Napkin explores better thinking. We do this in a public dialog and — in parallel — develop an app incorporating our findings along the way. We regularly publish simple truths that guide us to live a more inspired and mindful life.
In this article, you will learn how to influence your mindset towards a more creative state, the role of open loops in our heads, and how to deal with overthinking.
We asked our audience to describe their relationship to thought. The answers speak in a clear voice. In this article, we reflect on the survey results with Dr. Karen Shue, Neuropsychologist and Brain Mentor, and want to know practical tips that help us to master our thoughts.
Napkin: Karen, you are a neuropsychologist and “brain mentor”. What led you there and what does your work look like?
Dr. Karen Shue: For almost 30 years I worked with people living with brain injury to re-establish their lives in the community. Then I started working with brain-technologies with people having a wide variety of life goals. In doing that, I realized that a great deal of what I was doing was teaching people to better understand how their brain works — not the anatomy or the chemistry, but the fundamental underlying principles of complex systems that are more practical and powerful in day-to-day living. In my semi-retired status now, I coach graduate students on how to use their brains more effectively across all areas of their life and work, and I’m determined to finish off my book — The Way of the Brain — covering these same principles.
Napkin: Exciting! Let’s start meta. More than half of our audience feels in charge of their thoughts. They perceive thinking as something that they actively do. You told me you have mixed feelings about this. How would you describe our relationship to thought? Are we in charge, or is thinking merely happening to us?
Dr. Karen Shue: Yes to both. Although we are mostly aware of the “directed” part of our thinking, every brain is making connections all the time, whether or not we try to direct it toward something specific. So while we can [try to] direct it to “think” about a certain topic, it will be making connections to other things at the same time. Some of that connecting may be directly associated with our chosen topic (like side connections, where thinking about “this” triggers ideas about how “that” might connect to it). Some will appear entirely unconnected (like remembering an appointment while reading a novel).
I think what holds most people back is not understanding how their brain works — that it’s a collection of connections, a network of networks — that it is always in motion, always creating, re-creating, and adjusting itself. So, for example, we can choose who and what to be exposed to, and that will create a direct influence on our moods, thoughts, and likelihood of actions. But very few people pay attention to this in an intentional way and thus don’t realize how much “independent” connecting is going on all the time.
Napkin: Considering that less than 40% find their stream of thought “mostly pleasant”, this lack of understanding seems to cause a lot of suffering. Or is the creative mind an unsatisfied mind per definition? Is an unpleasant stream of thought a hurdle or a driver for creativity?
Dr. Karen Shue: Again, I’d have to say Yes. (As in, it depends.) There are several elements here: (1) content that is pleasant or unpleasant; plus (2) a process that is enjoyable/satisfying or unenjoyable (e.g., frustrating) plus (3) our evaluation of our resulting thoughts. And each of those is influenced by our mindset — how we (read: our brain) are interpreting or what we do with what we are encountering. One person’s engaging challenge may be another’s frustrating blockage, right? Or one person’s rumination is another person’s problem-solving. Also, because “loose ends” (e.g., unfinished tasks, unsatisfying interactions) tend to keep “bouncing around” in our networks as our brain seeks a resolution, it will be those potentially uncomfortable bits that we notice most. That’s where mindset can influence things — are those open issues puzzles or intriguing challenges or signs of failure or incompetence?
Generally speaking, though, I’d lean toward yes, creativity tends to come from curiosity, flexibility, and openness to re-thinking and exploring alternative ideas. Not necessarily “unsatisfied” in an unpleasant sense, but unsatisfied in the sense of wanting something more or different. Contentment and resolution are pleasant, but not a driver for creative stretches. 😉
Napkin: Besides the fact that most people feel in the driver's seat when it comes to their thoughts, over 80% said they tend to overthink things. Can you give me one practical piece of advice to leave a thought loop when I am convinced it is not improving my decision or action?
Dr. Karen Shue: A thought loop implies your brain is going over and over (and over) the same things. Imagine a network passing the same information to the same node to node repeatedly.
One way to exit the loop is to introduce something new — disrupt the network activity: new information, someone else’s perspective, etc. Don’t just collect more “data” though — actively play with how this might change what you’ve been considering.
Or you can tell yourself “that’s enough” and take an action one way or another — if it feels horrible (or fabulous), you’ve added new data to your decision-making.
Bonus suggestion: Interrupt the looping by putting it on pause. Get the information you need in your head, have the intention to let it “cook” without your active interference, then go do something physical that requires your active attention. Your brain may surprise you after a while by popping out some new perspective or solution.
Napkin: The vast majority of survey participants identify with their ideas. They feel proud when having a good idea. But only 30% have a reliable practice in place to come up with good ideas. What can we do to increase the chances to have a good idea?
Dr. Karen Shue: Create more brain connections. 😊 More specifically, those leading to the “not in charge” variety. Remember that the brain is a collection of connections, a network of networks –always creating, re-creating, and adjusting itself. But if we think we are always (or should be) “in charge” of effective thinking, we short-circuit the generation of new and innovative ideas.
There are a number of ways to allow the brain to do its connecting thing, but what we are trying to achieve is a temporary state of “metastability” in the brain around that topic. Metastability means that we’re not allowing ourselves to “settle” into any one point of view. We “play” with multiple different perspectives, letting our brain sort through the possibilities, permutations, and combinations until it hits on some “aha”! My personal metaphor for this process is like mogul skiing instead of a straight downhill run. Bouncing from one possibility to another seems to give the brain the opportunity and stimulation to do its own “behind the scenes” connections, which is the best way to discover things you didn’t know you knew.
Choosing specific strategies to do this is related to what kind of problem we are working with and what kind of approach feels most fun and ultimately effective in the longer term. (By effective, I don’t mean just “it works”, but it’s something you are ready and willing to use when you need it. It should feel “do-able” and fit your style.) Some people do free-write journaling (i.e., true “wandering around” writing), some get as many bits of related information in their head as possible and then go do something active and absorbing (to allow what I call “back of the mind thinking”), some interview or read to get as many different perspectives as possible, some use writing prompts that ask you to connect apparently unrelated or opposite things — so many ways! The more often we allow the metastability, the more often we’ll get creative “ahas”!
Napkin: We asked our audience what they do to improve their thinking. The top-3 answers are 1. easy accessibility of resources like notes and books; 2. the right choice of tools and materials; and 3. carefully choosing the surrounding. What does your experience tell? How can we change our setup to make good ideas happen more likely?
Dr. Karen Shue: These are all good. It’s all in how we apply them and what we’re looking for as “improved thinking”. 😉
Resources are great for generating “input”. If we’re doing structured, linear, “directed” thinking, then we just need to make sure we have a way to extract what we are looking for and link it together smoothly. Decrease friction and distraction.
On the other hand, if we’re aiming for innovative, creative ideas — as new to us as to others — then those resources need to be able to be “sampled” in a less directed, more playful way. Increase (temporary) “confusion”/ getting “lost” through exploration of our resources.
Tools: Ditto. They need to be able to support the kind of thinking you want to be able to do. If you are reading to learn about a new area, you may want to be able to organize disparate bits as you come across them in different places. Structuring as you read.
But if you are trying to discover new insights in that area or get beyond some “stuck place” in your thinking, then you need to be able to grab the apparently random, unconnected, or “side thoughts” that pop up before you know exactly how they fit or where to put them.
The same tool can be used both ways as long as your intention is clear. Maybe you’re using a timer to keep yourself on task for a linear article (“I only have to do 15 minutes on this section”); the same timer might be a tool for a free-writing exercise to limit how long you wander.
Same considerations for the surrounding. Do you need focus to execute a linear plan? You will want to minimize distractions, of course. But you’ll also need to do some self-experimentation to see what environments promote that focus and motivation to move toward some identifiable outcome. If you need to wander a bit, likely your environment will look different — you’ll want more opportunities for “cross-fertilization”.
I’d add on mindset as a way to leverage our thinking. If we think we are only “thinking well” when we are clear, organized, quick to grasp the content, efficient, etc., then we’re missing out on appreciation of the creative process — which is invariably messy, confusing, and often iterative. If we can see these challenges as opportunities, as the chance to play, being more like a video game or puzzle, then we will do it more often and more…well…creatively.
Creative connecting can bring a kind of clarity. To allow for the “aha! experiences” that come from wandering around your information, I like to see people mess about with the information before trying to structure it. Mind mapping, looking at “opposites” together (“how could these be alike?”), or thinking about improbable connections (“what if…?”) means you want to be able to see a sample of disparate ideas together and be able to capture the notions that pop up. So less structure can be more if you’re trying to consolidate bits of information.
Napkin: Karen, thank you so much for sharing your perspective and these valuable tips with us! It was very inspiring and emphasized aspects of Napkin’s design very well.
Dr. Karen Shue: My pleasure!
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