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!