If I claim this blog will help you think better, you would wonder why is this guy talking about it. Even if you know me enough, the why part of the above question is valid.
I am no neuroscientist, nor a philosopher. I don’t even think clearly under stress. I still occasionally lose my car keys, and spend an annoyingly long time to make simple decisions. Worse, I keep changing my mind. What credentials do I have to write about thinking?
With so much thinking about thinking, when will i ever focus on “doing”, you might ask. Well, I want to share some life-hacks relating to thinking, that has worked for me.
Particularly, I want to write about three ideas in a three-part blog series. This one is about externalising our thinking process.
I will cover the last two ideas in subsequent blogs. Categorisation: to put various things you encounter in categories or buckets, and Exploration: to search for information and insights to make decisions. While none of these are my original ideas, I have begun applying some to good effect.
Externalisation – one way to look at this is: offloading stuff from inside your brain, onto a physical format in the external world. Eg. writing, drawing, talking; in fact, expressing of any kind – singing, moving, whatever.
In my early thirties I realised I could no longer remember phone numbers from memory, and began writing them down. I thought it was a sign of getting old, but it appears, writing as a way to store information is a method followed since ancient times. Yuval Noah Harari writes about this in the bestseller, SAPIENS – that our evolution as humans may have depended on writing skill – shedding the cognitive load from our brain. Not the other way around. The book illustrates the Sumerian writing system from 3000 BC, as a method of storing information through material signs.
An interesting part of this story is about the first known “writer” in the world. Was he a poet, philosopher, story teller, king or a teacher? Nah. it was the boring accountant Kushim, the first recorded name of a human, ever.
I have written previously about how much of a game-changer it has been for me to write my thoughts, ideas and to-dos regularly. Sorry, I have harped on that enough – but please read along to get more convinced of why you should consider writing more.
This idea of externalisation is more than just shedding something from our brains. It is about expanding the zone where cognition occurs: from the brain itself, to all places external to it, onto our body and even further outside. Stephen Anderson, in his delightful book “Figure it Out: Getting from information to Understanding“, explains the recent advances in neuroscience via a simple illustration of the Extended Mind.
When you have vague idea or a hunch about something, capture that instantly in a piece of paper, and look at it. Now, you have two things: your thought itself still lingering in your mind, and the external representation of that thought, staring at you as the text or drawing that you just created. This interaction in turn drives additional thoughts in your brain. Cognition powers through during such interactions.
Think and express, or express in order to think? The important aspect about the capture of our stream of consciousness (often containing incomplete thoughts) in an external format, is this: it is not as if we think clearly, and then express it. Expressing a vague thought – writing, talking, drawing whatever – actually is part of thinking itself.
In his research thesis, written as a brilliant book “Articulating a Thought“, that has a striking cover page, Eli Alshanetsky throws this paradox: when we express (eg. write down) what we think, we might feel unsure as to what we just expressed fully covered what we thought; on the other hand, without writing (or externalising of any kind), we wouldn’t even know what our thoughts were in the first place! Nevertheless, as Eli explains, the act of expressing our thoughts using language helps, because, language prolongs the thought; it completes the thought; and it specifies the thought.
Of all the known modes of expression, writing is found to be most energy-efficient way to express – and to preserve our thoughts. But it also happens to be the most difficult. George Orwell’s quote thus haunts us: “If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.”
I didn’t write this blog after thinking through everything i was going to say. Infact, the act of writing – putting down my thinking into words and forming sentences – shaped my thinking about this topic. And every time I “looked” at the written text, it refined my own understanding of my own understanding.
In particular, writing using our hands, compared to say, typing, is proven to help our memory. In this paper, Kate Gladstone explains, handwriting is “far better at providing the necessary level of stimulation”, as it “activates a particular “network of cells within our brains: a “command center” called the Reticular Activating System (RAS)“, which is responsible for attention, alertness and motivation.”
Outsourcing our thinking to others
We are social animals. We express our thoughts and emotions with our partners, colleagues, friends and family. So, taking the idea of externalisation further, group thinking becomes very relevant when others are able to build on top of our thinking – as they express their interpretation of our ideas. This is more effective when we capture all of those thoughts and ideas from everyone in an externalised format that is visible to all (eg. writing in a white board).
I am part of a sales team and thus i often rely on others – experts in various lines of business within my company. Often we brainstorm ideas and decide together how to deal with challenges. This insight that I am not alone, and that i can delegate parts of my thinking to a huge bunch of experts, has been both an exciting and humbling one. I say this when asked if I know about a particular product or a technology. “I know that, because either I actually know that thing, or at least I know someone who knows that.”
Thanks to the internet, it has become super easy for us delegate this thinking to the whole world (eg. post a question in an online forum like quora, reditt or if you are braver, social media like twitter).
Walking helps thinking
I have often found that as i rake my brain to strategise, make decisions or look for new ideas, there is an irresistible urge in my body to jump out of my seat and walk. Walking is now an important part of my weekly activity. Especially after learning about the science on the correlation between walking and thinking. This Newyorker article explains well: article “Walking Helps Us Think”
“When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps. Likewise, writing forces the brain to review its own landscape, plot a course through that mental terrain, and transcribe the resulting trail of thoughts by guiding the hands.” “Walking organizes the world around us…Writing organises our thoughts”
I hope all this made sense. If not, please write back to me – I will really appreciate that. In the meantime, I will need more time to walk, think, and eventually write about the other two ideas as blogs.
I have always been accused of an over-thinker and, in the recent years, I have been down many a rabbit hole: reading a lot about how to think better, thinking a lot about how to write well, and writing about all that comes to my mind.
I am actually not sure where this is going, but i enjoy getting lost in such thoughts. Last month, i went walking around the suburb on a newly laid trail into the woods along a beautiful water stream, while listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast. Thirty minutes later I found myself reaching on top of a small hill. I didn’t want to return home using the same path, and decided to try out a new route which turned out to be a dead-end – with barbwires and all that. Eventually, I had to use google-maps to get back home, which felt a bit embarrassing.
This unexpected detour though, triggered a random idea which helped untangle a mess – that was until then an unexpressed vague thought that was eating my mind that weekend.
Folks, get it out of your mind. It will set you free.