Regardless of the context, routines — once comforting and safe — can gradually become ruts. Stable relationships, familiar patterns, and secure jobs can quickly lead to boredom, depression, unconscious anxiety, or a debilitating addiction. As Brooklyn clergyman Samuel Parkes Cadman once said, "the only difference between a rut and a grave is a matter of depth."
Ruts are indeed threatening and stultifying. But are we doomed to be in them once we fall into them, or can our brains be changed? To answer this question, psychologist and brain researcher Caroline Di Bernardi Luft and her colleagues conducted a study, drawing on what we already know about how we fall into ruts in the first place.
Why do we get stuck in ruts?
We become stuck in ruts due to our brains' habitual electrical patterns. Past experience shapes present and future behavior. Faced with new situations, our brains will apply rules based on prior events to match the current context. And there's a part of the brain that is especially wired to do this. Called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) — think of it as the brain's "pattern seeker" — this brain region works hard to find old rules that can be applied to the here and now to circumvent the chore of new learning. Dr. Di Bernardi Luft and colleagues wanted to see if people could get out of ruts when the brain's pattern seeker was blocked.
How to create a rut in an experiment
In order to explore this, they had to first get people into a rut. So they gave them four types of matchstick arithmetic problems, each with a different rule set. Once they got used to a rule, they were given a problem with another set of rules. So, to solve each new category of problem, they had to get out of the rut of the old way of thinking.
In a typical problem, matchsticks are used to form an incorrect equation consisting of roman numerals (I, II, etc.) and arithmetic operators (e.g., +, –). Participants would then have to correct the equations by moving only one matchstick. The problem is not just math, it's creative too.
For each of the four types of matchstick problems (A, B, C, and D), there is a different rule. For example, for problem type A, you could move a matchstick within a numeral, so that IV = III + III becomes VI = III + III when you move the "I" in "IV" to form a "VI." For B, you move a matchstick from a plus sign (e.g., I = II + II becomes I = III – II when the vertical part of the plus is moved to join the first "II."). For C, you rotate a matchstick within a plus sign to create an equals sign (e.g., change "+" to "="). And for D, you change an "X" into a "V" by sliding the matchstick of the right arm of the "X" to the right.
To solve the problems effectively, you have to forget prior rule sets, but this is difficult to do. As a result, you sometimes get stuck in a rut.
How to inhibit ruts with electricity
With this challenge at hand, the researchers then passed a specific kind of electrical current from positive (anodal) to negative (cathodal) electrodes through the scalp overlying the DLPFC. Called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), this type of low level electricity can excite or inhibit the brain tissue beneath the scalp. Beneath the positive electrode, it stimulates the underlying brain tissue, and beneath the negative electrode, it inhibits the brain tissue. As a comparison, they also used a sham current. After each of these types of current was applied, participants were given the matchstick problems. Of the different problems, the "C" type problems were the most difficult, and required forgetting prior rules.
So what did they find? The main finding of the study was encouraging: when a negative current was applied over the DLPFC, it was easier to break former habit patterns for "C" type problems. The implications of this were quite exciting. Breaking former habits makes you more creative. You behave less like an automaton, and look at things in a unique way. In effect, you become unstuck and get out of your mental rut. It is possible to get out of a mental rut after all!
What does this mean for you?
In my book, Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind, I explain how very important it is to become unfocused if we are to break away from mental patterns. This does not imply that you must be distracted, but that you should build "unfocus time" into your day. This turns off regions like the DLPFC, and turns on other circuits instead. Going for a meandering walk, daydreaming, doodling, and 90 minutes of napping are all ways of turning off the DLPFC to enhance creativity. They relax the usual mental constraints and help you break through your habits too.
So, while you are waiting for a product that delivers this electrical zap to help relieve boredom and get you out of a rut, why not try out one of the simple methods above for 15 minutes a few times a day? When you do, you will likely prepare your brain inevitably for a much more exciting and creative life. And ruts will become far less detrimental to you too. In essence, you will have taken advantage of your brain's ability to rewire itself, which Dr. Di Bernardi Luft and her colleagues demonstrated so elegantly.