Clickbait. I hate it. You’ll never guess why! Who would have thought that the intricate hamster wheel of our mind could be so easily derailed? Clickbait is more a part of modern life than regular exercise and the church. You see it in popups with titles like “Which cheese are you” or “What’s in the box?”. Is it a hammer? Please, I hope it’s some kind of big hammer so I can smash my laptop into a QWERTY pâté. Even when readers recognise the semantic bear trap set in front of them they will still willingly plonk their foot down in the search for answers. It’s a kind of mental celery, burning as many brain cells as it gives you. Leaving you with new information but somehow stupider for the fact. So why do we feel the urge to engage? It’s a crafty little psychological trick that engages the clicking and scrolling muscles of your hand.
There’s a lot of potential in that blob of computational jelly called a brain you carry around on your shoulders. Like mine, I’m sure yours is full of old cocktail specs, esoteric spirits knowledge and the muddled, out of time lyrics to “Alphabet Aerobics” by Blackalicious. Likewise, we’re both hardwired in the early parts of our mental faculty to seek closure. The cogs of our mind are always twirling to close loops. When we stumble across something open-ended, like clickbait, there’s a neurological imperative to finish the journey, stamp down on the trap, and find closure. The creatives behind novels and television have understood the power of this mental manipulation this for a while now and that’s why cliffhangers are so irresistible to us. Video games cash in on it, with a stream minor loops in the form of sidequests and minigames that daisy-chain together on the road to the big, firebreathing Boss-loop at the end of the game. It’s why people seek closure in relationships. It’s why despite Tiger King being a pantomime about the worst aspects of human nature, I had to binge it all in one sitting. We’re linear beings looking for the finality.
Understanding this can help us to understand our own behaviour and take advantage of it. It is known as the “Zeigarnik effect”, named after psychoanalyst Bluma Zeigarnik. She observed it first in waiters, who displayed a high recollection of their orders during service. They had hundreds of loops to close each night, which they would do systematically all while spinning the many plates of the service. Once they had achieved the closure of these tasks, their brains celebrated with little pops of endorphin confetti. However, their recollection diminished almost as soon as that finality was achieved and they struggled to remember those orders with the same clarity. A loop is most relevant to the subconscious brain when it is left open. We remember things more immediately when we’re still in the process of completing them. When a link is left open for too long, it germinates into something approaching anxiety and creates intrusive thoughts that urge us to close the loops. This happens to me all the time.
As a naturally uncoordinated person, my attempts at closure are often a misadventure in my absentmindedness. It isn’t uncommon for me to lay awake at night haunted by the intrusive recollections of my unclosed loops. I didn’t write enough today. Was I meant to pick up Nan from the airport? I started painting the living room and forgot to feed to the dog. As a direct consequence, I used to attack all of these gaping loops at once. Rubbing pedigree chum into the walls and painting the dog duck egg blue. I’ve found refuge for the catastrophic mess of my mind in to-do lists. At any one given time, I have two. A daily list and weekly list. Short-term goals and the long term. It helps me navigate my work and personal life with finality, seeing the Alphabetti spaghetti of my inner monologue splashed across a diary empowers me to systematise and prioritise. It releases my pent up anxiety because I can see my goals demonstrably set out in front of me. It also gives me an enormous sense of pride when I close each loop and strike it out with my red pen. In a time when most of us are stuck at home, it can be difficult to create a split between the domestic and the professional. Having a way to navigate this has been an invaluable tool in preserving my sanity and work ethic.
There’s even a passive way to employ the Zeigarnik effect. On the internet, this would be called “The Ultimate Brain Hack You Don’t Know About!”. When Ernest Hemingway would stop writing for the day he would do so halfway through a sentence. A lot of writers to do this. In effect, it is manipulating our inbuilt urge for finality by leaving mental loops open. While Hemingway drank daiquiris and hunted Nazis with a harpoon gun, his subconscious would whir away in the background casting shadows onto his imagination for his conscious to interpret. When he returned to writing he had fresh ideas. This passive method helps harness your creativity in the quiet of your mind. How often have you had an idea once you’ve left a problem and gone for a walk? Leave a question, a problem or a piece of work unfinished and spend some time doing something less mentally taxing. The miraculous machinery of your mind will start to build subliminal connections that will invariably help you close those loops. Right now I know how hard it is to find the inspiration to be proactive. These tricks help me to put on trousers and continue working during these dark days. I did the quiz. I’m mozzarella by the way. Isn’t it obvious?
Originally published for Spirit.ED