What is this? It is a theory that was first posited by a woman named Bluma Zeigarnik, who was a psychologist and therapist in the Gestalt school of thought (she studied under Kurt Lewin, if you are a student of psychology yourself). The theory goes like this: "People tend to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than they remember completed or finished tasks". In laymen's terms, it means that people tend to file away in their brains events that are finished or resolved in a different way than they file away events that are not complete. Events that have some kind of resolution, our minds check "done" - and now forget it. Events that don't have resolution, our minds check "not finished yet" and keep thinking about this.
What do I mean my completed and uncompleted tasks or events? Well, completed tasks might be finishing a term paper, selling a car, getting a job promotion, writing a book, composing a song, or cleaning the house. You know when that task is done, and it gives you a kind of personal satisfaction that it is complete. Completed tasks can also relate to the world of relationships. An example of a "completed relationship" might be getting married, having a good conversation that has helpful resolution, sending the kids off to college after raising and nurturing them for 18 years, or saying goodbye to a friend and sharing your heart before they die. For some reason the brain puts these completed tasks and relationships in a bin that says, "finished" and it doesn't dwell on them much more.
What about uncompleted tasks? These can be the things that we keep working on and pondering. A social worker might think of a case that she is working on that has some aspect of incompletion. A police officer thinks about a crime that is unsolved. A writer might be working on a book that just isn't coming together at the end. A house builder might want to build a huge back section on a house but not have the money to do so. A politician might have high ambitions for public office, to be President let's say, but only becomes a Congressman, so there is a sense of incompleteness. Again, uncompleted tasks also relate to relationships. An "incomplete relationship" might be one where your girlfriend breaks-up with you, but you don't know what happened to cause the break-up. You get fired from a job but you don't understand why you got fired. You lose a loved one without having final conversations or goodbyes. A house burns down that had pictures inside that were priceless to you, and you will never see them again. These are incompleted relationships.
The Zeigarnik Effect is this, that we remember, and focus on, obsess about uncompleted tasks and uncompleted relationships, much more than we remember, focus on, or obsess about completed tasks or completed relationships.
I can find so many examples of this in my own life. Yesterday, for example, I preached a 50 minute sermon (at a men's retreat), that I memorized and presented without notes. My mind remembered every small detail of the sermon as I was giving it. I memorized 12 pages of manuscript without much trouble. This morning, just a day later, I have a hard time remembering very much at all about my sermon, that I just gave yesterday (I am sure that some in the congregation felt the same way:-). Why is this? Because my mind filed the sermon away as "completed" and therefore not necessary to remember. It's as if the brain says to the body, "Now go do something else."
On the other hand, Star and I own a house in Colorado still. The house is being rented and will go on the market soon. I think about the house all the time. I lay in bed and ponder all the aspects of that house. Are the sprinklers turned on? Is the garage door working? Do the washer and dryer work for the renters? Is the radiator system busted? In a sense, that transaction is incomplete, and therefore I remember it and think about it all the time.
The Zeigarnik Effect is a particularly helpful tool for those who are recovering from some sense of loss or grief. Why is it so hard to move on? The reason that you wake up every morning and think about that person you lost is because it feels incomplete to you. There is no sense of resolution or finality. Your mind goes back again and again to think about it.
The Zeikarnik Effect is also an important dynamic to the Christian prayer life. There are things in life, the Bible tells us, that are simply incomplete. The Apostle Paul alludes to this in First Corinthians, "For now we shall know only in part" (1 Corinth 13:9). Paul is saying that there is an inherent incompleteness to our lives on earth. Someday, though, we will know all things, we will be complete, through Christ. We all have, "griefs to bear" as the song Amazing Grace says. We all have incomplete things. These griefs and losses we must simly give to God, and allow the Holy Spirit to heal. In a sense;
The Holy Spirit helps to make the incomplete tasks complete, through the power of the cross!!
And now that this blogpost is complete...I can forget it:-)
All For Now,