Plumbing the Mediocre Mind
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
By Wray Herbert
We don’t really know very much about intellectual mediocrity. Scientists haven’t showed much interest in the dull average mind, and novelists, probably because they’re smarter than most of us, tend to write about smart people. They might be cruel or neurotic, but they’re smart. Or they romanticize the dull-witted as inspired daydreamers like Don Quixote or Walter Mitty.
But what about more typical workaday dullards? What does the texture of their interior lives feel like? What’s it like to be the C+ student grown up?
Psychologist Michael Kane has begun exploring the mediocre mind using the tools of cognitive psychology. Working with his colleagues at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro and the University of Maastricht, in the Netherlands, Kane used a battery of tests to assess the working memory of young adults. Working memory is considered a fairly good proxy for intellectual acumen generally; it is closely linked to comprehension and learning ability, and is probably tied up with “executive” skills like goal setting and staying on task.
The participants in the study were all students at the university, so none were stupid. But some were clearly sharper than others. Once Kane had sorted the volunteers according to intellect, he had them participate in a “beeper study.” Beeper studies are a well established way of sampling everyday experience. Volunteers carry a beeper (actually a Palm Pilot in this study) around with them, and the scientists beep them at random intervals. In this study, they were beeped eight times a day, between noon and midnight (these were college students after all) for seven days. Each time they heard a beep, they answered a brief questionnaire about what they were doing and thinking.
The scientists wanted especially to get a sense of how engaged the participants were in everyday life. Most of our lives are a mix of fascinating, less fascinating, dull and downright boring activities, and we all “zone out” at times. But do slower minds wander more than sharper minds? Are some of us muddling through our days as space cadets, our thoughts wandering every which way? And if so, where do they go?
Well, they do wander more, but perhaps not as you would expect. As reported in the July issue of the journal Psychological Science, the dull-witted report drifiting not when they are bored, but rather when their minds are overtaxed by some unusually challenging task. It’s like they don’t have the mental resources to stay on task, so they stop striving. Their minds are escaping more than wandering.
And where do they go? Well, the good news is that they are not worrying. Few of the slower participants reported being distracted because of troubles elsewhere. The bad news is that they were not really daydreaming either, not in the sense of indulging wild or even interesting fantasies. Their thoughts were pretty humdrum;
they were subbing one tedious detail of life for another.
This is obviously just a snapshot of the mediocre mind in action. The C+ mind needs and deserves a lot more scientific attention. After all, most of us occupy that great unwashed center of the curve, so wouldn’t it be instructive to understand us better? I’m sorry, what was I saying? Excuse me, there goes my beeper.
For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit "We're Only Human . . ." at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/.
posted by Wray Herbert @ 10:40 AM