Mind Bumps: Proceed With Caution

The human brain is a miraculous organ. Neurons and synapses firing  so quickly, processing so much in the tiniest fractions of a second that even the most powerful of computers still have not matched its complex computing capability (even if IBM’s Watson can kick the best human butt at chess and Jeopardy). Together with your experience, your brain can be a powerful tool to avoid traps and tricks on the GMAT. That is, if you let it.

I tutor and teach and counsel hundreds of GMAT test-takers every year. And I’m consistently amazed by how often students ignore “warning signs” their brains are frantically trying to flag. I call these warning signs “mind bumps.” A mind bump occurs whenever you read something that, at first or second glance, strikes you as strange, odd, or nonsensical. Given that they’re almost always rooted in reading (just reading, not Reading Comprehension per se), these mind bumps are ubiquitous on the GMAT, occurring with enough regularity on both the Quant and Verbal that they should be used as a valuable tool to improve your score.

To illustrate what I mean, let me first offer an analogy (its long, so maybe it’s more a conceit). You’re on a first date. You’ve been on countless dates before this one, and out in social settings with others. Those experiences have already primed you for what to expect. Your date kicks off. You’re drinking. You’re eating. You’re both having a good time. Out of nowhere, the person you’re with belches. And he/she doesn’t say ‘excuse me’ afterwards. Just keeps on keeping on as though nothing happened. Now, whether you think this okay or not, your EXPERIENCE tells you this is a little out of the ordinary. Does it mean you should end the date right there? No. Does it mean you should propose marriage? Absolutely, positively not. But…it does mean that in all likelihood you’re going to be on the lookout to see if that burp was an anomaly, or an indication of things to come. That burp was the first date equivalent of a GMAT (or GRE) mind bump.

If you’ve been prepping and practicing for the GMAT, your experience with it, coupled with the years and years and years of reading and doing math elsewhere in your life, has primed your brain to rather quickly makes sense of words on a page or screen. If at any point your brain balks at what it’s reading, that’s an alarm you should heed. Chances are the words or concepts are presented in such a way that diverges from what your brain expected, and this is a clue that you should slow down and pay very close attention to understanding exactly what is being said. Here’s an example:

For all positive integers x, the function g(x) is defined as the number of positive integers less than x that each share exactly one factor with x. What is g(y) if y is a prime number?

(A) 1

(B) 2

(C) y – 1

(D) y 2

(E) (y  1)\2

Many people that read this question the first time (and even the second) experience a mind bump. The concepts seem familiar enough , but the phrasing makes you go ‘huh?’ For those that heed the mind bump and dig in to understand what was required, they have a good chance of getting this question correct. For those who ignore the mind bump often solve for the wrong thing and get the question wrong (the correct answer is at the end of the post).

So, when you’re reading something on the test, whether a quant problem or a verbal question, be alert to any of the following symptoms:

a) head shaking (your own)

b) confusion/disorientation/vertigo

c) leaning closer to the screen (not because you can’t see, but because what you just read doesn’t seem to make any sense)

d) mumbling to yourself

e) bleeding from the eyes and/or ears

Okay, so that last one is a touch of hyperbole, but the rest of them are all possible symptoms of a mind bump in progress. Keep in mind that we’re not talking about questions that are super difficult, or necessarily those that are just complex. We’re talking about words/phrases/sentences that at first glance seem pretty straight forward, but after reading them you get one of those “huh” or “wtf” moments. Also know that the mind bump doesn’t pertain to most questions, and won’t arise with most questions (and no, this isn’t just a GMAT expert talking, this is for all levels of test-taker). Most questions, whether hard or not, you read them and at least understand what they’re saying (even if you’re not sure how to do it). Your mind will often realize that the hard ones are hard and the easy ones are easy and you (and your brain) act accordingly. It’s the ones that have a mind bump, that seem straightforward but nevertheless give us pause that we’re talking about. And usually, if we heed the mind bump, these are questions that we can and should get correct!

I cannot tell you how often I’ve sat with students reviewing questions, and asked them on certain ones whether, when reading, they didn’t feel weird. Whether a sort of bump in the road occurred. When they say ‘yes’, I ask them if they did anything differently. Usually the answer is no. That’s a mind bump question! They just got mind-bumped!

So, what should you do in a mind bump situation? Well…

1) Heed the bump.

2) Slow down.

3) Re-read.

4) Articulate (then analyze) what’s strange about the situation.

5) Proceed to answer.

As anyone who’s prepared for or taken the GMAT knows, it’s one big mind game. Give your mind a break, and your score a boost: heed the bump!

The answer to the example question is…C.

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