Squeeze your Mind Grapes

A good study day for me is a cycle of exhaustion and recovery. By the evening I literally can’t think any more. I’ve got this fuzzy feeling like someone threw a thick blanket over my mind and it can’t breathe properly. The only cure is sleep. And boy does sleep come easy.

I get this feeling after perhaps a surprisingly small amount of pure desk time, maybe 6 hours in a 15 hour day. In the morning I do a few hours right away then go for a run while mulling things over. Then sleep for about 20 minutes to an hour. Then back at it for a couple more hours until I become so unproductive I have to stop. Exhausted.

Well, according to this interview with Samuele Marcora, I’m not just passing Actuarial exams, I’m also improving my marathon time.

Marcora studies perception of effort and he’s found that the perception of physical effort originates in the mind rather than in the body. Obviously the mental perception of physical effort is related to actual physical effort but not perfectly related. This raises the possibility that you can train your mind to be more tolerant of physical effort without doing any physical work.

This is a big deal for sports where fatigue is a real problem like long distance running, which Marcora studies. And he’s shown times improve when combining physical and mental training versus physical training alone.

So what kind of mental training, exactly? How does one increase mental endurance?

Games, of course. Specifically response inhibition games where you need to suppress your instinctive answer to a question. Here’s an example: flash yourself a cue card with the word green written in yellow ink and identify the color of the ink. Our minds really, really want to say green and overcoming that instinct (in Kahneman’s terms, favoring system 2 over system 1), takes exactly the kind of mental effort Marcora wants to train. And to get physical benefit you have to do it for a while, like an hour at a time.

To our minds this obviously feels the same as going on a long run and makes us better at the next long run. And so the reverse must also be true: going on a run isn’t just about unwinding; it must improve mental endurance for things like actuarial exams.

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