Ramblings On the Art of Thinking

Nov 1, 2004 0:56am

Occasionally I’m assaulted by logomania.* One logomanic spell resulted in a picture of a fractured circle consisting only of words. At the time I thought it a useful creative tool. It’s not. Until I came across it recently I hadn’t looked at it in years. It got me thinking though, and I went in search of the word list which I used to make it. I couldn’t find it, so I finally started another, and before I knew it I had 2000 evocative words. I began to wonder if I could put this strange outpouring to good use.

My reading on the nature of creativity is minimal, but I’m nonetheless convinced that, like any ability, it can be enhanced through practice. We spend thousands of hours perfecting visual skills like hand-eye coordination, and for good reason. But can the same be said about more abstract skills, like reasoning and creativity? I read an interesting article once which claimed that our reasoning skills generally don’t develop much beyond the Sesame Street level (“One of these things is not like the other”). If that’s true, then our creative skills probably don’t progress much beyond preschool fingerpainting (“One of these blobs is much like the other”).


Thinking suffers from an association with philosophical tracts; difficult for the uninitiated. Unfortunate, when most profundity is striking in its simplicity, and most thinking is of the everyday kind – and no less important for it. Where to live and work, who to have babies with, and whether to have the mushroom risotto or the green chicken curry. Other than breathing, thinking is what we spend most of our time doing. We do it in our sleep. It’s very fashionable to say how little most people think, and how often they get it wrong when they do. This is bullshit. What I really mean when I say this is that most people don’t think about the things that matter most to me, and when they do they usually have a different opinion.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t poor thinking and clear thinking. The trouble is that we assume crystal clear thinking requires inborn genius, and fatalistically accept the thinking skills we were allotted by genes and children’s television. If you don’t have it, you can’t learn it. This belief is particularly widespread when it comes to creative thinking. Unless you start spouting sonnets as soon as your head pops out between your mother’s legs, you’re probably not going to be a poet of any note. Genes are certainly an important factor in winning a Nobel or a gold medal at the Olympics, but so too is training. And training can improve the fitness of anyone, not only those with golden genes. Yet being mentally fit is more often associated with standing trial for murder – or not being ready for a nursing home – than sharp and healthy thinking.


To practise hand-eye coordination we have simple concrete tools like a bat and ball, but rarely do we think of tools to perfect our ability to make decisions or think of solutions to a problem. At least I didn’t, until very recently, when I began attempting to incorporate critical and creative thinking into the course I teach. Very generally, creative thinking generates ideas, while critical thinking analyses and evaluates them. There are plenty of books and courses on critical thinking, and a few on creative thinking, but how useful they are I’m not sure. Some studies have found that critical thinking courses at university actually have no long-term effect on the critical thinking abilities of students who take them. I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised – many English courses have no effect on the ability of students to speak English either.

The main reason people fail to learn a language is that they study the rules of the language – the grammar – but don’t practise using it. Learning *about* a language and *using* a language are very different sets of skills. Intelligent people are better at learning grammar and vocabulary, but studies have found little correlation between intelligence and communicative ability. Since language teaching is often based on the study of grammar, I guess that’s why people have the idea that you need to be smart to learn another language, even though most people in the world grow up speaking more than one language in their everyday life. My foster-sister apparently has an IQ of 54, but you wouldn’t immediately think so because she has no trouble making herself understood.

I suspect the same thing applies to thinking; theory and practice are very different things. Occam’s Razor is all very well, but it doesn’t help you to come up with the simplest explanation in the first place. And knowing what modens tollens means says little about the clarity of your thought. Many books on critical and creative thinking are like books that teach you how to catch a ball by explaining principles of gravity and biomechanics. In other words, fairly useless when a baseball is incoming. Gloves, on the other hand…

Principles direct, tools do. When an artist paints, he uses specific tools like paintbrushes. When a carpenter makes a chair, she uses specific tools like a hammer and saw. Artists and artisans study how to use each tool to achieve desired effects. They are guided by principles such as perspective, but it is their mastery of the tools that gets the work done.


Okay, so what do mental tools look like? And how much effort are they to use?

Well for a start, if I accept that I spend most of my time thinking – about relationships, patterns, problems, choices, money, sex, and so on – then I should be willing to invest a significant amount of time and effort to improve my thinking skills. The benefits hardly need elaboration. Certainly geniuses put in a lot more work than is often attributed to them. Even creative genius is usually built on the foundation of discipline equal to any marathon runner. Creativity is not just anything goes, like the preschool painting. It emerges from a rich, structured environment. At some level, creativity requires order. (I read about a study recently which suggested that kids who grow up in messy environments aren’t as smart as those in neater surroundings). More than anything else, Time is needed to cultivate a supportive environment and to learn how to use the tools of the trade.

Time is not money; it’s priceless. All the more reason to make better use of what we have, by thinking more efficiently. The first step is to clear our mental space of all the distractions that infect it, like computer worms clogging up processing power. “Thinking” sounds tiring because we do too much of it. This essay is hard enough to plough through, let alone all the other things that demand our attention every day. We live in a world of chronic mental fatigue. So to think better we need to choose what to think about more judiciously. I spend half my time thinking about useless stuff, like which brand of toilet paper best meets my needs.

Having said all that, thinking doesn’t have to be as hard as it’s made out to be. Some of the best thinking tools are ones which require no thought to use. Ever flipped a coin? They are incredibly simple. So simple that we often don’t bother to use them. When people tell me about a dilemma they’re in, I sometimes ask them if they’ve written down the pros and cons. Few have. It seems too simple: a sheet of paper with a line down the middle and a word on either side. A tool. But I find the act of writing helps to focus and clarify what I mean, and usually they do too. None of the ideas in this piece of writing are new, but writing them out helps me to understand them better. (Writing is the stone axe of the mind as far as I’m concerned.) The abacus is another example of a thinking tool which frees the mind. Maps are excellent – not only for physical spaces, but particularly conceptual ones (http://www.google.com/search?q=argument+mapping). Many mental tools are simple procedures. A good example is “Dr ABC”, which helps us to think in an emergency. On the other hand, strategies and rules of thumb aren’t mental tools; like hammers, mental tools are used in specific ways for specific purposes.

How many different mental tools do you use?

We surround ourselves with such tools unconsciously, because they reduce the cognitive load. Some tools enhance the things we do well, like pattern recognition. Others help us with things we handle poorly, like memory or probability. But the problem is that we don’t use them in a systematic way, and there are many more waiting to be identified – partly because we don’t really know how the mind works. Edward De Bono talks about tools, and I think the techniques and procedures he discusses are useful (certainly compared to some of the other advice on thinking that’s out there), though I’m not sure if they’re all tool-like enough. Mental tools need to be  transparently simple. So simple we that using them becomes unconscious, like riding a bike. Experts ‘just know’ the answer, but that’s only because they have automated the chunking of many tiny patterns, each of which they had to do consciously at first. Good thinking, like bad thinking, is a habit we can get into.

I agree with De Bono that play is important. The best tools are often toys, which explains the perennial popularity of the ball, a tool for improving hand-eye coordination. If you think about it, all toys are skill-improving tools. At the moment I’m learning to play Go, a wonderful toy for practising prioritising and pattern recognition, and better than any list of principles could ever be. School students studying basic probability from a textbook would be better off playing poker. Play provides context, motivation, enjoyment and learning. Thinking, unfortunately, is often divorced from all of those things. Why?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Thinking is, or should be, something we Do. Collapsing the distinction between Thinking and Doing isn’t just a semantic trick – after all, people who visualise success are more likely to achieve it. When was the last time someone asked you what you did on the weekend and you answered: “I thought about things”? Even if that’s what I did, I’m more likely to say something like ‘Not much’, or ‘I went for a walk’. If we accept this traditional dichotomy between Thinking and Doing, thinking is passive. It isn’t an action at all. We give offerings of information to the wise one within, who cogitates mysteriously before uttering an answer, which we then act on. Magically, this often works. But this unconscious process can be improved with conscious modification: if we make the choice, we can bootstrap our intuition.

Our brain is a Marvellous & Mysterious Machine, but, like the Tin Man, it runs better when oiled.


Next: How I used those words.

I did say ramblings…


* Not to be confused with logorrhoea, an ongoing condition.

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