The Zeigarnik Effect And The Power Of Questions

Max Liebermann Biergarten

The Brain Innovation Project

One Brain. Infinite Possibilities.

Have you ever desperately, but unsuccessfully, tried to remember the name of someone you met at a party? It’s on the tip of your tongue but it just won’t come….

Then, a few days later, as you’re absent mindedly putting your socks in the washing machine, suddenly out of nowhere….

“Ah! Bluma! That’s her name”.

While the person you were thinking about probably wasn’t called Bluma, someone who was called Bluma did help explain what’s going on and why it’s much more important than you probably realise. It has very practical implications whether you are seeking social change, designing new products, fighting corruption, writing radical new code, looking to reduce your stress/ anxiety or…. pretty much anything else…..

How might you use it?

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Bluma Zeigarnik was a Lithuanian psychologist who studied at the University of Berlin under Kurt Lewin (the ‘father of social psychology‘) in the 1920s. Along with others from the department, they often met at a local beer garden to discuss their work, where they were struck by the ability of a waiter to remember all of their orders without writing them down. Being on the vanguard of experimental psychology, they decided to do a little experiment.

Once, after the waiter had faultlessly delivered the order to the table – as usual , giving everyone precisely what they ordered – as he turned away, they covered their plates and asked him to come back and tell them what they had had. He was totally unable to do so.

Intrigued, they theorised that once the information had been used – he had completed the task of serving the food – it was no longer relevant and so he had let it go. Or, to put it in more modern language, he had ‘closed the cognitive loop’. This insight led Bluma Zeigarnik to a lifetime’s investigation of the phenomenon that became known as the Zeigarnik Effect. Essentially, that the brain does not like unfinished business and at some level continues to mull away on tasks which have not been completed or loops which have not been closed.

Bluma Zeigarnik Effect
You can see this in action all the time – you are completely engrossed in a novel until you come to the end, then, once you’ve read the last sentence, you close the book and the intensity of the story starts to slip away. Soap-opera makers know this, as they leave you with the cliff-hanger at the end of an episode. Or maybe you study intensely for an exam, but once completed you quickly forget most of the information. And who can put down a sudoko or crossword puzzle in the middle?

There is a huge range of practical ways to use the Zeigarnik Effect to your advantage.

Essentially, you want to ‘close’ loops which are not helpful or distracting and leave ‘open’ loops which are beneficial, so that your mind can keep on working on them. But key is to be consciously aware of what you are deliberately closing and keeping open; otherwise, your brain will just make the automatic choices itself.

In a world of constant information flow, diversions and multi-tasking, if you want to focus, then being able to close unhelpful, distracting loops is essential. There are numerous ways of doing this. At its basic, To-Do-Lists are an easy way, as they signal to the brain that the task is being taken care of – “move on with where you are investing your precious resources and attention!”

That’s why if, for example, you find yourself unable to get to sleep because your mind is chewing over all of the things you need to do, it is best to just write them down; outsource the cognitive task of remembering to the external environment. Conversely, if you want to ‘sleep on it’ (you’re Mum was right – sleeping on it does work), actively think about it as you allow yourself to drift off.

Another quick technique is to close tabs by imagining you see them on a computer screen and click on them until thoughts simply stop coming (see a previous post From Distracted Multi-tasking to Creative Focus in Less than One Minute for the technique). In the longer-term, people often talk of seeking ‘closure’ after some significant negative life-event. It’s not that the closure means you forget it all, but you are somehow done with constant distracting and often emotionally charged rumination on the issue. It’s time for your brain to move on.

On the other hand, there are many things where deliberately keeping loops open is beneficial, especially when you are in exploratory mode about something new or exploring the boundaries of the possible. Apparently, Usain Bolt deliberately did this before big events, when he played video games beforehand in order to relax. But he would always leave one game uncompleted before he walked out into the stadium, so that a part of his mind was still in the relaxed state that he needed to be able to springboard ‘into the zone’ without getting overly nervous.

Similarly, while being decisive is often a good thing, once you have ‘decided’, you have essentially closed the loop. You’ve made a decision. Issue closed. You have stopped exploring the unknown and incorporated the information into your existing data base of experience. Of course, this is critical on a day-to-day basis. But if it is something which you could benefit from letting your mind play with under the surface a bit more, then leaving the decision until you actually need to make it is infinitely smarter. Maybe that’s just a couple of days about which particular design solution to choose. Or maybe it’s a life-time of open ended exploration about what you want to contribute to humanity in this short time you have on this little blue planet. Up to you.

In my case, rather than racing to the end of a book, I sometimes deliberately read it very slowly – even reading other things in the meantime – as I want to mull over it, rather than bring it to ‘closure’. In a two-fingured salute to the craze of speed-reading, I recently deliberately took almost a year to read two books where there were just so many insights and ideas popping from the pages; I simply didn’t want to rush through them (for what it’s worth, they were Self Comes To Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio and An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin).

Another way of keeping a loop open on something worth exploring is to ask more questions (open more loops) rather than seeking immediate answers, thereby leave them floating. In doing so, you let the brain do the work under the surface, just as it was trying to remember the name of the person you met at the party even though you were no longer consciously thinking about it.

Somewhat more radical – and of course only occasionally appropriate – would be to deliberately leave a workshop or a meeting not really closed and the result ambiguous, despite the pressure to see concrete Outputs! Outputs! Outputs! In this way, the brain will continue to remember and play with more of the information than if you have brought everything to closure.

The effect is real, natural and powerful and the uses are endless, particularly when we are seeking genuinely new and innovative answers rather than simply recycling what we already know.

Alternatively, next time you write something, you could simply leave the loop open by stopping it and finishing in the middle of ……

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