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How To Think - Body by Henson, brain by Seuss. [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Kelly J. Cooper

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How To Think [Aug. 17th, 2010|04:02 am]
Kelly J. Cooper
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In my ongoing quest to untwist my brain enough to have a happy life, I've noticed over the years that one of the mantras in my head when I get stressed is "I CAN'T THINK! I NEED TIME TO THINK!"

Truth is, I have plenty of time to think. Of course, I have to be careful. If I think while in bed, I'll fall asleep (not that I'm that boring to myself; it's just the hypersomnia).

The problem, I've come to believe, is that I don't know HOW to think. Sort of. Kinda.

I know how to REACT. I'm quite good at that, especially under pressure. In fact, on of my coping mechanisms is to leave decisions until they become urgent situations. Not only am I forced to deal due to deadlines, but I am also shifted into REACTION MODE, which is most commonly found when handling a disaster (whether physical or metaphorical).

But when it comes down to HOW to think about things that are more complicated than expressing a preference, I freeze up a bit. About the best decision-making mechanism I was taught growing up was the PRO/CON list, which doesn't really apply when trying to evaluate the deeper meaning behind some habit or problem.

It almost seems like it's a lack of critical thinking skills. I haz them when it comes to thinking critically about literature, for instance. I can analyze Shakespeare or do a close read of The Great Gatsby. But when I want to think about the larger implications of a particular political maneuver or analyze my obsession with owning books rather than borrowing them from the library, it's like I run out of fingers for counting.

It feels like I can't manage the multiple flows of information. Like I'm trying to untangle the strings of a huge bunch of balloons; I become obsessed with a knot, my grip loosens, and half the balloons slip from my fingers and float away.

I don't think it's a problem-solving issue. I'm fairly good at solving problems as well as defining problems, in order to be able to even begin solving them. I'm good enough at it that I tend to throw all my problem-solving skills at things that don't need solving, per se. Things that need... evaluation? Disentangling? A chart with circles and arrows? Enough reliable data to render an opinion? I'm not sure.

Since it's hard to think about what it's hard to think about, I've given up trying to JUST think about it & put it here. Opinions & feedback actively solicited and welcome.

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[User Picture]From: kjc
2010-08-18 06:39 am (UTC)
It is very VERY hard for me to be kind to myself.

I always forget that part.

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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2010-08-17 12:19 pm (UTC)
Something I discovered over and over again during my brain-damaged months was that formal structures really help in that state. If I can write things down, make lists, draw pictures, construct logic-grids, whatever it is, I can reduce the load on my brain and no longer have to hold on to quite so many balloons.

Not that this is a new or brilliant insight or anything, but it became a lot more visceral during that period.

The brain damage has healed, but the pattern remains true in a less dramatic way. How I approach thinking about something matters. There's a difference between thinking about something in my head, and writing about it, and talking about it. There's a difference between writing about it on scraps of paper, writing about it in email to someone, and writing about it in LJ. There's a difference between writing an essay, writing a short story, and writing a poem, even if they're all about the same thing. They exercise different parts of my brain, they invoke different sets of ideas, they provide different kinds of support.

Poetry is a particular case in point for me... the formal structure of language, of rhyme and meter and metaphor, often creates a space where I end up saying things I didn't realize I was saying.

So I guess my suggestion is to allow your technique to branch out a little bit. You're trying to solve a different kind of problem, here, and different kinds of tools may be called for.

Write more essays. Keep a notebook and jot down phrases that feel significant and write about them. Even if you can't think of anything to say about them, set aside an hour and write about them anyway. You don't have to publish the result. Pay attention to what comes out, and to patterns in what comes out, and to how you feel about what comes out.

Write some semiautobiographical fiction. Write scenes where some idealized version of yourself is doing things, or where some maximally pessimized version is, or where characters who feel connected to you in ways you don't fully understand are doing things for no obvious reason. Again, pay attention to patterns and feelings.

Write some poetry. Start with an image that captures your attention, and describe it -- how it presents itself to your senses, and what about it is capturing your attention, what feelings it evokes, what it makes you think of -- and describe it as though all of those things were equally real, equally present, equally tangible. Then set it aside for a day or a week or a month and come back to it and try to understand what the author was feeling when she wrote it.

Write longhand as well as online. Write in different places, and at different times of day. Write while hungry, and while tired, and while well-fed and well-rested. Write while hungry and write while sad. Pay attention to patterns and feelings.

Get a block of post-its and a blank wall and some tacks and string, and spend a couple of weeks jotting things down on post-its and sticking them up on a wall and running connections between them. Don't worry about what criteria you're using, just follow your whim. After a while, start looking at the big picture you're creating and see if any patterns become evident.

Try automatic writing... you know, the spiritualist technique. If it works for you, never mind the source of what you get (I don't know how diehard a materialist you are, but if you are, just treat it as a different kind of creativity exercise), just read it and see what that inspires, see what it's telling you.

Etc. There's nothing special about these particular techniques, I just mention them because they work for me. There's a million others just as good. The point is to get different parts of your brain and your mind engaged, and give those parts some way of expressing themselves tangibly, and pay attention to patterns in the results.
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[User Picture]From: miss_chance
2010-08-17 01:15 pm (UTC)
I'm finding this post and the comments incredibly insightful and helpful.

My thought as I read 'don't worry about how you think' was that that seems like it works well if you already have a flow and a rhythm going. But in trying to learn rhythms and movement—which are non-intuitive for me—I have people telling me 'don't think about them, just do them,' and I find that what they're telling is helpful in reminding me that that's the goal I'm trying to Get To but, for me, not a Way to get there. I need to analyze the beat or the movement, break it down into parts, practice each part separately put a couple back together at a time, etc, and THEN I find myself able to not think about how I'm doing it, but just doing it. I like Bill's comment as a reminder that this is a goal of the kind of flow to get to, and I like Dave's comment as a potential process to get there.

One thing that I found myself struck by immediately was the suggestion of trying to write poetry about a problem... say 'How will I structure and balance my day tomorrow? How will I get over this block about a project I'm stuck on?" Right now I'm reading "Galileo's Daughter" [Dava Sobel] and noting that many of the social problems Galileo faced he wrote poems about. He wrote a ribald poem about why he refused to wear academic robes as required of him (and paid fines out of his then tight salary, instead). I thought when I read that, that he was using funny poetry to try to win public opinion, which may be true; but it might also be true that the subject upset him and twisted him in knots and distracted him, and writing a poem helped him sort it all out. I'm reminded that many of the scientific and political figures we admire centuries later, wrote poetry, and essays, and letters, and that maybe there was some of exactly this going on.

As I'm trying to learn how to be my body (instead of being my brain, held in my body, which is how I was raised and developed myself to be) I'm learning that it's easier to do that if I do a little each of some dancing, some biking, some walking, some climbing, some resting... etc., rather than trying to inhabit my body by putting all of my available physical time into one activity (which I had thought I should do, so I could get better at one thing).

I think they're related quests, and related techniques might apply. After all, our brains are made of meat, and our bodies are riddled with nerves.

Thanks for an interesting though-provoking post to start my day!
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[User Picture]From: kjc
2010-08-18 06:58 am (UTC)
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the topic!

Part of this for me is the realization (or perhaps the crystallization) of my response to my ADHD diagnosis. Accepting the diagnosis is allowing me to come back to stuff that's always been an issue or a background noise thing & reevaluate whether I'm trying to apply normative thinking & expectations to a non-norm brain.

And if I am, in fact, holding myself to some sort of standard that doesn't apply, how do I address it? Fix? Repair? Rethink? Review? Redo? Try something new?

It's pretty damn challenging and it doesn't have a handle, at least not yet, for me to grab.
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[User Picture]From: kjc
2010-08-18 06:50 am (UTC)
Ya know, you enrich my mental/intellectual life in ways I can't even begin to describe... stuff to think about, ways to approach issues, encouragement about all sorts of stuff, and interesting questions.

Thank you very VERY much for sharing your time with me.

I've been keeping a journal for the past year or so, carrying it with me pretty much everywhere, and it's been useful in helping me to relax a bit about things I will inevitably forget.

If I really need to know something (and I almost never do, so it's sort of an irrational fear, although every so often...), I have notes from various places in subject-specific notebooks (one for MYP, one for the Somerville Garden Club, one for each trip I take) as well as the general journal and my bedside journal (recipient of things that happened on a given day if my brain won't stop chewing on them when I try to sleep as well as weird dreams, bits of poetry, and other thoughts).

But I've never really thought of poetry as a different way of approaching a problem rather than a solution for extracting some painful/difficult stuff from within me.

And I haven't used visual mapping techniques since I learned them in a class I took a few years ago, "100 Things To Do Before You Turn 100."

The other stuff all sounds interesting as well. I will try some variety and see what helps!
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2010-08-18 11:42 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: drwex
2010-08-17 04:53 pm (UTC)

I don't have a general answer

Instead I have a bunch of different strategies and I try them as seems appropriate. Stuff like "make a diagram" or "go meta" or "find examples on the Web of other peoples' solutions".

Marvin Minksy said that when he didn't know how to think about something he would try to imagine someone he admired and ask the question "how would this person think about this problem?"
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[User Picture]From: kjc
2010-08-18 07:04 am (UTC)

Re: I don't have a general answer

Heh. What WOULD Feynman do? I like it.

And I've done some of the things you list here.

I think part of the problem initially was that I didn't know of other strategies.

I mean, I knew OF them. But it had never occurred to me to apply them to me or my life or my brain. Apply them to external problems, yes. Apply them to internal problems, buh wha huh?

I was, in essence, looking for more tools to add to my toolbox but I didn't even know which aisle to try in the gigantic Brain Depot.

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[User Picture]From: istemi
2010-08-19 12:45 pm (UTC)
No great insights to offer, but what an interesting question to think about.

What's the difference between a reaction situation and an ordinary situation? You have the same skills in both situations. How is the experience different?

Sometimes it helps to ask, what's the question on the table. When I start wandering in the data jungle it helps me get my bearings again. Why am I slogging through the jungle? Oh yeah, right. It helps with web surfing, too. Why am I reading about textile preservation issues? Right, I strayed from the path of .. shoot, I don't even remember how I wound up on textile preservation.

When I'm gathering information about a topic, similar ideas clump up. I was comparing a couple source control systems. After a few pages, the overall structure of opinions was clear. Then I hang variations on the details off that skeleton. In my head, I go from reading everything in the same matter-of-fact newscaster voice to reading it and then saying "ah, that goes over here". Once I have a structure I step back, look at it, and decide what I think about it. ( Truth be told, sometimes I already know how I feel about something, and I arrange the pieces to support it. It's useful to notice when this happens.) That all sounds weird now that I read it, but that's what it's like inside my head.

How about you? Any new thoughts in this conversation?

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[User Picture]From: kjc
2010-08-20 06:57 am (UTC)
Reacting means acting without much thought, because it's rote or because the (remaining) choice is wicked obvious or because you don't have any time (so you make quick, instinctual choices or your preferences reach out from the back of your brain to grab what they want; with normal situations, you might have coax out a preference or, because you are thinking about it, you must put it through some kind of cost/benefit analysis).

This is a crappy example, but deciding what to have for lunch goes from an ordinary situation to a reaction situation when all you have to eat in the whole house is an apple. "I'm hungry" becomes "Eat the apple." There's no thought about how unhappy my stomach is or whether I've had enough protein or am I craving chocolate or do I want a sandwich, etc.

I often go back to the core question. One of the problems I've had with serious thought it defining the parameters of the core question. The question "What do I want?" is met with the response, "I don't know, what are our options?" Figuring out the core question can be really hard. But it is also a good question to use to clarify the thought process.

I think your gathering information description makes a lot of sense; by contrast, it actually helps me clarify how I DON'T have that.

I think one of the problems I sometimes have is that, when I'm gathering information, ideas & data don't necessarily clump. In my mind, I've got a giant floating cloud of data that isn't weighted by usefulness, preference, importance, etc. I have to go back through the data & add weights and preferences. Then go back through the data and see if I missed anything. Then go back through the data and see if a pattern has developed. Then take a step back, then a step forward, then a step back, and we're doing the cha-cha!

And that's what it's like if I can focus. If I can't focus, there are somewhere between 10 and 500 of those clouds, kinda floating around my head. Big balls of data just whirling around. Occasionally balls float near each other and I can see their similarities and I am thrilled and then I'm doing something else. Throughout my day or my night or whatever, I occasionally discover a new idea or data point & fling it into the cloud. If I'm lucky, I fling it into the right cloud. If I'm not lucky, I might never find it again (which is deeply distressing even if it's an insignificant data point because I never know what's going to provide the spark or a big connection).

Eventually, if I really need to nail down the data into some sort of concrete form, I start packing them into boxes and organizing them. Then I write about them. Somewhere, there's a processor in my brain that has been staring at the cloud and making connections between all the ideas and the data. The conscious sorting and the unconscious sorting meld together into an essay or epiphany or new medical diagnosis or whatever.

Other times, I can't get anything out. Writing refuses to be the conduit, so I can't get from the giant floating cloud of ideas and data to a completed thought or clear understanding or whatever goal I was pursuing. So all that STUFF is just floating around, getting in the way of other things, confusing me, and taking up processing power/priority/room. I can't bridge the unconscious process and the conscious process. I might not even be able to nail down the parameters of the question or figure out which cloud has the information I want now or... any number of things.

There's a part of me that really wants some sort of tree or architecture or outline so that I can take all these ideas and data points and hang them on a structure to better manage them. But they're all just floating there, overwhelming me, and I feel exhausted and it's like my brain is the inside of a bar-plus-restaurant, with talking and yelling and music and noise and smells and tastes and images flashing on screens and good things happening and bad things happening and I can't focus on anything, much less make sense of any portion of it.

That STRUCTURE is what I was asking about, in a way it's the core of my original question, although I didn't do a very good job of getting there before now.

Thank you very much!
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