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Your Brain


Your powers of deduction, reason, and cognition are all important factors in your perception of the world. But your judgment is working even when you're not conscious of the gears turning—and even when you're not conscious, period.

Driven by Distraction

If you had to guess whether it's easier to take in new information when your attention is focused or when you're distracted, you'd guess the former, right? If so, you'd be wrong. In a study published in Nature Neuroscience in 2009, researchers presented subjects with a series of abstract images. The participants gave their full attention to half the pictures but were deliberately distracted by another task while viewing the rest. When shown the images again and asked to identify which they'd seen before, they fared better with the pictures they'd viewed while distracted. "Our intuitive brains are processing information even when we're not paying attention," says Ken Paller, PhD, a coauthor of the study. "And with the brain's analytical system occupied by another task, the intuitive system—which excels at picking up the gist of a scene or situation—is better able to do its work."

Similarly, Ap Dijksterhuis, a psychologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, has found that distraction can help us make better decisions. In 2006 Dijksterhuis asked study subjects to evaluate four models of cars based on 12 variables. He found that only about 25 percent of those who were given uninterrupted time to ponder their choice opted for the best model, compared with 60 percent of people who were asked to make a spontaneous decision after looking over the cars and then performing another task. "While they were focusing on something else, the unconscious mind was processing the information and integrating it into a valid selection," Dijksterhuis explains.

Tune In: Focus, schmocus! Next time you're faced with a knotty problem, mull your options for a while, stop and concentrate on other things—then go with the first solution that comes to you. Pressing pause on your analysis gives your unconscious mind the bandwidth it needs to filter through the information and come up with the right answer.

Sleep On It

Images of things you encounter during the day (that puppy you pass on the street, the Caribbean cruise ad you see on TV) are stored in your brain, often playing out in a giant mash-up while you sleep (thus the dream where you're walking a beagle in Barbados). It's during the REM stage of sleep that your brain connects that instant replay to other relevant ideas. "REM sleep is good for problem solving and decision making because your brain is putting pieces together and trying out new alternatives," says Rebecca Spencer, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "You gain insights that wouldn't occur to you when you're awake." REM also activates the emotion area of the brain, so "things that are most important to you on a gut level are prioritized," Spencer says.

Several studies have shown that aha moments come following REM sleep. In a 2011 study Spencer coauthored, subjects were asked to perform a gambling experiment that had a hidden underlying rule. One group previewed the task, got a normal night's sleep, and returned the next morning. A second group previewed the task, went about their daytime routine, and returned 12 hours later. Twice as many people who'd slept between previewing and completing the task figured out the rule as the people who'd stayed awake.

Deirdre Barrett, PhD, a professor at Harvard Medical School and author of The Committee of Sleep, studies the ways in which dreams themselves can yield practical insights. In one of her studies, more than one-third of the subjects reported that a dream about a problem guided them to a solution. "Dreams help us get unstuck from our waking mind-set," Barrett says. "They allow us to see solutions that aren't apparent to our logical, conscious minds."

Tune In: Don't lose sleep over a difficult decision; tuck in and let your intuition percolate. To help foster dreams, Barrett recommends "dream incubation": Write down a problem and think about it just before bed, then let your intuitive solution emerge with the morning sun.

Annie Murphy Paul's latest book is Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives (Free Press).

More on Understanding Instincts
From the August 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

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