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The Joy of Mindlessness

ideaNow we are all aware of the upsurge in Mindfulness and the benefits of meditation. There is a growing research base that highlights how Mindfulness helps with a number of mild to moderate mental health and issues; both at home and work. However, the question is of course if Mindfulness is so productive in our day-to-day lives, why aren’t we hard-wired to be mindful more often?

We know that our cognitive processing powers are limited, and am reminded of the phrase of the “cognitive miser”. A term introduced by the US journalist Walter Lippmann (1899–1974) in his book Public Opinion published in 1922. Its primarily an interpretation of stereotypes as a psychological mechanism that economise on the time and effort spent on information processing. Thus simplifying the social reality, that would otherwise overwhelm our limited cognitive capacities. So being mindful is tiring and ties up valuable processing power. So spare a thought for what your cognitive processing is having to do moment to moment when on daily patrol.

Consider when crossing the road we estimate distances of cars etc, try to work out when it is safe to cross and when. Imagine when we are trying to recognise faces of people walking toward us and how tricky all this is when facial muscles are changing constantly if they are friend or foe, desperately trying to remembering names, or even if they are someone we owe money too! All of these aspects need constant reassessment to be able to make sense of the world and people within it and most if not all occurs outside of your conscious awareness.

Add in the fine-grained interpersonal motor skills of eye contact, listening, the pitch of the voice whilst trying to develop an answer by encoding the information; it all gets too much for the conscious mind to manage this level of data and to juggle lists of things to do in day-to-day existence. However, don’t worry folks the mindless non-conscious mind is there to take some of the heavy liftings for you.

When the term Mindlessness is mentioned I am sure you the reader will conjure up a Zombie or someone acting without consequences. However, according to Kashdan & Biswas-Diener (2015), we could embrace out mindlessness to support mindfulness in a few positive ways.

 

  • Harnessing your Autopilot
    • Your heuristic (best guess) decision making is very accurate (70%+) and can be made with amazing speed. Heuristics can save you a great deal of cognitive processing power and space by not troubling the conscious part of your brain with unnecessary extra work. If only we used it more often in conjunction with our consciousness as a regulator of choice.

 

  • The mindlessness of Social Situations
    • We all make assessments of people when we meet them that we are not aware of. Probably you have heard of biases, stereotypes and prejudices we have lodged away in the dusty corners of our minds to aid the judgement process. Needless to say, these judgements can be both good and bad based on beliefs and values we hold about groups and individuals. So being on total autopilot will no doubt not win friends and influence people if it is unregulated. We know that trying too hard to get to know someone or create a great impression at a networking meeting can come across false and incongruent. However, allowing the autopilot to run riot can lead to problems in terms of issues of race, sex, politics, religion to name but a few. So the allowing both mindful and the mindless parts of our brain to work in tandem can help us attend to the messages sent non-consciously so that the conscious can do something about it. Therefore, this extra bit of data can help us make improved decisions and make our social interactions better by using mindlessness, to then bring in the mindful awareness into the situations between you and other people. Thus challenging our worldview of those biases and stereotypes we have of people that are potentially damaging to our work and careers.

 

  • Mindless Regulation of Emotions
    • We all know that mindlessness and a range of unregulated emotions seem to result in negative consequences for many people. Studies highlight unregulated emotions result in problems such as depression, anger, aggression and poor performance at work. So the goal then is to be able regulate our emotional reaction to “hot buttons” in the environment is a desirable state. Setting goals to be able tolerate difficult situations and “toxic” people can be realised without troubling out conscious mind; though will need to be supported by a learning programme to ensure that habits of the past change to enable mindless management of the emotions. Of course there are many other aspects to mindlessness and how it can help our mindful state work hand-in-hand. Allowing our minds to wander, to make us be more creative and allow time reflect to add richness to stories through accessing distant memories to embellish the narrative. Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman (2013) suggests “we spend a great deal of time mind wandering so much so we invest 50% of day doing just that”.

 

Mindlessness allows us to be more self-aware, able to reflect better and to plan without worrying our conscious mind too much. We need the chance for waking mindlessness free floating to discover, to make sense of information learned and how we might use the data in the future. So what if we encouraged mindless activities at work for example as a counterbalance to the focussed engagement of day-to-day life in your job? How would that turn out? The danger is you may well become more creative, make better decisions and be a more effective in your daily interactions with other people. However, this can only happen when we use both the mindful & mindless parts of our brain as checks and balances for both.

The power of strategically turning off the conscious mind to recharge the banks of creativity, engagement in your work, positive impulsive mindless decision making and adding more weight to mindfulness, may just help us let go and use all of our brains to our advantage.

 

References

Kashdan, T. B & Biswas-Diener, R. (2015) “The Power of Negative Emotion” Oneworld Publications, London

McMillan RL, Kaufman SB and Singer JL (2013) Ode to positive constructive daydreaming. Front. Psychol. 4:626.