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Scarcity, bandwidth and preoccupation

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 bac069_optk gate)
  • Ten minutes of yoga stretches
  • Get into bed a bit early and read

What are yours?

6 Responses

  1. My trick is to schedule between 15 and 30 breaks between the different clients I write for. Lets make clear my head, and pull a few weeds in the garden. But this trick only works in conjunction with a “to do” schedule I make the beginning of the work day, which lets me know when I’m going to pay attention to which client. It gives me that freedom you’re talking about, to think “oh, I don’t need to worry about that until 2 o’clock, because that’s when I’m working on her stuff.”

  2. Apart from doing a bit of exercise of some sort, I’ve recently taken up playing the penny whistle, which I know sounds a bit mad, but the focus on reading the music I’m finding a great relaxant.
    If/when we next see one another do remind me to show you a great exercise to illustrate how our attention can be taken up.

  3. When I was at law school and I had a problem I could not solve I would stop and knit one round of the Aran jumper I was making. It was (for me) very complicated and required total mental and physical concentration. It took me about twelve minutes to do.
    At the end of it I would go back to the other problem and, more often than not, I would find it had sorted itself out. I still keep some knitting there for much the same purpose but I sometimes just pedal off for a ride around the block in good weather – my equivalent of taking a walk I suppose! (And yes, I did finish making the jumper – although it took me nearly three years.)

  4. Hi Nicola,

    – walking my dog
    – walking to the local library
    – gardening
    – sewing
    – singing (this one I do almost all the time while doing something else)

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.

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