Our brains are funny things

The other week, or rather the one before last, I spent a lot of time traveling and being well away from home.

(Vacation is good work when you can get it.)

I drove to visit family in East Texas, then to a friend in Fort Worth to pick up a long-ago-lent book and finally to a friend in La Crosse, Wis., because the coin came up tails and heads was South Carolina/Georgia. All in all, I reckon I spent at least 55 hours driving in less than week, watching the dry flat plains peel away to fill rearview mirror and wandering a small amount around a tiny Oklahoma town where a layer of mist hovered a few feet above the wet soaked fields, ditches and ponds.

It was pretty, and I slept in Missouri, and if I’d known or thought better, I’d have dropped by Joplin, Mo., where they were commemorating the recovery of the city from nigh-total destruction by tornadoes a year before.

Wisconsin is beautiful in summer and worth spending a few days in, Iowa looks exactly like I thought Iowa  to look, and on the way back I got to see signs warning of Amish carts, then Amish in carts, then later a lightning storm in Kansas that spawned twisters (because you’d be disappointed if it didn’t), and sleep in Liberal, Kan., for an hour.

It was fun, it was good, it was refreshing, and memories and images are indelibly in my head that wouldn’t otherwise have been.

But I also spent a lot of time listening to podcasts, because I like to drive straight to places as much as possible, and if you’re trying to do a 20-plus hour stretch, you’d better have something to listen to when the radio goes away or gets boring.

If you have a smartphone, you should immediate download the NPR: TED Radio Hour, and even if you don’t, the Technology, Engineering & Design short presentations at TED.com/talks are an amazing investment of your time (generally).

The one that tickled my brain the whole way through was “Our Buggy Brain,” full of all sorts of wonderful surprising things, but no more so than that we’re really happier once we’ve made an irrevocable decision than we are while we still have a chance to “think better of it,” which means change our decision.

There’s a very technical description, but it boils down to the human brain being very good at imagining possible futures without being very good at weighing the significance of those possible futures.

For example, if you graduate high school and want to decide which college is the best to go to, you’re right that it’s a decision that’ll completely alter the trajectory of your life in terms of who you’ll meet, the types of relationships you’ll form, and the nature of your education.

But you’re wrong if after narrowing down your options to ones that are roughly comparable that your satisfaction in life will be much different. Not because your life wouldn’t be but because the brain is really talented at figuring out how everything worked out for the best and you’ve no real reason for regrets.

In the podcast, the example they give is a study where student photographers were either made to choose their one favorite photo to keep and another to turn in, or made to choose but given a week to reconsider. And the ones who had to make a single final decision were happier with the photo they got to keep than those who were allowed to think longer and make a supposedly more rational choice about it. The freedom to be able to go back and choose again decreased satisfaction rather than increased it.

This is applicable to a great many things in life, including my own coin flip. (By this, giving responsibility of your choice to chance or “fate” isn’t a stupid idea as long as the choices are about the same). But as a writer, I naturally found it most applicable to the process of writing.

In Wisconsin, I talked with a fairly young woman who was writing a book. It was a fantasy novel and she’d spent three years on it — and she’d written all of 70 pages. Which sounds sort of like a lot until you think of how much writing per day that actually works out to.

Anyway, her real problem isn’t writing but self-doubt and the ability to go back and revise. It’s possible that the Word Processor, with its enormous freedom to go back and revise and edit at every step has done more to harm writing because it robs the author of conviction.

It’s certainly harder to fill a blank page on MS Word than on a piece of paper with a pen, or especially a typewriter.

As you write, it would be a terrible thing to be locked into your first thought forever, whatever Jack Kerouac claims to prescribe. But it’s also true that the most helpful technology to writing is one that forces you into preliminary conviction, the way deadlines do, so you then figure out how to make an idea work instead of second-guessing it, and hopefully after that you can get busy perfecting.

Often, where freedom paralyzes, restriction liberates.

(Our brains are funny things.)

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