Dressing Up the Brain: Wearing a Suit Makes You Think Differently – The Atlantic


Dressing Up the Brain: Wearing a Suit Makes You Think Differently – The Atlantic.

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Get with the Flow


You may have trouble pronouncing his name, but Mihaly Csikszentmihaly is the guru when it comes to “the psychology of optimal experience.” FLOW is one of those books you might want to read once every year or so and dip into periodically for the juicy bits that you’ve marked.

Flow is that state of consciousness when you are contentedly living in the moment, experiencing that energizing balance of three factors: a worthwhile task, significant challenge in performing the task, and the capacity and resources to complete the task.

The book is Csikszentmihaly’s answer to the question, “When do people feel most happy?” He answers:

. . . the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. (p. 3)

The message is that we don’t have to wait for the best moments in life to come to us. We can arrange for their occurrence and increase their frequency. This involves calculated risk. It begins with the identification of some task-related goal that we care about. The task must be challenging; it must tax our physical or mental resources (or both). But achieving our goal must be within reach. Ideally, this goal will be attainable along a growth curve, with stages of challenge representing significant accomplishments toward the realization of the ultimate objective.

I’ve experienced this with downhill skiing, sea kayaking, sailing, and motorcycling. These are physical activities that involve a definite mental component. Foreign travel produces a similar effect for me as I navigate the challenges of unfamiliar languages, foreign currency, and methods of transportation. Public speaking is another arena for the experience of flow, since each engagement is unique, and each form of presentation presents special challenges. For example, public debate on the question of God’s existence is different that a radio interview about the Academy Awards.

Csikszentmihaly is especially good on how to create flow in the ordinary activities of work and family life. At one point he writes,

People are the most flexible, the most changeable aspect of the environment we have to deal with. The same person can make the morning wonderful and the evening miserable. (pp. 166-67)

The principles developed in this book also apply to our experiences of adversity. Even tragic events can be seen as positive. Csikszentmihaly distinguishes between positive and negative responses to stress, between “transformational coping” and “regressive coping,” and develops strategies for “cheating chaos” through transformational coping. Would you like to know how to “transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge”? See Chapter 9 of Flow.

In his more recent book, Csikszentmihaly has focused on the relationship between flow and creativity.

If you’ve read Csikszentmihaly, share what you think of his work. Do you have any favorite passages? When have you experienced “flow”? Have you discovered ways to experience adversity as meaningful opportunity?

My Bucket List


Roger Ebert was offended by the movie The Bucket List. He thought it made a mockery of the seriousness of terminal cancer. Maybe he took the film a little too seriously.

My gripe with the movie is different: while it pays tribute to friendship and its redemptive value, it fails to come to grips with the the real value of an adventurous life. The Jack Nicholson character, true to form, is all about exotic thrills, the rush of adrenalin, and tempting fate. The Morgan Freeman character has more depth, but as a comparison with Nicholson, that’s not saying much. Both men are self-absorbed; neither can place “the list” into the context of purposeful living.

G. K. Chesterton

Today I read these words by G. K. Chesterton: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” Chesterton could see the adventure in the ordinariness of life. Anything can be regarded with the lens of expected surprise. But the inconveniences of life, even the most mundane, afford real opportunities for adventure—a kind of living beyond the ordinary without demanding a change in circumstances. It all depends on perspective.

Today I had an adventure. Not a big, spectacular one that I can check off my own personal bucket list. I had been shopping for something on Craig’s List and had an appointment at a seller’s house. When I rang the doorbell, dogs began barking. Nothing unusual about that. But suddenly, one dog, yelping wildly, sprang through the screen door and lunged at me. As I reared back, the dog grabbed my shirt-tail in his teeth.
I wasn’t injured, but my favorite summer shirt is in tatters.

The adventure potential of this experience really was a matter of perspective. I didn’t like the sudden conversion of my shirt from something that was a pleasure to wear to a rag more worthy of washing the car. But I did feel oddly energized by this close encounter with physical danger. And I can imagine wearing the shirt in future as a badge of courage, so to speak. For a moment I was reminded that real surprises happen. I’m not generally fearful of dogs. And I didn’t have time for fear in this case. The dog—like my own dog, an Australian shepherd—was on me in an instant. But as the dog fled, I felt the exhilaration of a survivor.

In the modern world, we often have to manufacture experiences of that kind. Some go in for extreme sports, others for extreme travel. I like sea kayaking and motorcycling, each activity with its distinctive set of challenges and array of risks. But they aren’t things I have to do, in the utilitarian sense of “have to.” If I have to do them it’s because modern life is a little too humdrum.

Isn’t that why we have “bucket lists,” adventure ticks that we hope to get out of our system before we pass on?

Claudia Root and Jerry Root

Today I had an email message from a good friend who lives in another state. Completely incidental to the message of his email was an attached photo of him and his wife in a bi-plane over the Puget Sound. They’re sporting goggles and leather headgear—and broad smiles, of course—in a tight picture that says, “We’re having a blast, and we’re doing it together!”

I love the Puget Sound, and I love flying. I’ve dreamed of making a pontoon trip there some day. But it never occurred to me to view the San Juan Islands from altitude in a vintage bi-plane. I’ve now added that to my personal bucket list.

But I have another goal, as well—to remember Chesterton’s spin on the ordinary and the inconvenient. With a perspective like that, everyday is a bucket-list kind of day, every day an opportunity to check something off the list that I didn’t know was on it!

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