How free are you to be yourself at work?

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By Bernadette Healy

Anxiety and issues around levels of responsibility are two of the most common reasons why lawyers attend counselling:[1]

  • Anxiety is often reported as a non-specific kind of experience and is frequently associated with symptoms such as constant scanning of your personal world for possible signs of future threat, excessive worrying about past situations, and negative thoughts such as concerns about failure and approval-seeking and physical sensations such as agitation.
  • Troubling feelings related to responsibility include: taking on too much responsibility and wondering how the effort to ‘keep all the balls in the air’ can be maintained; stress around too much responsibility combined with too little autonomy particularly with regard to decision-making scope; and issues around inconsistency about responsibility such as seeking high task responsibility but resisting or struggling with taking responsibility for personal reactions.

Early in the counselling process it is very common for lawyers (and others who have highly developed thinking skills) to intellectualise difficult situations and to resist or be unaware of the feelings underlying their thoughts about the difficulty.

Obviously thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all connected but the feeling aspect tends to be neglected, particularly for those working in professions where rationality and intellectual capacity are greatly prized. This neglect can lead to a general feeling of being cut off from oneself and others, and from the full range of your own feelings.

Cutting off and distancing behaviours are more likely to happen when work roles have associated expectations about feelings which are at odds with our own. In some cases it may be that work demands that one ought not to have any feeling responses at all.

Hoschchild[2] suggests that organisations turn emotional responses into commodities through the ‘purchase’ of expectation implicit in the job description.  Emotional labour is a term used by Hoschchild to describe the effort required by individuals to either exhibit a particular emotional response which not actually being felt, or suppress a felt emotion in order to satisfy work role expectations.

This behaviour is expected within many workplaces in which certain emotions cannot be displayed, in order that a particular outward appearance is maintained. Emotional labour is further described as either requiring surface acting or deeper acting. Surface acting is when we fake an emotional reaction in order to fool others in the interest of performing a work role, but we are not deceiving ourselves.  Deep acting happens at an internal psyche level when we attempt to alter how we feel or experience a situation in order to comply with work role expectations.

Feeling compelled to sustain deep acting over a prolonged period – which is done as a means of dispelling dissonance between expected work self and self – eventually leads to issues such as alienation, burnout and inauthenticity. [3]

In addition to being mindful of the extent to which your organisation may be buying a particular emotional response from you, it is important that you manage your own wellbeing by making sure that you do not self-commodify.  In other words you need to make sure that you know who you are and how you feel and how to remain true to that while in your professional role.

As with any self-improvement or even self-care process, you need to start with self-reflection in order to increase your understanding of yourself, including identifying your values and core beliefs.  This will help you to predict and prepare for possible values clashes and triggering situations at work, and to work out to what extent you may be using ‘deep acting’ to reduce the dissonance between yourself and your organisation’s expectation of you.

[1] Based on my own practice experience

[2] The managed heart Commercialization of human feeling,(2003)

[3] Rebecca, Erickson Christian Ritter  2001  Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 2 pp. 146-163

The Critical Lawyer

by Phoebe Churches

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By this I don’t mean the senior partner you had during articles or clerkship or the Magistrate looking at you through semi-closed eyes during your very first appearance.*

I am talking about Critical Legal Theory in practice.

I came to the law after a lengthy stint in social work, working with some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in the community. Accordingly at law school – I was a bit of a fish out of water as a left, feminist, progressive type – and I really dreaded the impending requirement to complete core subjects such as Company Law.

When the first seminar of Company Law rolled around, I sat listlessly contemplating the weeks of boredom stretching out into eternity before me. The lecturer lost no time discussing the first piece of assessment. Ho hum. How would I wade through this miasma of…wait, what? A surprise. It was an essay, no, that’s not at all surprising – but the focus of the assignment was like a bolt literally out of LEFT field. The topic of that essay was: ‘It is often said the law is politics. This statement is applicable in corporate law as well. Explain and discuss this statement with particular reference to Australian case law and legislation’.

My paper read something along the lines of: it is an absolute legal fiction that the law is blind and it certainly does not operate in a social vacuum; on the contrary – the law works to preserve and entrench social and political inequality. So, one award winning Marxist analysis of the theory of the corporation and the doctrines of separate legal personality and limited liability later – my faith in the potential for the practice of law to be a tool for social change was restored. I was encouraged that I could perhaps become a happy lawyer, ducking the angst and depression so endemic in the field by making a meaningful contribution towards social justice.

So, how can working for social change make you happy? The practice of gratitude has been championed by the mindfulness movement for some time as a way to help bring happiness and balance into our lives. If you are looking for ways to keep perspective and feel gratitude, I recommend spending time with people who have had it much harder then you. Critical Legal Theory looks at strategies for getting the law to work towards social change and more socially just ends.

My journey was not a long one. I came from the community sector so I didn’t have a Road to Damascus moment. However my journey did go via the Critical Lawyers Handbook which must be a roundabout to Damascus St for many. In any event, regardless of what else I may do, I cannot foresee a time when my life will not be anchored by work in Community Legal Centres or not for profit services for the most vulnerable in our community such as the ASRC.

What will you do?

[*] The one who scratched red marks and annotations over every single word in your letter of advice or contract clause.

[†] I really did win the Company Law prize that year.

[‡] If you find this notion challenging or resonant and would like to explore further – here is a select reading list to get started: Hugh Collins, Marxism and Law (1984) and R.W. Connell, Ruling Class Ruling Culture – Studies of Conflict, Power and Hegemony in Australia Life (1977).

I wish I knew… the value of time

Claudia McGarva

By Claudia McGarva

I had a baby seven months ago and recently returned to work. The first thing I noticed about re-entering practice was that the whole industry – court, networking events, clients, continuing legal education, strategic planning meetings – does not care that you have to pick your child up from day-care, or you will be charged $40 for each minute after 6:00pm. Luckily, my partner and I are sharing the load but each day is an evaluation and negotiation of one’s priorities over the other’s. I am not going to bemoan the legal industry and discuss the tired term ‘work–life balance’. No, this is about not wasting time when time is a luxury.

When I was a junior lawyer, I would go to any work social events, seminar or committee meeting that was on. This was partly motivated by the university mentality that if an event offered free food and booze, you should take advantage. Also, it was a way to meet other professionals, learn something new and not feel so isolated in the industry. Young engineers networking social lawn bowls? Why not. Intensive weekend advocacy workshop? Bring it on. Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee for feminist vegan socialists? Of course. I had time to fully commit myself to my career and was willing to do so.

After a couple of years of practice, I stopped challenging myself and went through the motions.  It was not burn out; it was laziness. I think about the time I wasted watching bad TV, reading books that I didn’t like, thinking about going to the gym, and pretending to like crafts. In pregnancy, I stopped going to networking drinks as I felt like a diabetic in a chocolate factory and my feet hurt. I was still on cruise control.

However, since returning to work, I realised that I can’t always go to that interesting seminar interstate, or attend that committee meeting that runs until 8:30pm. I try to attend some events however at the moment, I do not have the luxury of being able to solely focus on one thing. I’m sure there will be a time when I can commit myself fully to the industry (yet ironically this will be when I am ready for retirement). However, there are some things I wish I did before bubs came along – further study, apply for that higher position, meet more people and be grateful for the level of control you have over your time. I think about how that time could have been used to learn something that would inspire me, meet interesting people and work towards a challenging goal.

I’m grateful for the time I now have with my son, and professionally, feel more productive than ever before. Unfortunately, there are so many things I want to do now to reinvigorate my interest in the law yet cannot do at the moment. There are only twenty-four hours in a day, and my son sleeps for about six of them. I wish I knew the value of time when I had it in spades. However, I have learnt from my regret. I no longer waste time doing things I think I ought to, but really do not want to. If this means that I never finish reading Bleak House after the third attempt or learn how to knit, then perhaps that time was not wasted after all.

Listening to your body

By Bernadette Healy

Stress

Do you want to learn a strategy to help you take charge during moments of stress?

As you are no doubt aware, people differ in the extent to which they are in tune with their bodies.  Some are routinely able to take good physical care of themselves and are practised in attending to, and understanding the information that the body can provide about being in the world. This includes recognising the particular physical discomfort that they experience when facing a challenging situation at work or at home.

For others, however, the body is a forgotten vessel – known mostly in a secondary sort of way as that which carries around the parts of themselves of which they are more aware – such as their rational, thinking selves or their feeling selves. (NB. This does not necessarily equate to living unhealthily).  During a stressful time many in this group may still think about their stress and try and work it out rationally, or they may be aware of feeling stressed, such as feeling more easily angered, or emotional, or more intolerant than usual.  They are less likely to stop and focus on their physical sensations.

Even when very aware of being stressed, it is common to automatically engage in reactionary avoidance behaviours rather than stopping and paying attention to the body.  This is often due to a fear that focusing on the physical experience of stress will make things worse[1].  (Individuals may or may not be aware of this fear).

Learning how to pay attention to the information held in the body is a very important part of working through stressful times, including breaking patterns of avoidance behaviours.  Common avoidance behaviours include – but are not limited to: outbursts of anger, blaming others, withdrawal from people, drinking alcohol or using illicit substances, over-eating and fleeing.

So how can you begin to pay more attention to your body in a way that will assist you to cope with stressful situations while reducing the likelihood of engaging in the behaviours listed above?[2]

Start with a few minutes of focusing on your breath.[3]

Then still with eyes closed, focus on the sensations in your body, pay attention to whichever area of the body is calling out for your attention.  Try and take your awareness to that part of the body and observe the sensations. (Imagine that you are describing the sensations to someone without any knowledge of human anatomy and its terms – instead seeking to describe the sensations in a fresh, non-technical way).  It may help to ask yourself questions about the sensations such as:

  • Is the sensation hot or cold?[4]
  • Is the sensation in one distinct area or spread out?
  • Is the sensation heavy or light?
  • Is it coming and going or staying the same?

Once you have noticed and described the sensation, move on to the next sensation that you notice or if you feel that is enough, open your eyes.

Sit for a while and ask yourself how long that sensation has been around?

If it makes sense for you, try describing the sensation visually, for example: a ball in the chest, a large rubber band around the head, a metal weight on the back, a bobbing cork in the throat etc.  (You might even like to try making a primary-school level drawing of this and then just look at your picture and notice any thoughts that occur to you about the picture)

Make a point of trying to notice the coming and going of the sensations in the future, and see if you notice any patterns about when it is strongest and weakest.

Pay attention to how you are feeling now.  It is highly likely that the simple exercise of focusing on physical sensations of discomfort has resulted in a lessening of them.  Of course they may well return, but you will know from direct experience that they can also diminish, and that you now have a strategy to assist in this process.

 

 

 

[1] In cases of severe anxiety there is a need for professional help in sorting out when to focus on physical discomfort and when to actively choose other strategies at least until the anxiety has moved out of the severe zone

[2]If at any point you feel too uncomfortable (say an 8 or above on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is little discomfort and 10 is maximum discomfort), discontinue and engage in a healthy distracting behaviour such as a brisk walk, watching a loved movie, looking up information about a favourite topic, reading a novel etc and consider seeking professional help if you would like to understand about your discomfort and learn some appropriate techniques.

[3] Sit with back and neck straight.

  • Close eyes gently.
  • Become aware of your breath.
  • Don’t try and change your breath, just observe it as it comes and goes.
  • Try and let go of any thoughts as they arise
    • Remind yourself that they are just thoughts, choose to let them go as if the thoughts are on a train which you see whizzing past but do not get on.
    • As thoughts arise, don’t blame yourself for becoming distracted but instead bring your attention back to the breath as soon as you are able without judgement or criticism.
  • Observe the breath coming and going.
    • Don’t count the breaths or think about the process of breathing, but just experience the sensations of breathing and observe the breath in the moment of breathing.
  • Notice whatever there is to be noticed
    • g. the temperature of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils; the feeling of air on the skin just under the nose or at the tip of the nose; a feeling of movement within the chest etc.
  • Continue for 3-5 mins.

[4] For more information see Cayoun, B. A. (2011).  Mindfulness-integrated CGT: Principles and practice.  West Sussex, UK.: John Wiley and Sons.

 

I wish I knew that…. It’s not about you.

Claudia McGarva

By Claudia McGarva

In the words of J.K Rowling, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default”. ‘Ex Post Facto: the Wisdom of Hindsight’ is a blog celebrating and reflecting upon the awkward moments and failures endured as a solicitor, particularly in the early years of practice. Every solicitor has their horror story – and live to tell the tale.

There’s always one: the client that sends you five emails in the middle of the night all marked with the red flag. The client that calls incessantly to see why you have not returned their call even though you have been out of the office. They don’t act on your advice even though they acknowledge it and at times appear grateful for it. They don’t provide documents to you, yet become exasperated when their matter is moving too slowly. These clients may be classified as ‘high needs’, which is a polite and vague term used to disguise a multitude of sins.

Economic theory has the concept of the ‘economic man’. The economic man assumes humans will consistently make rational economic decisions that maximise their self-interest at the lowest cost to the individual. At a basic level, it is assumed that the economic man will always make the right decision for himself.

If the economic man were your client, he would listen to and act upon your advice. He has paid good money for that advice, and would want to maximise the benefit of the service he has already paid for and protect his best interests. He wouldn’t be litigious: He wouldn’t spend ridiculous amounts of money to pursue an action based upon ‘the principle of the matter’, where the cost outweighs any benefit he may receive. He would be succinct. He wouldn’t send you five emails to ask one question when he knows he will be charged for the time spent reading these emails.

However the economic man is not real. Arguably, human behaviour is inherently irrational and our decision-making processes are influenced by bias, ideology and emotion. I wish I knew there was no perfect client. I wish I didn’t waste so much time stressing about the imperfect ones. However, I’ve learnt that you must take the client as you find them. The client may be relatively rational in their normal life, yet when dealing with the stress of a legal matter, their insecurities, stresses and exasperations are unleashed all at once. The client may have been struggling for a long time, and the gates can no longer hold these back. The lawyer is usually the first person standing to meet them at the gate when the flood hits. We are not always meeting them on equal terms. So when a client is disengaged, distraught, needy and abrupt, it is not necessarily out of frustration with you as their lawyer, but frustration with the process itself. It’s not all about you.

What you See is What you Get

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by Arna Delle-Vergini

This actually happened.

Just before Christmas I was arriving home from work and as I pulled up in front of my house I saw a young man, approximately aged fifteen, entering my house and pulling the security door quickly behind him. He was tall, thin, and clearly adolescent with scraggy blond unwashed hair, very thin gangly limbs and wearing a bright fluorescent pink singlet and board shorts. I only managed to get a glimpse of him before he entered the house but it was enough of a glimpse to know that he definitely was not one of my nephews and, since I don’t know any other teenage boys, it rather seemed to me that he had no right to be there.

I quickly sprung into action and called 000. I was immediately told a car was on its way and not to enter the house. Of course I was not going to enter the house! I didn’t even feel comfortable in my car so opted instead for crouching behind the car and peering through the driver’s window. I reasoned that I could bolt if he came out of the house whereas if I was in the car, I might fumble with keys; struggle to start the car, all sorts of things could go wrong. The police hadn’t yet arrived when I saw the same teenage boy walk out the side door into my garden. I saw the top of his head over the fence. “What’s he doing in the yard?” I asked myself. I decided that he was going to carry all of the electronic goods out into the yard, protected from onlookers by the fence, and then ultimately leave through the side gate. Of course! That’s what I would do if I were committing a burglary on a house like mine! I felt a little bit proud of him.

When the police arrived I told them that he was out in the garden and I gave them the keys. There was a male and a female officer. Both were well kitted out with guns and batons and capsicum spray. I was surprised to see them wearing bullet vests. (‘Is there going to be a shootout?’ I thought. ‘Good god, I’d rather just forego the electrical goods.’) But by this stage it was well out of my hands. The male police officer took up position at the left side of the property where the front door was and the female took up position by the side gate. She ducked down so that the offender couldn’t see her and peered through a gap in the gate before quickly ducking down again. She must have seen him straight away!

This was all getting a bit much for me. Crouched low behind my car, I considered, quite seriously, just leaving the cops to their business and hitting my local for a glass of prosecco. What I did not want – what I was quite sure I could not cope with – was to watch the police arrest an emaciated teenage boy, drag him out in cuffs and then throw him in the divvy van. As much as I wanted to avoid watching that spectacle, I decided to stay. After all, I would be a handy witness in the event of any potential ‘police brutality’. A strange thought, I am aware, given that the police were there to protect me.

At that point the policewoman departed (one would presume) with the usual protocol by calling out to me rather loudly and completely blowing my cover: “Are you sure it’s a male?” she yelled.

“Of course I’m sure it’s a male” I yelled back from behind my car, really annoyed that she’d given my location away.

The police woman peered over my fence again: “Are you absolutely sure?”
(Really, are we even having this conversation?) “Yes, yes, absolutely sure.”

Then slowly, in a moment which I am unlikely to forget in a long time, my side gate slowly creaked open and out walked my five foot nothing, blond, Swedish cleaner holding a broom. “Can I help you?” she demanded of the policewoman, incredulously. The policewoman turned to me with an expression that probably should have been sheer contempt but was more a kindly intentioned bemusement. Had I only kept seated in the car I could have swung into gear and just nonchalantly driven off, pretending to know nothing of the odd affair my cleaner had found herself in. However, I had to suffer the indignity of suddenly stepping out from the car and greeting Anita (not her real name) with a casual “Oh hey, how you going? So got a funny story to tell you!”

To their credit, the police were very kind about the whole thing. I apologised profusely but they just laughed and said, “no worries”. I got the sense that they were relieved they had avoided a confrontation. Even Anita could see the humour in it all. I, on the other hand, was utterly mortified.

How could I have seen a tall, gangly, pimply, adolescent boy with cropped hair when in reality my cleaner is pushing five foot, with a high pony tail of very clean blonde hair, and was wearing tracksuit pants at the time, not board-shorts at all? The only part of the description I had gotten right was the fluorescent pink singlet.

Of all people, I should know about the fallibility of eyewitness testimonies. I, of all people, should know that we are in the process of interpreting our memories at the precise time that they are being formed. Memory is an utterly creative act. It is never a picture of exactly what happened that we just replay in our mind at will. It is constantly evolving and this is particularly so the more we tell the story or our remembered event. Good god! I’ve dined out on this story so many times now I can’t even say: “this actually happened” with any sense of surety at all. In that way, we are all a bit like the Golux – we make things up you know.

The question then becomes, well why did I make up the story of the teenage boy committing a burglary on my house? I knew that my cleaner was coming over. Why didn’t I see that person at the door and tell myself that’s Anita? Instead, I became convinced, in the blink of an eye, that it was an unknown male. I even added bits of information that clearly was not there including the short, shaggy hair. I believe I saw in that person what I expected to see. And, as a woman who has been practicing in criminal law and associated areas for over fifteen years now, what I expected to see was a criminal. It’s kind of a bit sad isn’t it?

Bias comes into play every single time we observe an event and every time we remember it. Despite my exposure to how fallible and misleading eyewitness events are, I was no different than anyone else in the same situation. Potentially, I was even worse because I have bias x 1000 as a result of my occupation. The take away lesson for me is to look more clearly, take more time to question my perceptions and certainly, count to ten before I ever call 000 again. The shame of it!

Law as a Healing Practice

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By Joel Orenstein

Buddhist imagery refers to compassion as being like one wing of a bird. She needs the other wing of wisdom in order to fly.

When I first decided to study an undergraduate law degree, I had made a very conscious decision, at the age of 26, to use law to strive to work for the benefit of others. At that time I had been working in refugee advocacy, and was in the fortunate position to be able to dedicate my energies to the study of a discipline that could be of assistance, on a very practical level, to those most in need.

After finishing my studies, whilst I saw others go down the traditional pathway in the law to the big firms, I never had any interest in such work. Instead I actively sort work in “poverty law” – entering the Community Legal Centre world by undertaking my articles year at Fitzroy legal Service before moving across to Victorian Aboriginal Legal Services and working in indigenous advocacy.

This was a time in my life defined by a very clear delineation in my mind between those worthy of fighting for, and the dominant power structures that needed fighting against. This dichotomy between good and evil was at the forefront of my world, and was also the backdrop of my values-based approach to lawyering that in some ways has stayed with me throughout.

During this time I sort to define myself by the type of work I did and the clients I worked for. I called myself an “activist lawyer” to distinguish myself from the self-serving and money-motivated lawyers that dominated popular culture. I identified myself with my peers working in the community sector and Legal Aid – underpaid, overworked, but righteous and proud, working for good.

You would think that working with the motivation to be of benefit to others would sustain a healthy and long career in the law. Unfortunately in my experience this is not the case, as I have witnessed many of my colleagues who have either dropped out, are miserable in their work or live with a high degree of conflict or dysfunction.

Why is it that so many of us, motivated to assist others, as not travelling so well? I know from my own case I nearly did not make it. Although perhaps outwardly my actions could have seemed compassionate and caring to others, inwardly I was terribly conflicted by righteous indignation, anger, burnout and an inflated sense of self. I would invest so much of myself in positive outcomes for clients and would suffer terribly with each tragedy or injustice that presented before me. The suffering seemed so cruel and unjustified, caused by fear and greed. I became angry with the world and those who did not share my view of it, and despairing of my inability to change it.

A decade on, and although I continue working for the same client groups dealing with much the same issues, coming up against the same power structures, somehow I have come to find peace in myself and in my work. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly have my off days, but generally I am able to find equanimity and joy in what I do. And I seem to be doing good work.

So what has changed? Over the years, with a developing wisdom, I have changed emphasis in the way that I work. Now I practice law consciously in a therapeutic way. Although I still have a certain legal outcome that I am working towards, there is an awareness of focus on the moment-to-moment process of working with clients and others within the judicial system. This involves an emphasis on mindful communication and presence, and at the same time recognising and acknowledging my own suffering and reactivity as they arise.

The result for me has been that I now work with greater balance. My prejudices have softened, relationships improved and I have much greater understanding of a positive way to facilitate change. I do not avoid conflict, and am much better able to judge when to stand strong or when to be conciliatory. Emotional awareness means that I recognise when I am heightened, angry, anxious or upset, and my emotional state does not have the same heaviness to direct my experience.

Generally therapeutic jurisprudence has looked at changing legal systems to facilitate therapeutic outcomes, as opposed to the looking at the way to work as a therapeutic lawyer within the system. My experience, however, has been that unless legal practitioners practice consciously in a therapeutic way, the prospect of therapeutic outcomes is greatly lessened.

Practicing law with motivation to work for others and instigate change without wisdom is like trying to fly with one wing. We must develop and practice insight and wisdom in the way we work, as otherwise we are bound to crash and burn.

This is moment to moment, and with practice, inevitably impacts in a positive way not only the outcomes of legal problems, but is also the source of great healing, both for others and oneself.

Trigger warnings and compassion at Law School

Compassion

Dear peers

You might have missed a discussion of trigger warnings in the introductory lecture to your law unit. This is understandable as the cautionary statement is usually delivered somewhere between your lecturer’s office hours and announcing the upcoming welcome BBQ. In all likeliness it was a blanket statement on the unit’s content, warning against graphic themes and acknowledging that any student is welcome to leave the lectures if they feel they must. While trigger warnings are incorporated into the general administration of law school, they do not guarantee that potentially triggering topics will be treated with caution or respect. Sadly, compassion cannot be mandated by the law faculty.

Arguably more important than the inclusion or improvement of trigger warnings is a change to attitudes among teaching staff and students. Contrary to the exhibited taste of many law students and even staff: violence, sexual offences and hate crimes are actually not funny. If you are privileged enough not to have been affected by these crimes, empathy should dictate that you appreciate the gravity of them. Nothing, and especially not a trigger warning, can validate treating a serious topic with callousness.

The general justification for a lack of compassion at law school is that your studies are a gateway into the ‘real world’ where a lawyer is supposedly exposed to the worst of humanity and expected to grin and bear it. Putting aside the fact that not every student takes a law degree to work in the legal industry, this line of thinking is problematic. Though you might have chosen law as a career to ‘make money’, chances are that wherever you end up working, a little compassion won’t go to waste. Whether it means you understand your client, colleagues or even yourself a little better, consideration and empathy will set you in good stead for a future in the law.

 

 

On the benefits of a wandering mind

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by Bernadette Healy

Where do you go to my lovely when you’re alone with your head?[1]

Have you had one of those lovely, just-post-return-from-holiday moments when you find your mind wandering from thought to thought: such as on the bike, just getting to the top of that climb, at a major gradient over a grueling number of kilometres; or that morning reading that crime novel without interruption for 2.25 hours; perhaps the walk along the coast; or watching the Making a Murderer series (and in record time!); maybe mastering the creation of your favourite Adam Liaw dish; or enjoying your traditional post-Christmas get-together with the people of your choice; watching one of the glorious early 2016 sunsets; dancing to the last song of a great evening; or just allowing yourself to aimlessly move from one thought to the next without intention or deliberate focus on anything in particular.

Allowing this process  of ‘mind wandering’  (whereas day dreaming, by contrast, may involve quite deliberate focused thought[2]) at the least may provide you with a sufficient level of distraction to provide a restorative break from your task. However research suggests that during such moments your brain is involved in complex and sophisticated cognitive processes. During mind wandering, the brain is highly active across many regions including those involved in executive function[3].  Those moments which you probably describe as not thinking, are actually moments when you are using large parts of your brain.  You are thinking when you don’t think you are thinking – an under-rated human skill[4].

Data from ECG, MRI and alpha brain wave measurement indicate that, even when you think you are not thinking, your brain is occupied in carrying out non-conscious cognition or structurally sophisticated, multi-dimensional integrative neural processes.  Non-conscious cognition involves neural processes that integrate knowledge into understanding by processing knowledge, making connections and identifying complex patterns, all of which are involved in creative problem solving – including assisting you in the long-term generation of solutions for issues being faced in your life[5].  Research suggests that purposefully allowing yourself the time and space for your mind to wander can be an effective method of facilitating the type of creative or insightful thinking which leads to the experienced of  ‘aha’ moments. Creative thinking has long been recognised as enhancing the production of both quality and quantity of new ideas, however new technologies have provided evidence to suggest that such creative thinking may also be actively facilitated by allowing specific incubation time for the non-conscious cognition to occur[6].  Some research even suggests that the brain prepares in distinctive ways for problem solving – even before the problem is presented – and that this preparation type modulates the problem solving strategy.[7]

Phenomenological and inferential processes are an essential part of these research areas as the actual processes cannot be observed directly and are interrupted as soon as thoughts are directed.  It is a new and exciting area and not surprisingly full of controversy and discussion including questioning the previously unquestioned centrality of conscious awareness as a precondition for thinking.

I think it would be accurate to say that mostly people try to keep a low profile about times when they allow themselves to mind-wander – particularly at work. In future however it may be that booths for glass-eyed staring are purposefully created along the window side of corporate offices as the benefits of utilizing the brains natural ability to maximize its own flexibility and responsiveness become better understood. In the mean time you might like to be a trail-blazer in this area by regularly and blatantly submitting to this wondrous natural facility.  At the very least, keep a ten-minute non-focused doodling sojourn in mind next time you find yourself at the impasse stage of a complex problem looking for new ways forward.

 

 

 

[1] If this phrase triggers a musical memory, you are either an oldie like myself and/or one of those Rock Wiz types… or offspring of either of the above subjected at an early age to recordings such as  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8XQZYIiNgo

[2] Claire M. Zedelius and Jonathon W. Schooler,  ‘Mind wandering ‘Ahas’ versus mindful reasoning: alternative routes to creating solutions’, Cognition, Frontiers in Psychology, June 2015.

[3] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090511180702.htm

[4] Dr Caitlin Street Joining our own dots  Lecture in Diamond Series: Education conversations in the community, Malthouse Theatre 26th November 2015 (and see Dr Street’s PhD thesis available on line and including description of the unique technology developed and utilized as a way of presenting her thesis findings in visual and interactive form).

[5] Street ibid.

[6] Ut Na Sio and Thomas C Ormerod, Does incubation Enhance Problem Solving? A Meta Analytic Review Psychological Bulletin 2009, Vol. 135, No.1, 94-120

[7] Kounios ibid.