The Surprising Benefits of Working Backward
Coming at problems from novel perspectives causes the brain to function differently, often yielding unexpected results
For a number of weeks this past spring, every time my friend Jane and I would take our regular walk alongside a pond and creek, a bald eagle would swerve in our direction, almost as though to greet us.
Eagles are not new here in New York’s Hudson Valley region and their increasing presence speaks to a species restoration project that began 30 years ago. Yet even if it is not uncommon to see this sentinel bird, it is always a privilege to spot one.
What I noticed about this eagle, this spring, was that it almost always took the exact same flight path. This led me to believe it was nesting in a tall tree near the pond. Weeks of careful observation led nowhere. The nest was not in the towering oak, nor was it in a sycamore tree with a pronounced notch in its upper branches.
Finally one afternoon, in utter frustration, we walked the path backward, looking at the treetops over the pond from a reverse perspective. And there, at last, in the upper limbs of a white pine, we detected the huge, ramshackle bowl of twigs, sticks and branches.
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The exercise, and its reward, put me in mind of how coming at things backward, awkwardly and in uncertain steps can lead to unanticipated and astonishing breakthroughs. And how discoveries can be made at this intersection of the comedic and the sublime.
Folklore suggests that 100 steps backward are as good as 1,000 steps forward. The Lakota Indians honor the “crazy wisdom” of the contrarian Heyoka jokester/sage, who does things like speak in reverse sentences and ride his horse backward.
The value of this tactic isn’t just the stuff of folk wisdom and unexpected discoveries. Dutch neuroscientists were curious whether different mental processes are employed when we are walking toward something or away from it. Their study, published in Psychological Science in May 2009, found that subjects who walked even a few steps backward were far more focused and attentive than those who didn’t.
The trickster’s oppositional approach can work for me as a writer. From time to time when I get stuck on an article or essay, I’ll flip the order of the argument, beginning with the conclusion and ending with the introduction. While it’s not a structure I am likely to keep, it is an efficient way to reconsider what I’m trying to say.
If it’s a profile, bringing a quote from the subject’s later years up to the front of the piece may shake up the chronology of the story, but it gives context to what is to come. This isn’t exactly the same as walking backward, but it is another mode of stirring up the conventional order of things and finding a fresh, and perhaps stronger, perspective.
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Getting Ahead by Moving Backward
Christine Weber, a clinical neuropsychologist in Seaford, N.Y., agrees that reversing the order of one’s approach has its benefits. “This forces the brain to think in a different way — it’s a rewiring and changes the focus,” she says. “The brain is almost always more active when it comes to novel stimuli and information. A new task makes a new connection in the brain because it has more to process.
“When you do something you are unaccustomed to, the signals are different,” Weber adds. “This speaks to a plasticity in the brain. And novel things require more cognitive energy; they are not ingrained. As in walking backward — you are not used to it. It requires extra effort.”
I suspect this reverse process is not just an exercise of the mind but one of the spirit as well. Paulus Berensohn is an acclaimed ceramist, teacher and writer whose pots and words alike are vessels for reflection. When he was invited to be an artist-in-residence at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine, in 1987, he declined the offer, but asked if he could come help prepare food.
In his evocative meditation “Whatever We Touch Is Touching Us,” he writes, “I thought I would be more comfortable, perhaps make a more easeful relationship with the students, faculty and staff if I came in through the back door, so to speak. … So I worked in the kitchen.”
Berensohn reflected on how preparing meals, sometimes in silence, was a novel way to enter the community. “It was a new experience for me, this serving of the soup," he said. "At first I was just … standing there ladling, offering, making contact. Simply serving soup, a little dance, a little communion. This bowl is for you, and this one? It’s for you!” A strong, continuing presence at Haystack for decades to come, Berensohn and his kitchen labors revealed to the entire group how the authority of a teacher from time to time depends on a willing and gracious subservience, whether as servant or student.
Surely this is the paradox. The older we get, the more likely we are to understand the intelligent, appropriate, linear progression to attain the things we want and need. Life's experience has taught us to appreciate rationality, consistency, the common-sense, one-step-forward-at-a-time approach to achieving goals, whether they have to do with professional goals, retirement accounts or something else entirely.
Yet at the same time, it also becomes easier to understand that inverting the process has its value too. Incongruity, surprise and the utterly unexpected angle offer their own lessons. Discovering the eagle’s nest, whether it is literal or figurative, can be the result of reversal as much as one of advance.