I’m in front of a crowded room and desperate to get my point across, I have a burning, passionate view on this topic and my ideas are something I think people need to hear. I raise my hand and wait impatiently to be seen. Beyond jabbing at the air like a crazed loon or waving my arm about I can’t do anything else but wait until I’m noticed. Then finally, ‘yes, you’ says the person leading the discussion looking in my direction and the unimaginable happens – the worst – my mind goes completely blank. I go from feverishly preparing to share my wisdom to feeling like I want the ground to open up and swallow me.
“Our minds are magic. Like a prop in an illusionist’s sleight of hand, they seem to flit from place to place—now here, now there, now …nowhere.” (Ward & Wenger)
Has that ever happened to you? Chances are it has. In fact it’s so common that my friends Giles Paley-Phillips and Jim Daly have hosted a whole podcast (and book) on the topic aptly called ‘The Blank’. Interviewing people from the witty, quick minded Steven Fry to the equally fast thinking Dawn French and many, many more (even me) – it seems we really are definitely not alone. Yet it most certainly leaves you feeling that way.
“This mental state—mind-blanking—may represent an extreme decoupling of perception and attention, one in which attention fails to bring any stimuli into conscious awareness.” (Ward & Wenger)
While in front of family and friends drawing a blank may leave us feeling embarrassed, perhaps irritated, and frustrated in an environment of colleagues or strangers the emotions this can provoke are quite extreme. When the room swivels to hear our point and we are left with nothing we can feel shame, an unbearable embarrassment, fear at the loss of credibility and humiliation with of course the added undertone of emotions we’d feel if we were with friends. In short it’s not nice.
“Seven experiments provide evidence supporting the existence of the blank mind as a distinct mental state with a unique psychological signature.” (Ward & Wenger)
This happens to me frequently, too frequently. It’s even happened a few times when I’ve been midway through giving a talk – I stand there (or sit since the zoom era) searching for what I was just saying, what I just said, without any clue. And I fear that with the double whammy of age and the looming ‘unspoken about’ menopause things will only get worse. In fact with the effects of long Covid and the associated brain fog hitting so many people, the frequency may increase for many of us.
Let’s start with why – there are many reasons but the most common are:
- Tiredness – slows down and interferes with all brain functioning
- Anxiety – fight or flight can mean that our brain prioritises taking action such as fleeing from these people suddenly staring at us over having a rational debate.
- Feeling overwhelmed – our brains are increadible but have a limited capacity for cognitive processing which can stop us from accessing those great points just when we need them.
What to do:
- Try to relax (easier said than done I know – it’s like telling someone to ‘just be more confident’) – use slow deep breaths, constructive self talk (i.e. calling yourself an idiot won’t help) and a rapid change of expectations (e.g. it’s ok if I don’t know right in this moment it will come to me).
- Make a list – of the points you want to make. While you may feel they’re front of mind when you’re waving your arm about, it’s worth doing anyway, just in case.
- Make a joke of it – laugh at yourself and if you can play it off with a self-assured demeanour and move on to something else.
- Get comfortable with telling people that your mind has gone blank.
- Use the silence – it’s ok to have a moment of quiet, in fact if you maintain your composure it could make you appear more confident and secure in yourself, not less.
- Use visualisation – if you know that you’re going to be in a talk or big meeting where this could happen, mentally rehearse the situation before-hand. See yourself as calm, confident, at ease and articulate. Play through the scenarios of someone calling on you when you are waiting to make your point, or you’re standing in front of an audience. This will give your brain the chance to practice, meaning it will more automatically take that route when you’re in the moment.
- Stay active – there’s plenty of research that shows exercise improves our thinking ability, concentration and attention by increasing blood flow and oxygen to the frontal lobe of the brain (I did a whole dissertation on this topic but I won’t bore you with the details).
For more ideas about how to cope with those blank moments and plenty of fab conversation listen in to Giles and Jim’s podcast (link below) or for a more academic view take a look at the article by Ward and Wegner. I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas too. For now though – Oh goodness I can’t remember what I was going to say…..
For a simple guide on how to use visualization take a look at the second edition of my book Defining You (make sure it’s the second edition – I don’t talk about this in the first).
Bunce D; Murden F (2006) Age, aerobic fitness, executive function, and episodic memory. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 18 (2), pp. 221-233.
Ward, A. F., & Wegner, D. M. (2013). Mind-blanking: When the mind goes away. Frontiers in psychology, 4, 650.