Thinking Unthinkable Thoughts

Right now, today, we can’t see the thing, at all, that’s going to be the most important 100 years from now.” – Carver Mead

A few days ago I found out most people see images in their dreams. I never have.

This isn’t particularly surprising, because mental imagery has never been part of my life experience. I don’t visualize. I failed Geometry. I can barely read maps. In fact, my visual abilities were tested below the 1st percentile-low enough to be considered mentally handicapped, if it weren’t for my other mental abilities.

In short, there is a huge range of thoughts I simply cannot think.

Yet oddly enough, very few people have described me as mentally handicapped, though perhaps they’re just being polite.
I’ve survived life just fine. Thanks to GPS, I don’t constantly get lost. Thanks to mathematics, I don’t need to visualize a bouncing ball to calculate how fast it falls. And by associating people with their voice, my inability to recognize faces becomes almost irrelevant.

Through abstractions and technology, I manage to survive-even thrive.

Yet…what are the odds that visualizations are the only thoughts I cannot think?

What are the thoughts that humans, today, simply cannot think?

…obviously I can’t answer this question. But I can tackle a related one: how do we learn to think thoughts that are unthinkable today? Or alternatively, to compensate for being unable to think those thoughts?

Abstractions provide one method. Without modern notation, describing something as simple as the equation x^2 + 10x = 39  took 5 sentences-more than 75 words![0] Quadratic equations went from being a major challenge for the best Mathematicians to a concept taught in Middle School math courses. Can you imagine how difficult it would have been to develop the quadratic formula in these conditions? And how much harder it was to evaluate cubic and quartic problems?

Finding patterns in the data we want to understand, and developing abstractions and jargon in order to chunk these concepts into smaller bits is invaluable. Even if jargon increases the cost of communication, it may well be worth it to come up with terms or notation for every common concept, in order to expand the reach of available thought.

Good abstractions need to do more than just condense a certain class of data-they need to reveal its structure in useful ways. It’s damn near impossible to do long division using Roman Numerals!

Using others’ abstractions-“standing on the shoulders of giants”-is incredibly valuable, though relying on the abstractions without the underlying detail can leave you trapped and unable to adapt. By all means steal ideas-but be prepared to throw them away when something better comes along.

Piecemeal perception provided by tools is another. I can’t understand directions by reading a map, but I can get from point A to point B using a turn-by-turn GPS. And once I’ve traveled the route a few times, the directions make sense and I no longer need to rely on the GPS.

Similarly, I can’t rotate a Rubik’s cube in my head, but I can certainly rotate it and see what happens in real life.

Increasing the speed of feedback is another way to use perception to think better thoughts. Spend 10 minutes practicing giving speeches in front of a mirror, and watch how your body language improves dramatically.

Decreasing reliance on short-term memory is another general principle that lets us think more thoughts. One impact of writing is that it lets us wrangle through complex issues that far exceed what we can hold in our heads at any given time.

So this suggests a list of actions for anyone looking to improve their ability to think new thoughts:

  • Go through the details of important material in your field-don’t let yourself read summaries of summaries. Find the raw truth, and come up with several different patterns and ways of describing it.
  • Make your thoughts concrete. This can mean writing them down, or creating a program or even an excel spreadsheet-the point is that getting material out of your head makes it substantially easier to manipulate.
  • Find the pieces of feedback that would be incredibly helpful, but come slowly or rarely. Figure out how to increase the rate and quality of the feedback you get, whether through tools or processes.
  • Develop simulations and constantly improve the quality of the medium you work with. In the programming example above, don’t just write programs-work on improving your ability to write programs that clearly express your thoughts, such as by learning new programming paradigms (functional, object-oriented, imperative, and constraint-oriented programming are good examples) or new IDE styles (such as light-table.)

[0]: Notes on “Media for Thinking the Unthinkable”

Categories: Focus, Intelligence, Learning, Productivity

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