All of us know just how frustrating it is when we reach for a word that we should know or the name of a familiar person who is walking your way and the word or name escapes you completely. Your brain is registering every signal that “You’ve got this!” and yet somehow the signal gets lost before it reaches its language center and your tongue.
You might feel like you could list off a litany of facts about this person or describe exactly what the unnamed thing actually is, but the exact names are nowhere to be found in your churning mind. Then, an hour later or maybe in the middle of the night, you suddenly have an “Aha!” moment and the missing word pops into your consciousness and you feel compelled to “say it out loud.”
One morning in my office last week, everyone within earshot looked up quizzically as I exclaimed, "Creosote!" a little too loudly. I'd smelled a familiar odor earlier that morning as maintenance workers were doing something on a cherry picker outside our office earlier that morning. At that moment, all I could think of was when I was a kid and I and my friends would carve our initials into the telephone poles in the neighborhood and the odor was similar, but I couldn't remember exactly what the sticky stuff on the pole was called. Until an hour later after I'd stopped actively wondering and my brain saw fit to tell me to say "creosote" out loud.
Or maybe you’ve been losing sleep because you’ve been trying hard to figure out a solution to a vexing problem on the job or at school. The harder you work to find a solution, the less likely it may seem that the correct solution can be found.
Do you ever feel that the harder you try and force your brain to do something the more difficult it becomes? Believe me, this phenomenon is not unique to you. Researchers have discovered some interesting information about mental processes that we’d logically assume would be helpful, but actually create more trouble for ourselves.
First, researchers have shown that the harder you try to avoid making a mistake you’ve made in the past, like calling someone the wrong name or finding your way through a somewhat unfamiliar building, the more likely you are to make the same mistake again. For instance, if you work for two supervisors with similar, but different names, and have gotten their names mixed up in prior interactions and the error was pointed out to you in such a way that you definitely wanted to avoid making it again, the harder your brain is going to have to work to make sure you use the proper name for the proper person.
Unfortunately, your brain is also dealing with a prior experience that created a particular pathway – maybe like substituting the name Brian for your new manager, Bryce. You can tell yourself to remember the name, "Bryce," as you are heading to a team meeting, but as you see him, one layer of your brain is saying “Don’t call him Brian, again!” This adds more confusion and information to process when your sense of sight registers his face. Your brain deals with the overload by shutting out the command and heads straight to the old familiar processing path and before you know it, you’re saying “Good morning, Brian” before you can stop yourself.
Secondly, researchers have discovered that the “Eureka” moment is an excellent way to find novel solutions to challenging puzzles. In experiments, psychologists have given participants mind teasers to solve and these individuals reported that their correct answers often seemed to bubble up spontaneously after efforts spent applying their typical analytical efforts to find the solutions. It’s been found that our brains actually do “blink” right before a new and oftentimes accurate solution magically appears on the mental screen. It is like that moment in the show, “Wait, wait don’t tell me!” when our brains just need to take a deep breath before the right answer is able to jump from the deep reaches of your subconscious to the tip of the tongue and into the present moment.
It’s no wonder that the cognitive behavioral technique of “counting to ten” before reacting when angry or focusing on “belly breaths” and deep breathing when stressed work so well. Our bodies are replicating that “blink” of our brain that gives us the opportunity to let unhurried and instinctual insight guide us to the best option of dealing with the stressor before us. Sure, if there’s a crisis situation and only seconds to act, our brains might jolt us into the best of all possible responses earlier rather than later. Think about people who save someone’s life in a crisis and share, “I didn’t have time to think, I just acted.” Our mental agility can sometimes surprise us.
Whether you are trying to figure out where you parked your car in the multilevel parking garage after the theater or trying to remind yourself not to call your new boyfriend, Aaron, by your ex’s name, Adam, the best advice may be to avoid trying to "overthink" a problem! Close your eyes, take a deep breath, clear your mind, and let your (sub) conscious be your guide.