Tag Archive for attention

The Top of Your Mind, Part II

In the shower this morning, my top-of-the-mind problem was how to design a mathematical model to express my ideas about discrimination.  Sitting in front of my computer right now, it’s how to explain my ideas about Graham’s article clearly; even when I take a break from writing this, I’m evaluating what I think, read and do in terms of this problem.  Yesterday, on a long car ride, my attention kept wandering to metacognition and the explicitness of game rules.  And that’s not even counting the times that my top-of-mind thinking goes to things that have nothing overt to do with my professional life, like the books I read!

In short, while I think Graham is onto something really important, I think he’s wrong about two big things.  First, I don’t think that shower time (or waiting-in-line time, or long-car-ride time) is the most useful time for ambient thought.  Second, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that most people have only one problem at the top of their minds at any given time.

I think this not just because of my own experience – after all, how representative am I? – but because of things that have come up in an apparently unrelated research study I’m doing.  I’ve been interviewing Ars Magica players about how the game shapes their ideas and feelings about history.  One thing that’s come up in a number of the interviews is that players’ characters become top-of-mind when players are exposed to historical information.  In other words, the characters and their problems serve as a filter for players’ attention to history.

While there are many interesting implications to this finding (which I’ll be unpacking further in my paper on the subject – watch this site!), what it says to me is that top-of-mind-ness is far more context-specific than Graham’s essay implies.  If I have a great conversation about game rule explicitness, I’ll find that at the top of my mind for a day or two.  If that idea then gets reinforced, it’s more likely to show up at top-of-mind when I’ve got no explicit priming information – like in the shower.  If I instead get another strong input, such as sitting down to work on my dissertation, my ambient thoughts are going to move to dissertation-related problems instead.

The problem to which your mind flows in relatively context-free time, therefore, is likely to be one that you get a lot of contextual reinforcement for.  What this means is that the idea you’re thinking about in the shower is an important signal of what contexts you’re spending a lot of time in.  Are you constantly thinking about, say, raising money?  Then the question becomes how often you’re being primed to think about raising money in focused contexts.

What’s cool about this is that it gives us some measure of control over our ambient thought.  A friend who’d read the essay was telling me that he had a hard time getting his mind to wander where he wanted.  What I told him is that, by definition, you can’t control the wandering of your mind!  But you can prime yourself repeatedly with things that make you think about the problem you wish your mind were wandering to.  Not everyone can use a focused effort of will to abandon unproductive lines of thought, but we can all give ourselves lots of exposure to the thing we wish we were engaged with instead.  Even if that’s one minute five times a day, it’ll help your mind go where you want it to, not where it shouldn’t.

Now I’m off to spend some time putting my dissertation back at the top of my mind!

The Top of Your Mind, Part I

Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about Paul Graham’s essay, The Top Idea in Your Mind.  He argues for “ambient thought” as a valuable problem-solving tool.  The thing you let your mind drift to when you’re in the shower, or standing in line, or on the subway?  That’s the thing you’re going to have insights about.  What seem like snips and scraps of time add up to a lot of attention on a problem, especially since they’re likely reflecting even more activity going on under the surface.

When it comes to creativity, this is what’s called incubation – time you’re not actively spending on a problem, but that nonetheless helps you solve it.  There’s some debate about how incubation works: does it help you come up with new ideas about a problem, or does it just help you let go of ideas that aren’t working?  Either way, though, that time is valuable.  As Graham points out, you can get unproductive things stuck in the top of your mind, such as raising money or arguments you’ve had.  If you do, you lose out on productive incubation for whatever idea you might have engaged with otherwise.

But are money and arguments really always unproductive?  Can we generalize beyond Paul Graham’s experience?  I think the answer is yes.  What’s common to Graham’s problematic “top ideas” he mentions is inability to control the outcomes.  Raising money is dependent on other people’s willingness to give it to you.  Resolving a dispute is dependent on the participation of whoever you’re in conflict with.  No matter how much time you spend “solving” these problems, they’re not within your power to solve.  Spending top-of-the-mind time on them is like salting your umbrella: it may make you feel like you’re cooking, but at the end of the day, it won’t taste very good no matter what you do.

Graham’s approach to forgiveness is a really good example of how to let go of problems you can’t control, and focus on ones you can.  When you find yourself able to spend your top-of-the-mind time on things you can make progress on, you’ll find that progress actually gets made!