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Got “museum sleepies”? Illustrating mastery, learning and ego depletion

At a certain point in reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast & Slow I realized I had discovered a possible explanation for the mystery of “museum sleepies”. Museum sleepies is my wife‘s term for the fatigue we feel after a rather short time in a museum, a term we’ve used much more frequently since moving to London. I know this is a common experience, and a search will find various explanations, both physical and mental. What I got from Kahneman is a better model of what’s happening to us, and — very exciting to me as a learning nerd — a testable prediction.

The focus of Kahneman’s work is decision theory, and the title mirrors the model of cognition he uses. We can imagine that our mind has two systems for processing the world and making decisions. System 1 is fast and intuitive (think Blink), unconscious, involuntary, and cognitively cheap. System 2 is our deliberate, conscious, analytical thought process that is also, unfortunately, both slow and cognitively expensive. Most of the book is an explanation of how our reliance on System 1 results in predictable cognitive biases. To get there Kahneman first describes experiments to establish a measure of mental effort, evidence that all types of mental effort draw on the same limited pool of resources, and that engaging our System 2, focusing our attention and performing deliberate analysis, draws off that limited pool.

In the larger world the findings Kahneman describes have serious implications in terms of ego depletion and decision fatigue. In our tour of the museum there isn’t much at risk, but it struck me as a application of the same findings. After reading Thinking, Fast & Slow my model for the museum sleepies is that I’m using my System 2 to analyze one artifact after another and that this is draining my limited pool of mental energy. This model leads me to predict that someone trained to analyze the artifacts wouldn’t suffer the same effects. The trained person would see the same artifacts differently because they would have a set of prebuilt patterns and categories to draw upon. They would notice the patterns largely through System 1; System 2 efforts would be brief and efficient. Finally, I expect I could use deliberate practice to train myself to understand some class of artifacts, and that henceforth I would no longer suffer the same fatigue when viewing that type of collection.

I’ve spent a lot of effort in the past few years trying to develop my abilities to promote organizational learning. Much of my focus has been on the Action Science approach to effective communication. Another part of it has been trying to teach the scientific mindset that learning is about detecting and correcting error, which we can do by making testable hypothesis and testing them. I don’t plan to conduct any cognitive psychology experiments with art historians, curators, and artists, but I love the fact that someone could. This museum sleepies story has become part of my arsenal for illustrating some important concepts in cognition, in training, and in theory making. I hope you find it useful too.

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