Thinking Outside Your Head

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, April 13, 2015

Most people do all their contemplation inside their head, but it’s worthwhile to explore ideas about externalized thinking. Internal thinking is confined by our ability to mentally recall details and juggle concepts. We find it very hard to plot a novel or design a skyscraper without writing things down, and since the invention of the stylus we haven’t had to. From clay tablets to computers, we’ve been able to do much of our thinking outside of our brains. However, people generally prefer to use neurons for personal thought processing, and use external tools for professional thinking.

Like most people, I’m lazy and usually attempt to juggle my thoughts mentally, but now that I’m getting older, I realize external forms of memory are a big help. Until you attempt to organize your thinking externally, you don’t realize how vague your thoughts really are. Most people take in information – they watch television, listen to music, read books, listen to their friends talk. Except for talking, people generally don’t express their thoughts, and fewer still attempt to translate their feelings into words.

Take movies for example. Let’s say you see a movie that resonated deeply with your emotions. What do you tell your friends? “I just LOVED that movie.” Not much real information in that statement. And if pushed for details, you might expand your message, “It made me laugh. It made me cry. I really identified with the main character.” Still not saying much. People with better memories and communication skills will summarize scenes that touched them most. That actually does a better job of communicating. Writing a full movie review that systematically chronicles your reactions and explains why you have them, pushes your ability to express yourself, think coherently, and externalize your thoughts.

It’s much easier to babble one’s random thoughts as they float to the surface of our consciousness than to wrestle them onto paper, organizing them into successive coherent sentences. Writing this essay is hard work for me. I’m constantly feeling the urge to get up from this computer, go get some Triscuit® crackers and Swiss cheese, get in my recliner, and munch my snack while listening to Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan.

In other words, my instinct tells me to run away from the work of external thinking. Writing this essay took days. All this thinking about thinking got me to think about how we lasso, corral and brand our thoughts. From this work I noticed certain techniques we use to think outside our heads.

Lists

One of the most basic ways for external thinking is to make a list. Some people are quite good at remembering, and can keep a tally of items in their head with no trouble. I can’t. Putting items on a list is an external form of thinking and memory. Reorganizing the list and contemplating their ranking is external thinking. Looking at the list later is external memory.

Lists come in different variety, such as unordered, ordered, alphabetical, numerical, etc.

List of Musical Instruments:

  • Violin
  • Guitar
  • Piano
  • Oboe

It really doesn’t matter what order they are listed, we’re just trying to remember the class of things called musical instruments.

Favorite British Invasion Bands of the 1960s:

  1. The Beatles
  2. The Yardbirds
  3. The Who
  4. The Rolling Stones

Not only are we trying to remember specific groups, but rank them. This reflects personal opinion and tastes. If you took on the task of listing your absolute top 25 albums of all time, it would require a lot of contemplating and reflection. Composing such a list could take a great deal of work and effort, and using pencil or computer to compose the list would be a huge aid, because few of us can keep twenty-five items in their head at once. Recalling a lifetime of favorite albums is a mental struggle. Keeping a list over days or weeks is a kind of long term thinking. It allows us to conquer space and time.

Favorite British Invasion Bands of the 1960s:

  • The Beatles
  • The Rolling Stones
  • The Who
  • The Yardbirds

This is the same list, but it’s alphabetical. Such a listing connotes a desire not to rank.

Favorite Albums:

  • Rubber Soul (1965)
  • Blonde on Blonde (1966)
  • Younger Than Yesterday (1967)
  • Electric Ladyland (1968)

This uses a numerical approach. If you look at the various approaches to making lists you see that list gathers details and imposes order. Unless you have a special kind of brain, you don’t do this mentally. This is why I say it’s thinking outside your head. List making is just the beginning. There’s all kinds of ways to think externally. My list of books read since 1983 is an external memory. At first I kept the list in an old chemistry notebook, but recently moved it to Google docs using the spreadsheet. For decades I recorded just the title, author and date I finished reading the book. I refer to this list pretty often and it’s been very useful as a memory aid. When I moved to the spreadsheet, I added some columns – year the book was first published, and what format I read the book – hardback, paperback, trade paper, ebook, library book, Kindle ebook and audiobook. I’m able to search the list and reorder it by any column, and I can extract sublists – like all books I read in 1999. I could never do this mentally. There are some idiot savants that might, but it’s not a common trick.

External memory

Outlines and Mind Mapping

A step up from list making is outlining or mind mapping. Our brains are constantly striving to categorize by who, what, when, where, why and how. Using an outline, or it’s modern equivalent, the memory map, we can add more layers of structure that a simple list cannot handle. Outlines are essentially compound lists. They offer layers of structure and can infer more inherent meaning.

I thought out this essay with Xmind. Each detail originated in my brain, but recording it in Xmind allowed me to see a growing structure that triggered additional inspiration and details. Thoughts are like spider webs that interconnect in interesting patterns. We don’t see those patterns until we externalize them.

Logs, Calendars and Timesheets

Sometimes we want to organize pieces of information by time, like the list of books I’ve read since 1983. I wish I had been doing this since 1959 when I first became a bookworm. I just read a biography of Kay Francis, and she keep a calendar for decades that recorded the parties she attended and her sexual conquests. The biographer used it as the structure of their book. I wish I had kept a list of all the movies I’ve seen. At work I sometimes kept timesheets of projects I worked on.  Logs, calendars and timesheets are our way of planning events and remembering when things happened.

Diaries, Journals and Blogs

For casual thinking outside the head, nothing beats diaries, journals and blogs. Isaac Asimov kept diaries his whole life that allowed him to write his memoirs with precise details. This blog is my way of remember my external thinking sessions. Quite often I’ve reread posts I wrote years ago and not remembered them at all. This is amusing to me now to see how I thought back when. Reading old blog posts is sometimes sad too, because I often feel like I can no longer think as well as I did just a few years ago.

Essays and Books

Before October 14, 1947 when Chuck Yeager flew his Bell X-1 people theorized about the “sound barrier” as if it was impossible to fly faster than sound. I often feel like I have a cognitive barrier that I can’t think through.  Even though I’ve written 916 blog posts for Auxiliary Memory I feel there is an essay length that confines my thinking. I struggle to make a thousand words coherent. Imagine the task of writing 100,000 words. I have met writers who talked about taking ten years to write a book. That’s a Mt. Everest of external thinking.

As an aside, I got the details about Chuck Yeager from Wikipedia, which is a hive mind form of external thinking and memory.

I have often thought that the large novel or nonfiction book is the most complex form of human thought. Can you imagine all the thinking that went into War and Peace? Isabel Wilkerson said she interviewed 1200 people to write The Warmth of Other Suns, and took over a decade to write. Did any individual architect designing the One World Trade Center spend as much time thinking about their project?

As an expression of external thinking, the novel or nonfiction book is among the most complex, don’t you think?

Thinking About Thinking

This essay is a recursive expression of external thinking. I started out by making lists of ideas. Then I switched to mind mapping. For each section, I would spend time daydreaming about the idea, and when I came up with interesting details, I’d write them down. I cannot even keep a portion of this essay in my mind at once. If I start rereading the beginning, I forget the rest quickly. It’s only when I reread this post several times do I see consistent patterns. Several times within the essay I used the same example, having forgotten I used it previously in another writing session.

I’m at the 1,500 word mark and hitting a barrier. Writers with better minds than mine can take this subject and turn it into a 100,000 word book. One of the best I’ve read is The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick.

There are two barriers that hold me back. One is the scope of the idea, and the second is the length of time I can contemplate an idea. If an essay gets too long, or I have to struggle with it for more than a few days, I crash and burn. I’d love to be able to write a book, but that’s probably more external thinking than I’m capable of accomplishing. I wonder if that’s a cognitive barrier or an age barrier – or both. Even with these tools I can only comprehend so much at any one time.

JWH

3 thoughts on “Thinking Outside Your Head”

  1. I enjoyed reading this essay and I’ll print it and save it. Part of the reason why I try to maintain a journal is because I read your blog. You’ve mentioned before that it would be nice to go back and read about a period in life/thoughts on books read (I can’t recall your exact words but I think it was along those lines) and that made me want to prep myself to do the same. I agree that external thinking is beneficial. Writing out my thoughts when I’m stressed or upset helps me to put things in perspective and calm down. It helps to minimize the enormity of a situation, sometimes.

    1. I didn’t think about the therapeutic aspects, but your right. Externalizing thoughts is a way to manage our emotions, and gain psychological insight. Now that I’m getting older, I find writing my blogs helps exercise my brain, so I can remember better and think more clearly inside my head. When I lay off writing for any length of time, my thinking ability falls off. And oddly enough, so does my speaking ability.

      I’ve often thought that schools should require children to blog when they learn to read and write. Not only would it encourage writing and communication skills, but it would be a record of each student’s progress in learning to think. Plus, imagine being an adult and looking back at one’s childhood thoughts.

      Another thing I imagined as a school project, is for kids to take one photograph a day they would post on their blog and note why it was important to remember that image.

      1. I those ideas are cool. I especially like that photography one. I think people rarely consider taking a meaningful photo in their everyday life. Photos are usually reserved for special events or, these days, selfies. But a photo a day would be a nice memento to reflect on later in life.

        I recently read this article on using blogs and journals as classroom assignments. It’s a short article that discusses the findings of a study. I think you’ll like it. http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/blogs-arent-better-than-journal-assignments-theyre-just-different/56359

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