciting my piece kept my overactive verbal mind happy and left my hands free to do some drumming! And usually I was able to drop the recitation at some point in the drumming session and just enjoy the groove.
As my Tibetan Buddhist teacher Ven. Tsoknyi Rinpoche used to say, “You’ve got to throw your mind a lamb chop to keep it happy.” Another term for this process, I believe, is what Jill Bolte Taylor calls “stepping to the right”: dropping the intrusive mental process of rehashing and hectoring that we call thinking, and allowing a more holistic sensibility to take over — which it’s generally dying to do!