The more I read about psychology and neuroscience research, the more I realize this — most of us “regular” people know less about all the crazy, quirky things our brains do than an estranged parent knows about what her teenage son or daughter is doing at 10:00pm on a Friday night!
A lot of this complication arises because of the way our brains developed. A part of it is a relic from the early prehistoric days when survival depended on how quick and instinctive our response was. Another part it is a sophisticated thinking machine that takes its time to consider the options and rationally decide our next move. In any given situation, which part of your brain takes over is anybody’s guess.
Today, let’s explore a few of the quirky things our brains do that sabotage our parenting good intentions and find ways to fix them. Here we go –
#1 It Takes Very Little to Make Your Smart Brain Crumble and Give up Self-Control
In a study reported in this Wall Street Journal article, two groups of students were given a simple task of memorizing a number as they walked down a hallway. The first group was given a simple 2-digit number whereas the second group was given a 7-digit number. At the other end of the hall, the students were offered a snack – a choice between a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.
The researchers observed that the students who were asked to hold the 7-digit number in their head were nearly twice as likely to choose chocolate cake compared to the students who held the 2-digit number!
The researchers hypothesize that the extra digits of the random number being held in the working memory of the second group resulted in a “cognitive load” on their brain making it much harder for them to resist the lure of a decadent piece of cake. Imagine that! All it took was 5 extra digits.
Now think of a day in your life and mine. As parents, we have a million things on our minds. And we have a million resolutions – stop yelling at kids, be a positive influence on them and so on. But before we know it we are snapping away at our kids and being too critical of them. Perhaps, it is the result of the million bits of information that we trying to hang on to?
Don’t try to hold too much information in your brain. Get into the habit of dumping it onto a to-do list and use this list to guide you through the different things you need to get done in your day. This is in fact one of the first bits of advice that Dr. David Rock, the renowned neuroscientist offers in his bestselling book Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long!
#2 No Matter How Strong You are You Cannot Will Yourself Out of a Negative Thought
Let’s try a simple experiment. For just a few moments, let your mind wander and give it the freedom to think of anything in the world. You can pick absolutely anything. The only condition is that you CANNOT think of of a white bear. Ready? Go.
So, did you manage to NOT think of the white bear?
In an experiment that has now become famous as the “white bear” experiment and spawned off a whole field of study on thought suppression, social psychologist Dr. Daniel Wegner showed that study participants who were explicitly asked to NOT think of a white bear couldn’t keep themselves from thinking about it. What’s more, at the end of the thought suppression part, when they were asked to start thinking of the white bear, the number of times they thought of the white bear was significantly higher than the control group who were not asked to suppress the thought first.
Dr. Wegner explained our failure to suppress thoughts as follows – when we try not to think of a specific thought we trigger a monitor process in our brain that comes up periodically to make sure that our brain does not think of this thought, thus ironically bringing up the thought being suppressed to the forefront.
Well, at least now we know why a small negative thought like self-doubt about our parenting skills snowballs into a nasty storm and results in us snapping and screaming at our kids a lot more! Or why once we start worrying about our kids future sometimes, we just can’t seem to stop!
Get into the habit of mindfulness. When a negative thought enters your mind, instead of trying to suppress it, acknowledge it. You are a normal person, and given the set of circumstances you are in, you had a normal thought. That’s that. Observe your thought without evaluation or judgement. When you don’t have to suppress a thought, there is no need for a monitor process in the brain to keep firing up and unintentionally bringing the thought to the forefront.
Another way that Dr. Wegner suggests for getting rid of an unwanted thought is to crowd it out. When the participants in a study were asked to think of a red Volkswagen instead of a white bear, they were much more successful in keeping the thoughts of the white bear at bay because they were focused on the red Volkswagen.
Finally, if none of these work postpone your negative thoughts. Dr. Wegner’s research showed that when people set aside a certain time later in the day dedicated for “worrying” they worried a lot less through the rest of the day!!!
#3 Multitasking Makes Your Brain Happy, But Makes You Inefficient
The human brain was not designed for multi-tasking. As this article shows, when researchers used fMRI to study the brains of subjects who were given two simple tasks, each hemisphere of the brain took on the goal of monitoring the completion of one task. When a third task was added to the mix however, since there are just two hemispheres in the brain, the participants started to show inefficiencies even though the tasks were rather simple — they forgot one of the tasks consistently and were three times more likely to make errors compared to dual-tasking.
Another study reported in this article showed that multitasking can muddle the brain significantly indicating that chronic multi-taskers were more easily distracted by irrelevant stimuli and their brains had trouble filtering these irrelevant information from those relevant to task at hand.
These are just two of the many, many studies in the recent past that have showed that multi-tasking is extremely counterproductive. And yet, we can’t seem to help ourselves from falling into the trap of wanting to do it again. Ever wondered why?
A recent study shows that while multitasking does not make us productive, it does satisfy some of our baser habitual and emotional needs. Based on a study of students who read a book and watched TV at the same time, researcher Dr. Wang said “They felt satisfied not because they were effective at studying, but because the addition of TV made the studying entertaining. The combination of the activities accounts for the good feelings obtained.” In other words, multi-tasking makes dull tasks more entertaining and fun, and the brain find this “feel-good” emotion satisfying.
Think of it – when we parents feel overwhelmed and start to feel that things are slipping out of our hands, we feel a desperate need to take back some control. Multitasking is an easy habit to reach out to and fools the brain into feeling good because we are juggling so many things at the same time. Never mind that none of those things were done right and may in fact be be causing more work for us down the road!
Acknowledge that multitasking is a bad habit with bad consequence and figure out a way to break free. You could go cold turkey like this guy did, or you could slowly wean yourself off. I don’t think I would last even a single day going cold turkey – just reading the article linked above make me break out in cold sweat (even though it’s laugh-out-loud funny!). For now I’m focusing on chunks of multi-task free periods — for example, no multi-tasking when I write or during family mealtimes.
Another suggested method to stop multitasking is to get into the habit of meditation to improve the ability of your brain to focus on one thing without getting distracted by another. Honestly, I don’t think I’m cut out for meditation. I’ve tried it several times, and failed miserably. My mind probably stays still for whole of 3 microseconds before I’m off planning the next day or dissecting an earlier conversation. I’ve recently started using the HeadSpace app and it seems to be helping. Will let you know how that goes.
#4 Your Brain Seeks More Choice, But More Choice Actually Kills Your Brains Ability to Decide
Let’s say at an upscale grocery store, shoppers are tempted to sample some jams. When some of the shoppers arrive at the display table, there are 6 jams to choose from. With the other shoppers, the display table has 24 jams to choose from. At the end of jam tasting, they are all provided a $1 coupon to apply towards the purchase of a jar of jam. Who do you think is more likely to buy the jam – those who were offered 6 samples or those who were offered 24 samples?
In our modern society, choice is viewed as the proof of exalted levels of the freedom we enjoy. We worship choice and seek it out. But as discussed in this TED talk when Dr. Sheena Iyengar and Dr. Mark Lepper conducted the above experiment, they found that while more people were tempted to stop by to sample the jams when there were more jams – 60% vs 40%, the percentages of people who bought the jams said a completely different story. Among those who stopped at the 6 jam booth, 30% decided to buy a jar of jam. Among the ones who stopped at 24 jams, only 3% did. When people were provided more choice, it turns out they take less action.
Gosh, if you’ve killed an entire hour looking for the perfect wetsuit for your daughter, you know exactly how painful choice overload can be. And at the end of that 1 hour, I still couldn’t decide and ended up buying the exact same wetsuit that my husband had sent me the link to in the first place! (Then I spent the next two hours frantically multi-tasking to make up for that lost hour. Ha!).
Ever since my daughter was born, I’ve wasted countless hours browsing Amazon — poring over the reviews and comparison shopping — to find just the right thing that we need, from diapers and strollers to children’s books and birthday toys! If only I’d had the sense to spend that time with her instead!
Be ruthless about trimming down your choices. Avoid comparison shopping if possible — these days I just ask someone I know who has something similar and just go buy what they recommend without worrying too much. If you must comparison shop — here is a neat little trick. Set a timer that indicates a fixed deadline by which you need to make a decision and then as you shop put the first item you like in the cart. As you continue browsing, if you find something else that seems better, replace the item in the cart with this one and so on. When the timer runs out, hit buy and be done with it. No looking back. Case closed.
While I was putting together this article I found so many other fascinating studies and research that it blew my mind (no pun intended). I’ll write about it in another article soon. From the self-awareness perspective, these are some of the critical ones and I hope at least a couple of them will help you improve your life in some meaningful way.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
As always take the next 2 minutes to answer some simple questions –
- Think of the last time you broke a resolve of any kind. Was your brain overloaded with too much information?
- How do you normally handle negative thoughts? If you try to suppress them, does it work or does it only make the thought come up more often?
- How often do you forget something important because you were multi-tasking too much?
- Are you a sucker for too much choice? How quickly can you make a decision when you are offered a lot of options?
These questions are meant to get you thinking of how often your quirky brain sabotages your good intent. If you don’t mind sharing, I’d love to hear how many of these are issues for you. Go ahead, start a discussion in the comments.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Through the rest of this week, let’s make it our goal to create habits that will offset at least one of these quirks. In my case, I will go with the multi-tasking and really try to focus on just one (or at most two) things at a time, as often as possible. Of particular interest to me, is the time I spend writing for this blog and the time I spend with my family.