Cerebral Congestion & Mental Load

Congestion is a disgusting word. It reminds me of every gunged-up headcold I’ve ever had, and every unpleasantly snotty toddler I’ve ever witnessed, poking his or her tongue up towards the green ooze streaming down from either nostril. Bleurgh. I feel a bit green myself just thinking about it. The phrase cerebral congestion, therefore, paints a vivid picture. It neatly encapsulates the brain-too-full, hamster-on-strike, need-gin-now sensation that descends at the end of a long day, busy week, or stressful month. It won’t surprise you to know that when we’re in this state, our thinking cuts corners and defaults to the obvious. Creative thinking, by extension, requires a clear head.

Neuroscientist, Moshe Bar and graduate student, Shira Baror have recently published their research into the impact of ‘mental load’ on the capacity for original thinking. Bar has written a short article for The New York Times that summarises their findings. As the name suggests, mental load describes the weight of thoughts that fill your mind: practical tasks such as remembering a shopping list; the defocused wandering of daydreaming;  and the unhealthy ruminations and obsessive, looping thinking that is common during periods of stress, anxiety and depression. It all adds up and can get in the way of more playful ideas generation.

Bar and Baror tested this effect in a series of interesting experiments, requiring participants to engage in a free-association task (commonly used to measure creativity) while “simultaneously taxing their mental capacity to different degrees”. This was less gruelling than it sounds. In one example, half the group were required to remember a string of seven numbers while the other half were required to remember just two numbers – at the same time, both groups played a word association game (or Word Association Football for any Monty Python fans). Those who were trying to remember the seven-number sequence were more likely to choose the most statistically common responses – so for ‘white’, think ‘black’, whereas those remembering the shorter sequence went further off the beaten path, so for ‘white’, think ‘cloud’. And it wasn’t just that it took the busier brain longer; even when controlling for response time, those with the more-taxed minds were still more obvious in their answers, leading Bar to conclude, “the mind’s natural tendency is to explore and to favour novelty, but when occupied it looks for the most familiar and inevitably least interesting solution”.

So our attention is pulled between the novel and the familiar, neatly described by Bar as a tension in our brains between exploration and exploitation: “when we are exploratory, we attend to things with a wide scope, curious and desiring to learn. Other times, we rely on, or ‘exploit’, what we already know, leaning on our expectations, trusting the comfort of a predictable environment”. As I have written about previously (see the Fewer Horsemen of Mediocrity, More Data Analytics) this chimes with the requirements of creative thinking. We need the familiar to get daily tasks done, but without novelty and the unexpected, new ideas won’t come to the fore.  

An article in Scientific American, titled Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime, covers similar ground to Bar and Baror’s research. Even when we are resting, and feel our mental load to be relatively light, there is still a hell of a lot going on up there. The article’s author, Ferris Jabr, provides a huge range of research examples, and argues that downtime is vital to: replenish our motivation and attention; embed fresh learning and establish memories; rehearse how to resolve challenges or social scenarios; and encourage creativity. It was previously believed that our minds went into ‘standby’ mode when not thinking about much, but that couldn’t be further from the truth – when we are pottering about, our brains are also doing the mental equivalent of Saturday morning housework and chores. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this article appeared in an American publication – U.S. workers get just 10 days of annual leave a year, and often don’t take all of it. I can’t imagine a better recipe for burn-out than working relentlessly. It’s reassuring to know that stopping from time to time is possibly the most productive thing you could do.

Both Bar and Jabr advocate for meditation and mindfulness as ways to settle restless head-chatter. By leaving the future and the past where they are, and turning attention to right here and right now, the mental load is lifted. Having done so much reading, writing and thinking about the creative process over the past couple of years, I feel far more conscious of the need to rest and take breaks. Previously, I would have tried to power through, or switched my attention by reading the paper online, or caught up on the latest cat/dog/baby memes congesting (yes, congesting) my facebook feed. I was taking a break from staring at a screen by staring at a screen – not my best idea. A walk around the block, or further afield if time allows, is my favourite head-clearing activity and I can definitely feel the difference it makes. Like just about everything else, balance is key. ‘Doing’ and ‘not doing’ are two sides of the creative thinking coin, and both are vital to the overall process.

IMAGE: The Desperate Man (Self-Portrait), 1845, Gustav Courbet



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