By SUE COLETTA
It’s no secret that the writing biz requires patience. Sometimes, though, waiting can be agonizing. Recently, an exciting opportunity came my way. In order to make this dream come true, I had two weeks (two weeks!) to produce something I’ve never done before. Sorry for being so cryptic, but I don’t want to jinx it.
Now that I made my deadline, all that’s left to do is wait. And wait. And wait. Even with a new release, my mind keeps wandering back to this secret project … and the wait.
That got me thinking, I wonder how or if waiting affects the brain.
Turns out, researchers recently asked the same question. For the first time, a research team at McGill University clearly identified the specific parts of the brain involved in decisions that call for delayed gratification.
Here’s how it works …
The hippocampus (associated with memory) and the nucleus accumbens (associated with pleasure) work together to make critical decisions where time plays a role. For example, suppose you send a query to a literary agent or publisher. You’re making a decision that requires you to wait for the outcome, thereby triggering both the hippocampus and nucleus accumbens.
Still with me? Okay, cool. Let’s look at exactly what these researchers did to prove or disprove their theory …
The researchers used rats trained to make choices between stimuli that resulted in rewards. Some rewards were delivered instantly, some meant delayed gratification. The rats had a choice between two identical visual shapes on a touchscreen (similar to an iPad). In exchange for sugar pellets, the rats had the choice to press their noses against the shape that delivered one sugar pellet immediately or the shape that would deliver four sugar pellets if they waited to receive the reward.
Over time, the rats learned to negotiate a trade-off between the smaller, instant gratification and a windfall, even if it meant waiting for a short period. Researchers argue that most people will also wait for a decision to pay off, if the reward is worth it.
Do you agree? she asks a community of writers whose dreams stand at the intersection of hurry up and wait.
Now, what do you think happened when the researchers disrupted the circuit from the rats’ hippocampus and nucleus accumbens? You guessed it. The rats became impatient and irritable, unwilling to wait even for a few seconds.
Our brains weigh the pros and cons of thousands of situations every day without conscious thought. The nucleus accumbens is made up of a group of tiny cells deep within our brains, and those cells are responsible for the release of dopamine. The amount of dopamine released depends on the size of the reward.
Is it any wonder why we hate waiting? Our bodies crave dopamine! Hence, why exercise is so important for good mental health.
What can we do to help with waiting for news? You guessed it. Get your body to pump dopamine. Which is why today (Saturday) I jumped on my husband’s tractor and mowed the lawn before writing this post. 😉
Yeah, he couldn’t believe it either. I’m not what anyone would describe as a manual labor type of chick. I like my fingernails too much to break them. But I needed a way to switch off my brain before I drove myself crazy by checking and rechecking my email. When I saw my husband on the tractor, it looked like fun.
You know what? I had a blast! Who knew mowing the lawn could double as an exercise in creativity? As my husband cringed, I sailed around the yard creating animal shapes with the blades. Always keep ‘em guessing, ladies!
Men, you can stop groaning now. You’ll be pleased to know I fixed the grass afterward by riding back and forth in military straight lines, but it was nowhere near as fun.
In other study, researchers at the University of Texas measured what occurs inside the brain during a long wait vs. a short wait. For the experiment they used two different tones. The first tone meant a 15-20 second waiting period, the second equaled wait times of 65-75 seconds. Both tones signaled the same reward. The only difference was the length of delay. What they discovered was the nucleus accumbens released more dopamine when the short wait tone sounded. Which means, we’re willing to wait for a reward if the wait doesn’t take too long.
Makes sense, right?
So, if you’re waiting for something to happen as a result of a decision you made, do yourself a favor and get outside, or hit the gym … anything that might help to release dopamine. If you follow this advice, the wait won’t feel as long.
Are you in the wait zone? Care to share what you’re waiting for? What are some ways that have helped you to wait?
It starts with an innocent stuffed animal. It ends with mind-numbing terror.
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Good post, Sue, as usual.
I feel a little more blessed now than I did before I read it. Waiting doesn’t bother me. At all. Maybe in part because of my time in the service, where “hurry up and wait” was the standard.
Mostly (I think) because I’ve long practiced being unattached to outcome. Once I’ve written something and sent it off, I forget about it as I’m off to the next new thing. Prep is within my control; outcome is not, so I just don’t worry about it. (Recent examples include a short story I wrote for a well-paying anthology call, an article I wrote on spec for a writers’ mag, and a guest blog post I wrote for a large marketing firm.)
As a reward, I’m happily surprised when I receive a check for a submission from a few months ago. (grin) And what isn’t accepted because it wasn’t to that editor’s (reader’s) taste, I dust off and send to the next market (or just indie-publish).
Good morning, Harvey. Hope you had a nice weekend.
Waiting for a smaller reward doesn’t bother me as much (short story or article published, for example). After all, that goes with the gig, right? We send it in and move on to our next project. But when it’s a dream-come-true possibility, then I lose all patience. 🙂
You make an excellent point about military training and patience. Never thought of that as a way to rewire the brain, thereby gaining more patience. Makes sense!
My publisher has kept me waiting–now, I’ve found out, I must wait some more.
I gave up most of a baseball season and until the third game of OU’s football season for this?
In my story, a television crew, their dog, and two of the co-stars and of a reality series shooting an episode of the show, Chasing Bigfoot, disappear and are later found hideously destroyed.
I’m now starting to think that, instead of a television show cast and crew being destroyed in the netherworld of east Tennessee, that the destruction could involve an entire publishing firm in a big city.
It would be sweet.
Hahahahahahahaha!!!! Absolutely agree, Jim. Write it for all of us!
Great post. Glad I didn’t wait to read it!
Hahahaha. Good one, Lori!
Good post, Sue. I’m currently waiting for an answer from a publisher and it’s like riding a roller coaster. Fortunately, I have a good husband who listens to me complain. My grandmother used to say this:
“Patience is a virtue.
Possess it if you can.
Seldom found in woman
And never found in man.”
Not sure that’s true. This here woman is very impatient.
Isn’t it, Elaine? Boy, can I relate. Love your grandmother’s poem! This particular woman is impatient, too. My poor husband … it’s all he hears about. Once the waiting ends, I really need to take him out to dinner or something. Three cheers for awesome hubbies! 😉
I’m good at delayed gratification, but I think it’s because I don’t “wait” for much of anything. I put it out of my mind until I hear back. If it’s something like a submission and they won’t tell me if it’s rejected, I have a tickle file I check to see if any time limits have passed. (I also go out of my way not to submit to such organizations. A from e-mail rejection is not too much to ask.)
Very true, Dana. I always thought it rude not to at least send a form rejection.
I have a mountain of work I should be doing, but since the sun plans to only show its face once this week (today!), I’m stealing a couple hours of me-time. 😉
Don’t you love how incredibly made our bodies are? Funny, how exercise is the answer to just about everything. I skipped my mile hike up and down our steep hills around the house, guess I’d better not skip those too often.
When I can’t get outside, I use a small stair-stepper with my standup laptop desk and write or read while I exercise. The time flies when the mind is occupied on something other than the exercise.
Thanks for posting such an interesting post! My sis, who holds a PhD in Experimental Psychology, would be smiling and nodding in agreement.
Yes! The human body is utterly fascinating. Ooh, a standup laptop desk is on my wishlist. The writer brain NEEDS to stay occupied, even during exercise. No skipping those hills, Celilia! 🙂
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What a terrific post, Sue. And not just because you are my lawnmowing hero!
I am in the middle of a wait that has turned out to be much longer than anyone anticipated. Coincidentally I have started riding my stationary bike first thing, in addition to my regular weight training. I’ve also been taking the dog out to play more often. My body made the choice before I knew it was useful. *neglects to mention those extra pounds from the last novel*
Waiting is the worst! I’m glad I’m not the only one who has little patience.
Careful—you may be the new mower in the family!
Awesome cover btw…
Thank you! The cover artist did a great job of balancing creepy and innocence, I think.
Hahaha. He asked if I wanted to split the firewood yesterday. That’s where I draw the line. 😉
I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you, Laura!!! Can’t wait to hear your good news!
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I have terrible patience in many ways! Your post rings very true. Enjoyed the read.