The two modes they refer to are focussed and diffuse, and the admission that our brains can't do both at the same time. She provides examples and techniques that, while some might find silly, are effective.
Well, for me mind wandering is the creative state, and something often richer, fuller and more interesting than mundane stuff. When walking or hiking, one of the most important things is to allow my mind stroll too (but its much better when it has some background stimuli).
While sometimes I regret not leaving in "now" because of being to busy, I rarely ever regret mind wandering. Even if it comes at a price - see "A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind" - Daniel Gilbert http://www.danielgilbert.com/KILLINGSWORTH%20&%20GILBERT%20(....
However, I think in this case, the author is talking more about this kind of mental baggage that people accumulate while scrolling through Facebook feeds and the like. We're essentially - whether we like it or not - memorizing crazy amounts of unnecessary information, and thus throttling creativity because we're still processing where Kathy went on vacation and what she ate there.
But... this is more like "tough rush", a very opposite state of mind to "mind wandering" (even if both are different from the "animal-like" focus on current stimuli).
It's interesting to see the same concept applied to what the author calls 'mental load'. When there are mental resources available, not being tied down by anything, I can spend some of them freely on exploration. In stressful situations I always have to fall back to exploitation-only, possibly getting stuck in the local minimum of what I'm doing.
While it is definitely good to leave the mind free of unnecessary dead weight (Did somebody already reply referencing GTD? Can't be long.), it doesn't answer the question of how much time should be spent on exploration to achieve the best results. I find it fascinating when people talk about their own modes of operation and allocation of these mental resources, for example the recent article about the 100:10:1 game design.
The situations where you are with your back to the wall and have to hunker down to meet a hopeless deadline are exactly the situations where exploring solutions benefits the most. Taking 5 or 10 minutes before you start down a path to consider the problem from the outside does not hurt the time to completion, and often benefits it when there are relatively obvious alternate solutions that are more narrowly scoped.
Spending longer than a trivial time on exploration is only really worth it when the possible upside is also very big. Before starting a year-long project I would find it normal to spend a few weeks exploring ideas, instead of just hunkering down to write code and seeing where it ends up.
This is true for modern, civilized world. We humans still suffer from "savannah brain", where main cause of stress was physical danger, and taking even 5-10 seconds to consider your options might result in you ending up dead.
That's why we developed physiological reaction to stress, that with help of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol shuts down exploratory part of our brain on chemical level.
Following your suggestion of taking 5-10 minutes to reconsider requires serious effort to overcome that reaction and, depending on your individual physiology, might even be not possible at all.
On top of that there's the thing called "stress addiction", which basically means that some people start seeking new sources of stress when their live becomes to peaceful. Which again works against your exploratory brain potential.
The article muddles things by overloading the two concepts.
But regarding exploration vs Exploitation, it is indeed a very important concept. It is most studied in the literature in terms of "Bandit Algorithms" (you can play Go well with a version specialized for trees), imitation learning and reinforcement learning. Exploiting too much does not often lead to optimal long term rewards or minimized regret. A fair amount of recent reinforcement learning research has been how to get an agent to explore complex state spaces more widely.
We can even look at things at the societal level using this rubric. Basic research can be seen as exploring and focusing on product can be viewed as exploitation. It is my belief that things are weighted too much towards exploitation, currently.
[+] "Another possibility, though, is that activation of the internally attended content is attenuated when attentional resources must be diverted to the articulation task. " in http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3594067/
[+] "Engle and colleagues have investigated individual differences in WMC (working memory capacity) in young adults, and have argued that WMC is related to the ability to control attention, particularly under conditions of interference or distraction" in http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2852635/
This claim might well be true, but it isn’t at all proven by the experiments done on people trying to keep a string of numbers in short-term memory during a word-association game. Both of those demand deliberate conscious attention, it’s little surprise they’d interfere with each-other.
I doubt many people continuously dwell on their grocery list items throughout the day; once the list has been memorized, I doubt it’s seriously taxing problem solving or creative thinking. I’d suggest anyone who finds this to be a problem should try committing the list to paper.
Someone who is practicing a pitch before an important meeting either (a) prepared enough, and doesn’t need to fill the entirety of their mind with the narrow content of the memorized pitch, or else (b) didn’t prepare enough, and probably should be focused on the narrow content, to make sure they don’t screw it up.
If making sure you don’t forget someone’s name leads you to anhedonia, I recommend making an excuse up front and not worrying about it. Personally, I’ve never found learning a small number of names prevented me from paying attention to a conversation, but I’m not great with names, so perhaps the wrong person to ask.
As for a wandering mind: it’s entirely possible to both be focused acutely on the details of the environment, and simultaneously free-associating / letting the mind “wander”. The main time I find thoughts intrude sharply on paying attention to the immediate environment is when I’m trying to solve some very difficult technical problem.
I’ll certainly back the author up that depression and anxiety make it difficult to think creatively. These involve hormonal changes which give thoughts a narrow short-term focus. I find about ½–1 alcoholic drink helps relieve minor/temporary anxiety. Someone depressed should probably seek professional help.
That's because the list was just an example among many.
And you don't need to dwell on it "throughout the day" for it to be harmful in the way described: just dwelling on it for the 1-2 hours before you get to the supermarket is enough.
The leap from 'cognitive load decreases variability of free associations' to 'we should all go on silent retreats' is pretty silly and enormous.
It is a radical solution, and one I haven't implemented for myself yet. But there are some reasonably serious arguments for it, and it would solve your immediate problem.
I think NY Times content is frequently good enough that the inconvenience of various methods of getting the content makes it worthwhile.
I greatly dislike paywalls, and disagree, strongly, with HN's tolerance of them. But as paywalls go, the NYTimes' is rather permeable.
And for the obligatory "but writers/publishers need to be paid":
A $100/year fee would cover all existing Internet advertising paid by the 1 billion richest inhabitants of the world (roughly: US, EU, Canada, Japan, Australia, NZ).
A $500/year fee would cover all advertising, full stop. Again, for the 1 billion richest inhabitants.
I would prefer indexing this (progressively) to income.
- Lack of mention of the semantic web
- Obsession with privacy
It seems obvious to me that the semantic web is the way to organize the world's information. It also seems obvious to me that the web is incompatible with privacy.
I'm always surprised when people don't realize these things. It's even more the case when those who invented the web do.
Afterall if in the wild, if you go hungry you need to innovate and be creative at feeding that belly.
Maybe people should not give some "sciences" so much of what Milgram observed as "obedience to authority" if they choose to not look at all factors which will influence their "scientific" results.