Cognitive Exhaustion: Resting Your Mental Muscle

L0031938 Representing the last stage of mental & bodily exhaustio

In the go-go-go world of today we need to be sure we’re giving our mind ample opportunity to rest and relax — recognizing when we need a mental break.

I usually take a walk. Or go to a yoga class.

It turns out how we rest our minds has a big impact. Taking a walk isn’t enough, it depends on where you’re walking.

In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman elaborates:

Tightly focused attention gets fatigued—much like an overworked muscle—when we push to the point of cognitive exhaustion. The signs of mental fatigue, such as a drop in effectiveness and a rise in distractedness and irritability, signify that the mental effort needed to sustain focus has depleted the glucose that feeds neural energy.

The antidote to attention fatigue is the same as for the physical kind: take a rest. But what rests a mental muscle?

Try switching from the effort of top-down control to more passive bottom-up activities, taking a relaxing break in a restful setting. The most restful surroundings are in nature, argues Stephen Kaplan at the University of Michigan, who proposes what he calls “attention restoration theory.”

Such restoration occurs when we switch from effortful attention, where the mind needs to suppress distractions, to letting go and allowing our attention to be captured by whatever presents itself. But only certain kinds of bottom-up focus act to restore energy for focused attention. Surfing the Web, playing video games, or answering email does not.

We do well to unplug regularly; quiet time restores our focus and composure. But that disengagement is just the first step. What we do next matters, too. Taking a walk down a city street, Kaplan points out, still puts demands on attention— we’ve got to navigate through crowds, dodge cars, and ignore honking horns and the hum of street noise.

In contrast, a walk through a park or in the woods puts little such demand on attention. We can restore by spending time in nature— even a few minutes strolling in a park or any setting rich in fascinations like the muted reds of clouds at sunset or a butterfly’s flutter. This triggers bottom-up attention “modestly,” as Kaplan’s group put it, allowing circuits for top-down efforts to replenish their energy, restoring attentiveness and memory, and improving cognition.

A walk through an arboretum led to better focus on return to concentrated tasks than a stroll though downtown. Even sitting by a mural of a nature scene— particularly one with water in it— is better than the corner coffee shop.

The Books That Influenced B. F. Skinner

harvard guide to influential books

Found in The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking.

B.F. Skinner is a legendary psychologist. Building on those who came before him, he is regarded as the father of Operant Conditioning. His analysis of human behavior culminated in Verbal Behavior and Walden Two.

Here is what Skinner had to say about which books influenced him and why.

Bacon is Shake-speare by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence

How Plants Grow: A Simple Introduction to Structural Botany by Asa Gray

Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex by Ivan P. Pavlov

The Problems of Philosophy (1911) by Bertrand Russell

Behaviorism by John B. Watson

He writes:

The books that have been most important in leading me to my present position as a behaviorist are not books that I would recommend to anyone seeking to understand that position. They were important, not so much because of their content, but because of their bearing on my life at the time I read them. A mere accident sent me to Sir Edwin-Durning-Lawrence’s Bacon is Shake-speare, and that book sent me in turn to all I could find of, and about, Francis Bacon. I have acknowledged the role of three great Baconian principles in my life, but I would not send anyone to Durning-Lawrence to discover them.

Gray’s How Plants Grow, my high-school botany text, taught me, with the example of the radish, how living things pass on to the future the contributions they have received from the past. Later I found the same theme in Hervieu’s “La Course du Flambeau,” but I would not send anyone there for further instruction. I was greatly influenced by the first third of Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy. According to his biographer it was “written at speed for the American market,” and it certainly is not regarded as one of Russell’s great books. Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflexes taught me the importance of controlling laboratory conditions, but I soon departed from the Pavlovian paradigm. John B. Watson was important, of course, but I read only his Behaviorism, a book written for the general public. I am not sure I ever read his Psychology, from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist.

This is all perfectly reasonable, since, after all, if anything I have done is “creative,” should we expect to find it in anything I have read?

For more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson.

The Nine Primary Tactics Used to Influence Others

Mindgym the Nine Influence Tactics

The number one thing to understand about influence is that people make decisions for their reasons, not yours.

“When you try to influence others,” Sebastian Bailey and Octavius Black write in their book Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently, “it is essential that you understand the other person’s reasons so you can use tactics that will work to persuade them, as opposed to tactics that would work on you.”

Okay, with that said, here are the nine primary tactics to influence others.

1. Reasoning

What Is It?
“There are three excellent reasons why contemporary art is a worthwhile investment. First . . .”

The tactic we call reasoning, at its best, is the process of using facts, logic, and argument to make a case.

Give Me an Example
“You should run the marathon next year. The training will make you fitter and healthier; it will give you something to focus on outside work, which you said you wanted; and you will raise money for a good cause, maybe that hospice you gave all your old clothes to for their fund-raising sale. It just makes sense.”

When Is It Useful?
This tactic is useful most of the time. Reasoning is the bread and butter of influencing. The challenge is to support your views with relevant information and a coherent argument. Although reasoning requires more effort than some of the other tactics, it is much more likely to create your desired effect.

Warning
When you present a view or position as if it is a fact (e.g., “This problem is going to take a long time to solve”) but without any evidence to back it up, then the reasoning is weak. Weak reasoning is the most common influencing tactic people use, but without the evidence to back up your view, it is far less effective.

2. Inspiring

What Is It?
“Imagine a world where …”
Almost the exact opposite of reasoning, the inspiring tactic focuses on the heart rather than the head. It appeals to emotions and suggests what could be possible, if only the other person were persuaded.

Give Me an Example
Some of the most well-known uses of the inspiring tactic can be seen in political leaders’ speeches. Great examples are Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Shakespeare’s “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” speech given by Henry V. These speeches don’t just ignore logical argument but defy it. Take this excerpt from John F. Kennedy’s speech about putting a man on the moon, with commentary from a skeptic in brackets.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard [Yeah, like that’s a good reason for doing something ; hey, I reckon we should paint the garden fences with a toothbrush and nail varnish because it’s really hard], because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills [How so? Why wouldn’t feeding the starving in Africa or increasing world literacy do it just as well if not better?] . . .

For all the skeptic’s heckling, this speech helped mobilize a nation. The magic about inspirational appeal is that it touches our hearts by appealing to our values and our identity. Like falling in love, when the inspiring tactic works, nothing can beat it (certainly not a cynic).

When Is It Useful?
This tactic is especially useful when your rational argument is weak or unclear and you want a high level of emotional commitment. The inspiring tactic doesn’t tend to be used much in daily life, especially in the workplace, which is a shame because it’s a powerful way to persuade and excite.

Most of us have been seduced by this tactic as children (e.g., “It’ll make you big and strong when you grow up”), when watching TV (e.g., advertisements with young, sexy people having wild times drinking a particular brand of soda), or when we’re with friends who are hooked on a new craze (e.g., “You have to check out dune bashing: the surge, the speed, the heat, the views”).

Warning
It is not just what you say but also how you say it; the inspiring tactic demands conviction, energy, and passion. When deploying this tactic, a dreary demeanor will leave you floundering. Deliver inspiration like it matters more than life itself and you’ll be pretty much invincible.

3. Asking Questions

What Is It?
“Would you like to be rich?” Asking questions encourages the other person to make their own discovery of your conclusion (or something similar).

Give Me an Example
I am walking through the airport when a woman with a clipboard approaches me from in front of a large advertising board and asks, “Do you have a credit card?”

I utter a dismissive “Yes” and keep walking.

“Do you get airline miles with your card?” she persists.

“Yes, I do,” I reply, slightly irritated, and carry on walking.

“Do you use your airline miles?” The truth is I don’t, but I’m not going to get caught up in this conversation.

“A bit,” I reply, but my walking slows.

“Would you rather have cash?” I stop, turn, and look at her for the first time.

“Do you have five minutes to fill in a form to get a credit card that gives you cash?” she asks.

In five questions I have been persuaded to do something I haven’t done in over a decade: switch to a new credit card.

When Is It Useful?

This is a great tactic when it is important that the other person feels responsible for the outcome. In coaching and counseling, for example, a course of action or therapy is much more effective when the other person believes it was their idea rather than when they grudgingly give in. Asking questions is also useful when you’re trying to persuade someone who has more power than you— maybe your boss (“Do you think I’m overdoing it?” “Do you struggle with work– life balance? How do you deal with it?”) or your client (“Are you happy with the gold service? Or do you ever wish you had the platinum?”).

Warning
This is one of the hardest tactics to use because it is impossible to know how the other person will respond. If the questions are too broad, then you are likely to veer off course; if they are too narrow, the other person will spot what you are up to and may refuse to cooperate. But while most of the other tactics get weaker if they’re used too much, asking questions is a tactic that has an extended battery life— it’s effective time after time.

4. Cozying Up

What Is It?
“You’re a smart guy.”

If you feel positive toward someone, you are much more likely to agree with them, and you almost always feel positive toward someone who makes you feel good about yourself. This is the cozying up tactic.

Give Me an Example
“Hi, Sandra. You’re looking well. I heard from Mark that you did a great job on the Johnson case. Not an easy situation— well done. I have a challenging case coming up in October and am pulling together a top-level team to work on it. Would you be interested?”

When Is It Useful?
Cozying up is a particularly good tactic to use when you’re trying to influence people with less or the same level of power as you, because they are likely to value your views. Many of us use it on our partners (“Darling, you look like a million bucks”), our friends (“I know you are someone I can trust”), and our clients (“You’re the sort of person who will really appreciate this— because you’re smart”).

The danger with cozying up is that if you’re too obvious when using this tactic, you’ll have the opposite effect (“You’re only saying that because you want me to do something for you”). As a result, some people avoid it altogether. They are missing out. A less risky approach is to leave time—sometimes even several days— between making someone feel good about themselves and trying to persuade them.

Warning
Using cozying up on someone who clearly has more power than you can look like sucking up. So, unless you know what you are doing, be mindful about how much kudos you’re sending out into the world.

5. Deal Making

What Is It?
“If you pick me up from the airport, I will . . .”

Deal making is when you offer or give another person something in return for their agreement with you. It may be explicit, but it doesn’t have to be.

Give Me an Example
“I promised a friend I would walk his dog while he was on vacation. Then tonight I was offered Beyoncé tickets at the last minute. I’ll buy you dinner if you come over and watch the dog while I’m at the concert.”

When Is It Useful?
Deal making is useful when you want to increase the odds in your favor and don’t mind giving something away in return. Sometimes it is necessary to be up front (“If you help me paint the bathroom, I’ll cook dinner every night next week”). At the same time, the deal can work better when the connection is only implied (“Sure, I’ll introduce you to my sister,” and then twenty minutes later, “Can you really get me into the VIP section at the golf tournament?”). Often deal making is most effective when the connection is all but invisible, like it’s something you would have done for one another without a deal.

Warning
This tactic works by appealing to a desire for fairness. Some people can “take, take, take” without feeling any remorse or indebtedness (or they may just think you’re a generous fool). Deal making won’t work with this type of person unless you are very up front about the terms of the exchange.

6. Favor Asking

What Is It?
“Can you help me out?”

Favor asking is simply asking for something because you want or need it, but you’re not offering anything in return.

Give Me an Example
“My guest speaker has just pulled out of the event I’m organizing next week. All I can say is that I’d be eternally grateful if you’d be willing to step in and give a speech to my group.”

When Is It Useful?
This tactic works well only when the other person cares about you or their relationship with you. If used sparingly, it is hard to resist.

Warning
The person you ask for a favor might feel that you owe them one in the future. If you think they do, make sure you “pay back” the favor or you won’t get such a positive response next time.

7. Using Silent Allies

What Is It?
“Everyone who has read this book so far …”

The use of silent allies invokes other people, who are generally similar to the person you are trying to persuade, to make your case (“All professional runners train this way, so you should too”).

Give Me an Example
The advertising slogans “Nine out of ten dentists recommend …” and “America runs on Dunkin’” are classic examples of this tactic. Movie reviews and quotes from satisfied customers are also common examples . Outside of advertising and marketing, the silent allies approach is often used in the workplace, where you might hear comments like “All the best graphic designers use a Mac.” In social situations, you might hear “All the cool kids are wearing these jeans, and they’re the top-selling brand.” The best silent allies are those whom the person you are trying to persuade naturally associates with, such as professionals in their own industry or people with similar interests or beliefs.

When Is It Useful?
One of the most powerful ways to persuade teenagers to do anything is to show them that their peers, especially the cool ones, are doing it already. The silent allies tactic also works in business by, for example, referring to best practice models or a list of past clients. If the person you are trying to influence is concerned about risk (and most people are, deep down) or is anxious to fit in, then this can be your winning tactic.

Warning
Some people actually prefer to be contrary (“I only like underground bands”). Entrepreneurs, for example, are rarely dissuaded from trying something because no one has done it before. They actually see it as a potential benefit.

8. Invoking Authority

What Is It?
“It’s our policy not to refund cash.”

The invoking authority tactic is used from a position of power or by appealing to a rule or principle. It doesn’t matter whether the authority invoked is formal or implicit, so long as it is recognized by the person you are trying to influence.

Give Me an Example
“I won’t work for you unless we sign a contract” is an explicit approach to influence that not only appeals to the rules but also creates them.

“I won’t take business calls between the hours of five P.M. and seven P.M. because that is dinnertime with my family” is an approach to influence that creates boundaries based on principles.

When Is It Useful?
The advantage of invoking authority is that the tactic is quick and straightforward . The downside is that it is more likely to lead to compliance than commitment. It’s better to invoke authority as a last resort rather than use it as your opening gambit, unless you are in a rush. Authority can, however, make a positive impression on someone who abides by similar rules or lives by similar principles.

Warning
If you try to persuade using this tactic and don’t succeed, then you don’t have many other options left (mainly the forcing tactic, detailed next). You are also likely to have damaged a relationship. And like using silent allies, this tactic can have the opposite effect from the intended one. Think of Dirty Harry being told he is being pulled off a case, only to carry on his investigations anyway. Or Julia Roberts in the movie Erin Brockovich refusing to bow down. If the person you’re trying to influence doesn’t agree with your rules or principles, using authority can have a quick and extreme impact on your relationship. Be warned, this tactic is a bit like drawing a line in the sand.

9. Forcing

What Is It?
“Do it or else.”

The forcing tactic involves engaging in assertive behavior, such as threats and warnings.

Give Me an Example
“Eat your vegetables or you’ll be going straight to bed.”

“Love me or leave me.”

“The last person in your job didn’t last very long; we wouldn’t want you to make the same mistake.”

“The more time you spend arguing about it, the less time you’ll have left to do it.”

When Is It Useful?
Forcing is used when you want something done fast. Therefore, it’s ideal in emergencies.

Warning
Because forcing is relatively easy to adopt and usually delivers short-term results, like compliance, it gets used a fair bit, especially when combined with using authority. However, relationship breakdowns can often be traced back to uses of the forcing tactic. Almost like smoking cigarettes, the immediate damage appears minimal, but the long-term effects can be terminal; and even if you give up using this tactic, it could be too late, so it’s probably best not to start. Using the forcing tactic can also be quite addictive, because it gives the user a sense of power when it gets results. Only employ forcing when everything else has failed.

Remember people change their mind for their reasons not yours. If you’re not effective, it’s probably because you’re looking at things through your lens and not theirs. Continuing to give the same arguments in the same way only solidifies resistance even more. So the next time you’re trying to convince someone of something you’ve already tried to change their mind on, trying picking a different approach. Better yet, pick three or four and use them in combination. Tactics work better when employed together.

Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently is full of interesting and insightful stuff you can use every day.

Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture

BigData

“Which would help you more if your quest was to learn about contemporary human society—unfettered access to a leading university’s department of sociology, packed with experts on how societies function, or unfettered access to Facebook, a company whose goal is to help mediate human social relationships online?”

In 2005, when Erez Aiden Jean-Baptiste Michel were grad students, they spent a lot of time “thinking about the kinds of scopes scientists had access to and the ways in which those scopes made science possible. We became intrigued by what seemed like an off-the-wall idea. For a long time, both of us had been interested in the study of history.”

But how does big data and history combine?

At its core, this big data revolution is about how humans create and preserve a historical record of their activities. Its consequences will transform how we look at ourselves. It will enable the creation of new scopes that make it possible for our society to more effectively probe its own nature. Big data is going to change the humanities, transform the social sciences, and renegotiate the relationship between the world of commerce and the ivory tower.

Fascinated by how human culture changes over time, they ended up writing a book Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture.

Some of these changes are dramatic, but often they are so subtle as to be largely invisible to the unaided brain. Wouldn’t it be great, we thought, if we had something like a microscope to measure human culture, to identify and track all those tiny effects that we would never notice otherwise? Or a telescope that would allow us to do this from a great distance— on other continents, centuries ago? In short, was it possible to create a kind of scope that, instead of observing physical objects, would observe historical change?

[…]

As we were mulling this somewhat esoteric question, a revolution was occurring elsewhere that would sweep us up in its wake and lead millions of people to share our strange fascination. At its core, this big data revolution is about how humans create and preserve a historical record of their activities. Its consequences will transform how we look at ourselves. It will enable the creation of new scopes that make it possible for our society to more effectively probe its own nature.

Ten thousand years ago, shepherds lost track of their sheep much like we lose track of things today. To solve this problem they hit upon the notion of counting.

In retrospect, it might seem surprising that something as mundane as the desire to count sheep was the impetus for an advance as fundamental as written language. But the desire for written records has always accompanied economic activity, since transactions are meaningless unless you can clearly keep track of who owns what. As such, early human writing is dominated by wheeling and dealing: a menagerie of bets, chits, and contracts. Long before we had the writings of the prophets, we had the writings of the profits. In fact , many civilizations never got to the stage of recording and leaving behind the kinds of great literary works that we often associate with the history of culture. What survives these ancient societies is, for the most part, a pile of receipts. If it weren’t for the commercial enterprises that produced those records, we would know far, far less about the cultures that they came from.

Today many commercial enterprises make their living off those records. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the like keep digital and often personal and permenant records of your activity.

Google will remember every word of that angry e-mail long after we’ve forgotten the name of the person we sent it to. Facebook’s photos will chronicle the details of that night at the bar even if we woke up with a fuzzy brain and a massive hangover. If we write a book, Google scans it; if we take a photo, Flickr stores it; if we make a movie, YouTube streams it.

These digital breadcrumbs provide a lens on human culture. To answer the question posed at the top:

On the one hand, the members of the sociology faculty benefit from brilliant insights culled from many lifetimes dedicated to learning and study. On the other hand, Facebook is part of the day-to-day social lives of a billion people. It knows where they live and work, where they play and with whom, what they like, when they get sick, and what they talk about with their friends. So the answer to our question may very well be Facebook.

Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture chronicles a seven-year quest to quantify cultural change through the lens of Google’s archive of books. This is both big data and long data. The core of the project is to explore how word usage changes over time and hypothesize about what that means to culture.

How Play Enriches Our Creative Capacity

play
“Play doesn’t just help us to explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself.” — Greg McKeown

The value of playing cannot be over-stated. From Einstein and Seneca to Steve Jobs and Google.

“Bob Fagan, a researcher who has spent fifteen years studying the behavior of grizzly bears, discovered bears who played the most tended to survive the longest.” Jaak Panksepp concluded something similar in Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, where he wrote, “One thing is certain, during play, animals are especially prone to behave in flexible and creative ways.”

In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg Mckeown argues that “when we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality.”

Play expands our minds in ways that allow us to explore: to germinate new ideas or see old ideas in a new light. It makes us more inquisitive, more attuned to novelty, more engaged.

Play fuels exploration in at least three ways.

First, play broadens the range of options available to us. It helps us to see possibilities we otherwise wouldn’t have seen and make connections we would otherwise not have made. It opens our minds and broadens our perspective. It helps us challenge old assumptions and makes us more receptive to untested ideas . It gives us permission to expand our own stream of consciousness and come up with new stories.

Or as Albert Einstein once said, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought , I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” (As found in János: The Story of a Doctor.)

Second, play is an antidote to stress, and this is key because stress, in addition to being an enemy of productivity, can actually shut down the creative, inquisitive, exploratory parts of our brain. You know how it feels: you’re stressed about work and suddenly everything starts going wrong. You can’t find your keys, you bump into things more easily, you forget the critical report on the kitchen table. Recent findings suggest this is because stress increases the activity in the part of the brain that monitors emotions (the amygdala), while reducing the activity in the part responsible for cognitive function (the hippocampus)—the result being, simply, that we really can’t think clearly.

Play causes stress to (temporarily) melt away.

Finally, as Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatrist who specializes in brain science, explains, play has a positive effect on the brain. “The brain’s executive functions,” he writes in Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People, “include planning, prioritizing, scheduling, anticipating, delegating, deciding, analyzing— in short, most of the skills any executive must master in order to excel in business.” Play stimulates parts of the brain involved in logical reasoning and carefree exploration.

Hallowell continues:

Columbus was at play when it dawned on him that the world was round. Newton was at play in his mind when he saw the apple tree and suddenly conceived of the force of gravity. Watson and Crick were playing with possible shapes of the DNA molecule when they stumbled upon the double helix. Shakespeare played with iambic pentameter his whole life. Mozart barely lived a waking moment when he was not at play. Einstein’s thought experiments are brilliant examples of the mind invited to play.

Perhaps Roald Dahl said it best: “A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.”

The Necessity of Marginalia in the Age of the Ebook

Marginalia
Francis Bacon once remarked “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

Reading and writing often go hand in hand. Reading is not a passive skill but rather an active one.

One of the ways we chew and digest what we’re reading is to comment on something someone else has written. We do this through Marginalia — the broken fragments of thought that appear scribbled in the margins of books. These fragments help us connect ideas, translate jargon, and spur critical thinking. (One notable downside though, giving away books becomes harder because often these fragments are intimate arrows into my thinking.)

In the world of ebooks the future of marginalia and reading looks different. With electronic reading devices, the ease of inserting these thought fragments has diminished. I have Kindle and while I’m trying to use it more, there are issues. By the time I’ve highlighted a section, clicked on make a note, and laboured intensively at the keyboard, I’ve often lost the very thought I was trying to capture. (Ebooks, however, make certain things easier, like searching.)

This excerpt from How to Read a Book, written in the 40s, captures the necessity of marginalia to reading.

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it— which comes to the same thing— is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake— not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active , is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

Follow your curiosity to the pleasures of reading in an age of distraction, how to read a book, and a process for taking notes while reading.