In the last issue of Scientific American Mind, I was struck by an article called Freeing Up Intelligence, with the subtitle, “A preoccupation with scarcity diminishes IQ and self-control.”
The article was by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, who wrote the book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. You can find a useful review of the book here.
The idea is that a preoccupation with lack of money or time is a cognitive tax on the brain, occupying “bandwidth” and leaving less for other activities, effectively reducing brain efficiency and IQ, both in fluid intelligence (the ability to reason and compute) and executive control (the ability to inhibit our actions).
Most types of stress are represented by preoccupation, a focusing on whatever it is that is stressing us. This isn’t what the authors mean by scarcity, but it has the same effect.
Put simply: if too much of our brain-space/power is occupied by focusing on one set of things, there is less available to focus on the rest. We have to take breaks, create spaces in the preoccupation, carve out retreats for our busy thoughts, calm down, make time.
What do you do to take a break? Do you do it consciously, thinking to yourself, “I am going to do this because it will be a good break, and give my brain time to think and focus and breathe.” Not that brains breathe, of course, but it feels like a good metaphor.
Here are my personal time-out tricks:
- A hot bath, with candles and scented oil
- Scented candles even without a bath
- A walk around Calton Hill (the whole thing takes 15 minutes from my back gate)
- Ten minutes of yoga stretches
- Get into bed a bit early and read
What are yours?