Saturday, October 01, 2005
Don’t stop what you're doing
In the 1920s, Bluma Zeigarnik watched a waiter taking orders in a Viennese café. The waiter could remember an elaborate order until he had delivered it, after which it vanished from memory. Zeigarnik hypothesized that people remember things that are not finished because they maintain a tension in the mind awaiting closure. Ultimately Zeigarnik proved that people remembered unfinished tasks about twice as well as completed ones.
Thus, if an instructor wants students to remember a presentation, she will end the class in mid-sentence, before drawing a final conclusion. Direct marketers use the Zeigarnik effect to whet their readers’ interest. To remember the book you’re reading, take a break in mid-chapter, not at a more natural stopping point. If you want to keep something actively in mind, don’t close it out. Let it hang.
Exercise fanatics want to be “in the zone.” If you want to learn a lot, you’ll choose to be out of the zone. The comfort zone, that is. You can’t learn what you already know, so to maximize learning, you need to get out of your routines and encounter new and different things.
Your comfort zone contains what you know. You can’t learn what’s in there because you already have. For the moment, those chapters are closed. This is stuff you now take for granted. It’s the storehouse of patterns of thought you use to make sense of the world.
Other patterns in your head are less comforting. They are unresolved. Perhaps they are new and under evaluation. Maybe, like the orders for coffee, they are still in play, awaiting closure. Perhaps they are thought experiments (Einstein’s Gedankenexperimenten) such as what-if scenarios and imaginary prototypes. Sometimes they are things that “don’t add up,” i.e. they don’t mesh with the patterns in the comfort zone.
Learning takes place in your unresolved zone. Uncertainly engages the mind. Could ambiguity be the root of learning? Or at least an accelerant?
Are people driven to learn because we seek to perceive things as fitting our existing worldview? Is Attention Deficit Disorder fueled by the excitement of rarely closing everything? Does the Zeigarnik effect making multitasking possible? Can a lack of closure on too many fronts drive you crazy? Does it make sense for me to try to write the conclusion to my book rather than ending it abruptly in mid-sentence? Is it worth half a million
More to come...