Happy Mathematician, Productive Mathematician?

by Kareem Carr

An article by Benedict Carey in the New York Times last month highlighted a study that might shed some insight both on why mathematics is so enjoyable and how to get slightly better at resolving otherwise puzzling research problems. Carey wrote that,

In a just completed study, researchers at Northwestern University found that people were more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused, having just seen a short comedy routine.

The article continues by saying that,

“What we think is happening,” said Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist who conducted the study with Karuna Subramaniam, a graduate student, “is that the humor, this positive mood, is lowering the brain’s threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections” to solve puzzles.

We tend to emphasize the thrill that we experience at the end of solving a tricky problem as being the primary reward of hours of work. However, the article argues that the journey itself toward the goal can be enjoyable.

I am probably not doing the general thesis of the article sufficient justice and you should probably go read it when you’re done reading this. However, the idea seems to be that a positive state of mind is associated with a more open state of mind and vice versa. Therefore, having a positive frame of mind makes us more receptive to insight.

Perhaps, this is part of the reason why mathematician often comes up as one of the best jobs. Could it be that mathematics selects for more positive people?

[Image courtesy of Daveybot of Flickr]

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