Healthy Aging: How “Noticing” Can Keep You from Living in the Past
As we get older, we are often criticized for living in the past. There is often some truth in this contention and while older adults may be more prone, it doesn’t only apply to us.
Fortunately, there is something we can do about it. We can take notice – make more effort to see what is going on around us. Doing so can make us more adaptive to change, makes life more fulfilling and is even good for our brains. Wow! All this for taking notice. Yep!
Our Propensity to Mindlessness
Mindlessness sounds like a big negative but also can have a useful function. As experiences become routine, the brain assumes the outcome is the same as usual. It does so without actually processing all the information. Think of it as an educated guess based on experience. This is a good thing when things are, in fact, routine. It means we don’t have to use conscious mental effort all the time. This is a good thing, since paying close attention for extended periods of time is stressful.
That’s the good side of mindlessness or putting the brain on automatic pilot. Now for the bad news. But what if things change or there is new information? These days the world changes often. Disruptive innovation happens frequently. They are disruptive because the new often functions in ways contrary to past patterns. If the brain jumps ahead as if it knows the outcome, problems arise. We see things according to old rules of outdated information. Hence, the notion of living in the past.
It is bad enough that we don’t “get it!” Not getting it leads to frustration and stress. Not a fun state of being and not one that contributes to healthy aging.
Everyday Mindfulness as a Way to Our Brain’s Adaptive Potential
I mentioned new technology above, but it is not just technology that is of concern. Here are two recent experiments by Lani Shiota of Arizona State University. Both show how mindlessness can lead us to see things in the wrong way.
The experiment divided people into two groups. One group saw a “neutral” photo selected to not elicit much of a reaction – like a bowl of soup sitting on a table. The other group saw an awe-inspiring photo – like one of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Falls.
Both groups were then shown a scene of a romantic dinner. Before viewing the scene, the researcher said it would be of a romantic dinner. After seeing the scene, they were questioned about what they saw. Questions like “Were candles in the scene?” or “Were there wine glasses? “
Even though there were no candles or wine glasses, many of those who first saw a neutral image thought there were. Conversely, those pre-exposed to an awe-inspiring image, were more accurate in recalling the scene.
What happened? Seeing the neutral image first made those people more mindless. Seeing things like candles that were not in the scene was due to past expectations. They saw the romantic scene but didn’t “notice” what was in it.
But seeing an awe-inspiring photo first increased mindfulness. These people saw the romantic dinner scene more actually.
The second experiment involved ASU students. Once again, the researchers split them into two groups. And again, one was pre-exposed to a neutral image and the other to an awe-inspiring image.
Then they were all told some disturbing news. All students might have to pass a comprehensive exam before they could graduate. As you can imagine, none of the students liked the idea.
Then both of the pre-exposure group were divide in half and asked to review a list of nine reasons why this was a good idea. One list consisted of strong arguments. For example, students graduating from a university with this type of exam got better jobs and earned more money. The other list had “weak” arguments like, the president of the university thinks it is a good idea.
After reviewing their assigned list they were again asked what they thought about the comprehensive exam. The strong arguments persuaded the awe-inspired student but none of the others. Strong arguments didn’t register with those pre-exposed to the neutral image. The weak arguments didn’t persuade any of the students.
Here is the take-away.
Awe-inspired people approach new situations with an open-mind. They are more likely to actually pay attention to the new information.
The other students were more likely to operate in a less attentive or mindless way. They had a more closed-minded approach to living. They were much more likely to make judgments based on past expectations.
Learning to Open Your Mind
Exposure to Awe is a well-known way to make you more open-minded. But, you can train yourself to be more open-minded. Being open-minded helps you see what is contrary to your preconceptions. All it takes is using mental effort to over-ride mindlessness and to take notice. The more you do this, the better you get at being able to do so voluntarily.
Rather, you learn to spot the contradictions and then apply mental effort to making sense out of them. This doesn’t mean you spend your waking hours looking for contradictions. You do so when something is or could be meaningful to you.