17 November 2010


WANDERING MINDS. The bumper sticker reads, "Don't let your mind wander. It's too little to be left alone." As it turns out, that advice isn't so far off the mark -- especially when coupled with a measurement of one's happiness while we are daydreaming. In his article When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays, John Tierney reports on psychological research which indicates that there is a direct causal link between letting one's thoughts stray from the task at hand, and the level of happiness felt. There is evidence for mind-wandering causing unhappiness (though this is not the only possible cause), and no evidence that unhappiness causes mind-wandering.

Of those activities which people rated as leading to happiness, having sex (not surprisingly) led the list -- followed by exercising, conversation, listening to music, taking a walk, eating, praying or meditating, cooking, shopping, taking care of one's children, and reading. Rounding out the list were personal grooming, commuting and working. It seems reasonable to intuit that one is more focused, not to mention happier, while having sex than while commuting or working. The research results, published in the journal Science, support this assumption.

Perhaps more surprising is the discovery that among the quarter million responders in the study, minds were wandering fully 47 percent of the time. That's an awful lot of unfocused behavior, and an awful lot of unhappiness. One of the researchers notes, "I find it kind of wierd now to look down a crowded street and realize that half the people aren't really there."

So if you would like to enhance your sense of well-being, not to mention improve your performance of any task at hand, go with the flow -- "flow" in the psychological sense of being "fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the product of the activity." Oh yeah, and have a nice day.

ANIMATION. Few titles would be as guaranteed to capture my attention as that of the NYTimes article Where Cinema and Biology Meet. Movies and biology are two of my passions. Where they meet in this instance is in the realm of animation -- illustrating principles or processes in biology. We've come a long, long way from the days of transparencies shown on overhead projectors in science classes. Whenever I see a ground-breaking animated or special effects film like Avatar, I think, "Damn, wouldn't that visual technique have been amazing to access in learning about cell biology or genetics or island biogeography?" Increasingly, my wish is coming true. The article describes a dynamic new generation of scientist-animators who would do any Hollywood film proud.

Among the various models for learning styles, I find particularly relevant the model which specifies the mode of learning -- visual, auditory, reading/writing, or tactile. I happen to be a highly visual learner, with tactile not far behind. Reading and hearing about something are tied for third place in terms of how effectively I am engaged, and how well I retain new information. So yeah, show me a well-executed visual and I'm hooked. Check out the article and see if you agree.

Finally, just for kicks, here is your chance to apply your social priorities to balance the Federal budget. It is an interactive puzzle in which you get to decide which programs are enhanced, which are reduced, and whether your biases can lead to a balanced budget. Have fun.

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