Neophilia

Until you are ready to change any minute, you can never see the truth; but you must hold fast and be steady in the search for truth.[1]

The best work is only done by alternate repose and work.[2]

A recent JAMA study[3] found that the 30-day mortality among high-risk acute care patients was 30% lower when the top doctors were out of town, as when they were away at conferences, leaving more junior doctors in charge. The authors explained that most errors doctors make are connected to a tendency to form opinions quickly, based on prior experience, but in cases that are not routine, that can be misleading—the expert doctors may miss important aspects of the problem that are not consistent with their initial analysis. So a dose of inexperience can be beneficial. The same is true for eccentricity, or ‘childishness.’

Modern psychology literature speaks of the human attraction to novelty and change. Psychologists have a word for it, ‘neophilia.’ It is what encouraged our prehistoric ancestors to explore and experiment even when their lives were just fine. Evolution favored that behavior because it led to the discovery of alternate food and water sources, and the invention of new hunting methods and tools, all of which became vital when times changed for the worse. Scientists have identified a gene associated with that novelty-seeking tendency, DRD4, affecting the way our brains respond to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is important in the brain’s motivational circuitry.

One of the abilities most important to neophiliac thinking, also called elastic thinking,[4] is the power to relax your mind, to let your guard down. Being focused is important in rational or logical thinking, but it means your filters are turned up high, so your ideas may have a narrow range, and tend to be conventional. Your focus may also impede any tendency to question the assumptions behind whatever issue you are considering. On the other hand, when your mind is relaxed, you can play with the idea of a new paradigm. You are not worried about why your ideas might be wrong. You are not worried about failure. You can experiment. Your mind can wander to new territory, and stumble upon novel ideas, and new ways of looking at things.

That’s why it is often fruitful to think intensely about an issue, and then take a break in which you engage in a mild physical activity, but are not mentally focused; as when jogging or in the shower. Similarly, researchers have found that quietly pondering an issue when you are intellectually exhausted, at the end of the day, can allow original ideas, which might not otherwise surface, to get through.

One can also cultivate insight by adjusting one’s external conditions. Studies show that sitting in a darkened room, or closing your eyes, can widen your perspective; so can expansive surroundings, even high ceilings. Low ceilings, narrow corridors, and windowless offices have the opposite effect. And a well-lit room can make it difficult to ignore objects in your surroundings that stimulate mundane thoughts, shoving aside imaginative musings generated by your mind.

Being able to think without any kind of time pressure is also important when striving for insight, because if you have to start on something else soon, your awareness of that can pull your mind back to the external world.

Just as important, interruptions are deadly. A short phone call, email or even a text message can redirect your attention and thoughts. Even the thought that some message may be awaiting you can have the same effect.

The future belongs to the neophiliac mind. This is the argument behind the recent best-selling book Elastic by Leonard Mlodinow,[5] which examines the swirl of change we find ourselves living through, and the ways of thinking best suited to it. We all have what is needed for ‘elastic thinking’ – to a greater extent, perhaps, than we realize. It’s just a matter of recognizing the needed skills, Mlodinow argues, and nurturing them.

Mlodinow, however, misses the important point of ‘holding fast and being steady in the search for truth,’ which must be a sine-qua-non of nurturing elastic thinking skills. Vedanta calls this ‘holding fast to the search of truth’ as ‘Ishta’; an anthropomorphic representation of the Ideal. The modern thinkers, while they are doing an amazing job in studying the dynamics of human thinking and working, are yet to recognize the vital contribution of the Ideal on human endeavors.

Swami Vivekananda says, ‘The life of the practical is in the ideal. It is the ideal that has penetrated the whole of our lives, whether we philosophize, or perform the hard, everyday duties of life. The rays of the ideal, reflected and refracted in various straight or tortuous lines, are pouring in through every aperture and wind-hole, and consciously or unconsciously, every function has to be performed in its light, every object has to be seen transformed, heightened, or deformed by it. It is the ideal that has made us what we are, and will make us what we are going to be. It is the power of the ideal that has enshrouded us, and is felt in our joys or sorrows, in our great acts or mean doings, in our virtues and vices.[6]

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[1] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-7: Inspired Talks: entry dated July 5, 1895

[2] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-8: Epistles: Letter written to Swami Ramakrishnananda on March, 1898

[3] https://jamanetwork.com / journals / jamainternalmedicine / fullarticle / 1700429; July 22, 2013; Mortality for Publicly Reported Conditions and Overall Hospital Mortality Rates; Authors: Marta L. McCrum, MD; Karen E. Joynt, MD, MPH; E. John Orav, PhD; et al

[4] Condensed from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-power-of-flexible-thinking; Interview by Gareth Cook of Leonard Mlodinow on 21st March 2018.

[5] Published by Pantheon; Marketed by Penguin Random House: ISBN 9781101870921

[6] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-4: Writings-Prose: Sketch of the Life of Pavhari Baba

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