15 September 2011

Think Too Much?

Article by Miriam Garcia

Before your next visit to the Portland Farmers Market, there’s something you need to know about shopping for produce: it can make you more insightful.

Last April, Jelly Helm, former executive creative director at Wieden+Kennedy, gave a talk at the Portland Art Museum.  He asked patrons to view paintings without letting the ‘evaluating brain’ make judgments.  “Instead,” he said, “try to experience the art directly…take it in without thinking about it, just as an experiment to see what comes up.”

Turns out, Mr. Helm’s experiment was as much about neuroscience as it was about how to experience art or, perhaps, the farmer’s market.

Neuroscientist Dr. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, describes two distinct neural networks in our brains.  The ‘Narrative Network,’ uses the prefrontal cortex to construct stories, make plans and solve problems.  (“14 guests means buy 15 ears of corn because Josh always eats two.  That kid!”)  The ‘Direct Experience Network’ deploys brain areas that process sensation.  When this second network is active, we experience events in real time, responding to actuality without interpreting it.  (“Piled-high corn. This plump ear.  Husky leaves, silky strands, milky kernels.  The urge to nibble and nibble now!”) CornDr. Rock says the two networks are inversely correlated meaning that one will dominate at any given moment, usually the Narrative Network.  So, essentially, Mr. Helm was asking patrons to switch networks in order to experience art more viscerally, and we did.  What’s this got to do with the price of potatoes in Portland?  Read on.

Research shows that giving your problem-solving, story-spinning prefrontal cortex a break and letting your ever-ready Direct Experience Network run the show has measurable benefits, ranging from better decision-making to increased happiness to having more ‘aha’ moments of insight.  Fortunately, you don’t need a traditional mindfulness practice to rest your prefrontal cortex.  You simply need to get thee to a farmers market and switch networks.  Feel the peach fuzz.  Savor the samples.  Be dazzled by the red of pie cherries and tempted by the aroma of roasting peppers.  As Dr. Rock says, ‘It helps to use a rich stream of data,” and what place could be richer in sensory data than the Portland Farmers Market?

The next time you visit the market, if you feel like it, let your Direct Experience Network take over for a few minutes. Or, as Jelly Helm might say, let yourself experience the sights, sounds and scents of the market, without evaluating anything.  Maybe close your eyes now and then to intensify non-visual sensation.  See what comes up.  And then, sure, go ahead and switch back to your default Narrative Network to decide which peaches to take home and how much corn you’ll be needing to keep that Josh kid, the one who always eats two ears of corn, happy.Pleeza no Squeeza