“It took me a couple of years after I got out of Berkeley before I dared to start writing. That academic mind-set – which was kind of shallow in my case anyway – had begun to fade.” – Joan Didion
Our thinking is affected by many factors outside of the actual task at hand. Our previous training and experiences shape how we approach the problems in the present moment. Proactive interference is the psychological term for the fact that previous learning interferes with your ability to learn and remember new material. In other words, the more you know the harder it is to learn new things.
It has been noted that major breakthrough ideas in science and mathematics usually occur when the individual is young. For example, Einstein’s most inventive and breakthrough ideas including relativity occurred before age 26. This has been attributed to the notion that young minds have not been ingrained with established ways of thinking, so they can think in completely new and creative ways. The expression “think outside of the box” means thinking outside of the traditional established ways of thinking (the box).
To be a better, more creative thinker, we need to inhibit or release our learned habits of thought. These are termed our “set” in psychology. But, how do we do this? Mindfulness has been shown to improve attentional control and cognitive flexibility (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/mindfulness-improves-mental-health-via-two-factors/). Perhaps, mindfulness training could help individuals overcome their prior “set” and “think outside the box.”
In today’s Research News article “Reset a task set after five minutes of mindfulness practice”
Kuo and colleagues examine whether a brief mindfulness training (5-min breath following meditation) can help in overcoming a task set. They found that the mindfulness training reset their thinking such that there was no evidence of previous set interference with a current task. “The participants were able to put aside the past event while concentrating on the present requirement.”
In addition, Kuo and colleagues found that the mindfulness training allowed the participants to reconfigure their mode of attentional control. That is, the previous experience created a situation wherein attention was controlled by inhibiting (restraining) responses to a particular class of stimuli. After mindfulness training the method of controlling attention established by the previous experience was absent. This suggests that mindfulness training allows attention to reset and be freed from the effects of prior experience.
These findings are exciting and suggest that mindfulness training may allow us to get rid of the “box” around our thinking. It should be mentioned, however, that the study by Kuo and colleagues was very short term. There is a need to investigate whether these effects of mindfulness training are enduring. It would be cumbersome to have to meditate before tackling every new task, but would be wonderful if a regular practice was sufficient to maintain an open mind. The answer to this question is, at this time, not known.
So, practice mindfulness and free your mind!
“I am thankful the most important key in history was invented. It’s not the key to your house, your car, your boat, your safety deposit box, your bike lock or your private community. It’s the key to order, sanity, and peace of mind. The key is ‘Delete.’” – Elayne Boosler
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies