The Master Aptitude

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” When emotions overwhelm concentration working memory is swamped. Working memory is where all information relevant to the task at hand is held. This information can be as mundane as the digits that comprise a telephone number, or as complicated as the intricate plot lines a novelist is trying to weave together. Working memory is the executive function that makes possible all other intellectual efforts, from speaking a sentence to tackling difficult logical propositions. The prefrontal cortex executes working memory and that is where feeling and emotion meet. When the limbic circuitry that converges on the prefrontal cortex is in emotional distress, one casualty is the effectiveness of working memory. We can’t think straight.

Here the role of positive motivation needs to be considered. The marshaling of feelings like enthusiasm and confidence enhance achievement. Studies of Olympic athletes, world-class musicians, and chess grand masters find their unifying trait is the ability to motivate themselves to pursue relentless training routines.

The added payoff for life success from motivation, apart from other innate abilities, is seen in the remarkable performance of Asian students in American schools and professions. A review of the evidence suggests that Asian-American children may have an average IQ Advantage over whites of just two or three points. Yet on the basis of the professions, such as law and medicine, where many Asian-Americans end up, as a group they behave as though their IQ were much higher—the equivalent of an IQ of 110 Japanese-Americans and of 120 for Chinese-Americans. It seems that for the earliest years of school, Asian children work harder than whites. Sanford Dorenbusch, a Stanford sociologist who studies more than ten thousand high school students, found that Asian-Americans spend 40% more time doing homework than did other students. Dorenbusch writes, “While most American parents are willing to accept a child’s weak areas and emphasize his strengths, for Asians, the attitude is that if you’re not doing well, the answer is to study later at night, and if you still don’t do well, to get up and study earlier in the morning.”

Goleman concludes, “To the way that our emotions get in the way of or enhance our ability to think and plan, to pursue training for a distant goal, to solve problems and the like, they define the limits of our capacity to use our innate mental abilities, and so determine what we do in life. And to the degree to which we are motivated by feelings of enthusiasm and pleasure in what we do—or even by an optimal degree of anxiety—they propel us to accomplishment. It is in this sense that emotional intelligence is a master aptitude, a capacity that profoundly affects all other abilities, either facilitating or interfering with them.

Although it is likely that most healthy memory blog readers are aware of the Marshmallow Test, its implications are important enough for it to be mentioned now. The first studies were done by psychologist Walter Mischel during the 1960s at a preschool on the Stanford University campus. The test involve placing a marshmallow before a four year old. The child was told that the researcher was going to leave for 15 to 20 minutes, but if they child could save the marshmallow until he retired, she would be rewarded with another marshmallow. Some children managed to resist and got the second marshmallow reward, and some didn’t. The ramifications of this study did not become clear until 12 to 14 years later. Those who had resisted temptation at 4 were now, as adolescents, more socially competent: personally effective, self-assertive, and better able to cope with the frustrations of life. They were less likely to go to pieces, freeze, or regress under stress, or become rattled and disorganized when pressured; they embraced challenges and pursued them instead of giving up even in the face of difficulties. The children who had grabbed the marshmallow were just the opposite.

The children who were able to delay gratification were also much better students. But, perhaps what was most astonishing were SAT scores. The third of the children who at four grabbed for the marshmallow most eagerly had an average verbal score of 524 and a quantitative scorer of 528. The third who waited the longest had average scores of 610 and 652, respectively—a 210 difference in total score.

Foul moods foul thinking. Being anxious about a test degrades both study and performance on the test. People who are adept at harnessing their emotions use anticipatory anxiety about an upcoming test to motivate themselves to prepare well for it, thereby doing well.

A mildly elated state called hypomania seems optimal for writers and others in creative callings that demand fluidity and imaginative diversity of thought. Here it is important to remember the inverted U shape relationship between motivation and performance. One wants to get to the peak of the inverted U. If euphoria gets out of control to become outright mania (not hypomania) as in the mood swings of manic-depressives, the agitation undermines the ability to think cohesively.

Good moods enhance the ability to think flexibly and with more complexity. One was to help someone think through a problem is to tell them a joke. Laughing, like elation, seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely, noticing relationships that might have eluded them otherwise—a mental skill important not just in creativity, but in recognizing complex relationships and foreseeing the consequences of a given decision.

A great motivator is optimism. Optimism means having a strong expectation that, in general, things will turn out all right in life, despite setbacks and frustrations. Seligman defines optimism in terms of how people explain to themselves their successes and failures. People who are optimistic see a failure as due to something than can be changed so that they can succeed next time around, while pessimists take the blame for failure, ascribing it to some lasting characteristic they are helpless to change.

Optimism is central to growth mindsets, which are much advocated in this blog. Enter “growth mindsets” into the search block of the healthy memory blog for relevant posts.

Goleman terms Flow as the neurobiology of excellence. Flow is the state defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi known to athletes as the zone where excellence becomes effortless, crowd and competitors disappearing into a blissful, steady absorption in the moment. Goleman writes “flow represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing emotions in the service of performance and learning. In flow the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. Yet flow (or a milder micro flow) is an experience almost everyone enters from time to time, particularly when performing at their peak or stretching beyond their former limits. It is perhaps best captured by ecstatic lovemaking, the merging of two into fluidly harmonious state.”

Goleman writes that “there are several ways to enter flow. One is to intentionally focus a sharp attention on the task at hand; a highly concentrated state is the essence of flow. There seems to be a feedback loop at the gateway to this zone: it can require considerable effort to get calm and focused enough to begin the task—this first step takes some discipline. But once focus starts to lock in, it takes on a force of its own, both offering relief from emotional turbulence and making the task effortless.”

Entry to this zone can also occur when people find a task they are skilled at, and engage in it at a level than slightly taxes their ability. Csikszentmihali told Goleman, “People seem to concentrate best when the demands on them are a bit greater than usual, and when they are able to give more than usual. If there is too little demand on them, people are bored. If there is too much for them to handle, they get anxious. Flow occurs in that delicate cone between boredom and anxiety.”

Flow is a desirable state to achieve. However, the master aptitude is optimism. With optimism one proceeds to develop growth mindsets. This leads to successful lives and healthy memories.

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