II. Domain (a primer on thinking)
I realize that coming in with a "primer on thinking" in a software manual can come off as snobbish.
(But then again, last week I ate a taco with silverware so perhaps this is the person I am becoming—in my defense, I knew I had to adapt after the first one fell apart on me like a SpongeBob piñata, the kind where an adult has to step in with a finishing blow to break it open because the material's specifications was beyond the limits of these kids or something—I mean I don't know, maybe it was purchased as a revenge joke and made of Kevlar—and wouldn't this adult want to reaffirm his belief that he could have at least made the minors if it wasn't for...)
Anyways, why does Indigrid have monopoly claim on thinking? Aren't all programs about thinking?
Kind of, that is why we should take a deeper look, because it is something that you use often.
If you can break apart thinking into different mental processes, you can begin to see where they interfere with each other. And how you can troubleshoot your own thinking processes by identifying what you can ignore and what you should focus on at each stage of the process.
This section will define what an effective process of thinking looks like.
And since thinking isn't specific to Indigrid, it will give you additional distinctions you can use in other programs, or even away from the computer. The concepts and terminology will then be used for the rest of the document, to explain and justify how Indigrid helps facilitate this idealized process of thinking.
What is thinking really?
Thinking is taking previous elements and using them to come up with new ideas.
It is obvious that invention or discovery, be it in mathematics or anywhere else, takes place by combining ideas. Max Müller observes that the Latin verb cogito, for 'to think,' etymologically means 'to shake together.' St. Augustine had already noticed that and had observed that intelligo means 'to select among.'
These previous elements are ideas that you have previously been exposed to—by listening, reading, or thinking them up on your own.
I like the term "previous elements" to emphasize that they are just "ideas" that are known to you, and that you can use them to come up with new ideas. This means new ideas don't just appear out of nothing—just like you don't have thoughts in languages that you don't already know.
Keep this in mind for later, it is important.
"Previous elements" also separates the two sides of what would more confusingly be "using ideas to generate ideas." With "previous elements" we know which side of the thinking equation we are talking about:
Previous elements + thinking = new ideas.
To come up with new ideas, you use—or massage—previous elements and capture the new ideas that result.
These new ideas are somehow linked to the previous elements, though sometimes the associations are lost—if it happened unconsciously you would need to reflect to rediscover the associations back to the previous elements.
This is why it may seem like the act of stepping on to the bus instantly gives you the insight that you needed to solve a problem. But you wouldn't have had that insight if you had not exposed yourself to the previous elements you needed to somehow find the missing connection that brought it all together. More on this later.
And the idea generation cycle continues, as those new ideas can then become the previous elements of yet another set ideas, and so on.
What are some of the different types of thinking?
With some reframing, most types of thinking can be explained using the theme of new ideas coming from previous elements.
"Considering" could be previous elements reviewed—without judgement—into new ideas as aspects or accounts.
"Planning" could be previous elements as objectives and obstacles, which direct and inspire new ideas—in the form of plans.
"Inventing" could be previous elements as models, which guide solutions to problems resulting in new ideas as inventions.
"Understanding" could be previous elements connected with other prior knowledge into new perspectives or analogies.
When thinking, the previous elements are always different, and the ideas you come up with will be unexpected—but the process of taking those previous elements to come up with new ideas is very similar.
By abstracting thinking, we can create a model with a small set of basic operations—or transformations—that apply uniformly to all these types of thinking.
Instead of a process that is intuitive and unpredictable, we can focus on the parts that we have more control over to influence the stream of new ideas that we have.
Now that we have tested out reframing some modes of thinking as a variation of taking previous elements to come up with new ideas, we are still left with many verbs or operations that aren't explained—and really that is where the magic happens.
How exactly do we take old elements and make new ones out of them?
John Locke already figured this out over 300 years ago, using just 3 types of operations:
The acts of the mind, wherein it exerts its power over simple ideas, are chiefly these three: 1. Combining several simple ideas into one compound one, and thus all complex ideas are made. 2. The second is bringing two ideas, whether simple or complex, together, and setting them by one another so as to take a view of them at once, without uniting them into one, by which it gets all its ideas of relations. 3. The third is separating them from all other ideas that accompany them in their real existence: this is called abstraction, and thus all its general ideas are made.
This quote gives a blueprint for describing the process of thinking that goes deeper than "using previous elements to come up with new ideas" and that applies to the range of thinking types above.
Breaking down Locke's quote
1. Combining several simple ideas into one compound one, and thus all complex ideas are made.
"Simple ideas" can be reworded to "previous elements" to use the previous terminology.
The word "complex" just came into English around the time of Locke's essay, from the Latin "complexus"—or group of related elements. It didn't necessarily mean "something difficult to understand," like it does nowadays—it's original meaning was only "something with related or connected elements." But as more elements tend to take more time to understand than a single element, the definition has since matured to include "not easy to understand" as part of the definition.
However, we could reinterpret Locke's intended meaning it as taking single previous elements and putting them into a list—to show that they are related or connected.
2. The second is bringing two ideas, whether simple or complex, together, and setting them by one another so as to take a view of them at once, without uniting them into one, by which it gets all its ideas of relations.
This is the act of the mind that has benefitted the most from computers—scientists, economists, medical researchers, etc. interact with models of their ideas using spreadsheets to compound their understanding, and to find new insights.
There have been many examples where the same information presented in different ways lead to different ideas.
The example I like most is how during London's 1854 cholera epidemic, John Snow rules out air—the prevailing theory of disease at the time—as the cause by plotting the cases on a map and noticing they were concentrated around certain wells. The data of the cases was always there, but by comparing them to a map a new idea was formed—that the cause might have to do with the water of certain wells, and not the quality of the air.
3. The third is separating them from all other ideas that accompany them in their real existence: this is called abstraction, and thus all its general ideas are made.
This is act is concerned with finding patterns or concepts that can be extracted from one scenario, context, or domain and applied to other scenarios, contexts, or domains.
For example, separating ideas into generalized categories and giving the categories names so you can treat them as units, reduces the complexity of the problem—allowing you to keep only a few things in mind at a time.
This act of the mind has been extended the most by the programming discipline with its concept of "scope." Where you are only concerned with a handful of things at once that are relevant to the level or scope that you need to meet an objective, before switching to another "scope" with a different set of things relevant to a different objective. By focusing on a couple of details that matter, and abstracting everything else into as simple of a model as possible, programmers can manage the spectrum of complexity—from bits and logic gates at one scale, to petabytes and collective data centers of servers at the other scale.
How can you improve your process of thinking?
Now that you have a blueprint of the parts that make up thinking, you can begin looking at how to identify and optimize the bottlenecks to improve the effectiveness of your thinking.
The process involves selecting the previous elements most likely to inspire the ideas that you need, and laying them out in a medium to free your mind to wander amongst what's in front of you.
If thinking is simply using previous elements to come up with new ideas, then one observation is that the quality of your ideas depends on the quality of the previous elements you used to come up with those ideas.
For example: the questions you use to frame a problem, will influence the answers you think of to address the problem.
That is, thoughts have a priming effect on the thoughts that follow them.
To use previous elements as building blocks for new ideas, you first learn or create them—they then become potential for new ideas. But it isn't enough to know them, you then need these elements available to you—consciously or unconsciously—at the time that you are coming up with new ideas. This isn't to say that spontaneous insight never happens away from the problem, but these types of discoveries come after extensive preparation where the previous elements for the solution are reviewed and integrated into the depths of your background unconscious processing.
With preparation, the previous elements are then available as unconscious hints to guide that background process until it has pattern matched something that fits with the prepared previous elements. This is why riddles can be solved with less difficulty with hints because the hints prime you for what you should be searching for, what paths you should be taking—and just as important: what paths or ideas you can ignore as not relevant.
Limits of prior knowledge
Hints to riddles usually don't represent something you didn't know but instead bring into awareness a concept that you did know, but didn't think could be applied in this situation. You can know something—have prior knowledge, previous elements—and yet not have that something available or present when you are coming up with ideas where that prior knowledge would be relevant.
You know many things that contradict each other, and yet each are still useful on their own depending on the context in which you select to use them. What you "know" must be reactivated or prepared for it to apply in the current situation.
By actively selecting and priming your thoughts with the previous elements you speculate will be helpful, lets you influence the type of thoughts you want to perceive by encouraging more ideas related to those selected previous elements.
That is, what you are thinking, noticing, or looking at, will influence your next thoughts—at times more than what you "know."
Since much of thinking is built up from previous thoughts, traditionally paper—a medium—has been used to help the thought process. Using words, symbols, and notation to represent ideas on paper lets you use your visual field as an extension of your short-term memory.
What you see on the paper makes up a stable set of previous elements—the priming—used to come up with new ideas.
Without needing to keep the priming—the relevant hints—in your short-term memory, you have more space for new ideas to fill in the vacuum.
And as your ideas flow into that vacuum and are externalized back into the medium, you extend your priming with new material—new previous elements.
When paper is thought about not so much as recording a settled set of ideas—but as medium to help your thinking, you can treat this alternative perspective as a separate mode.
This mode represents an acceleration of the process of thinking.
The process of thinking in a medium
The reasons for using a medium, is to both advance your priming by externalizing your previous elements, and to escalate the rate of performing "acts of the mind."
And the process looks similar no matter if it is done on a legal pad, in a word processor, or in an outliner:
Step 1. Externalize—mapping previous elements in a medium
The first stage is to jot any ideas that come to you. The purpose of this stage isn't to capture only good ideas, nor to organize your ideas, but to externalize the ideas into the medium so you can realize the benefits of not needing to keep them "alive" consciously.
Think of it as the difference between feeling your way around an unorganized dark cramped backroom of a supermarket with a flashlight for boxes of cereal, vs. taking those boxes and bringing them out to the illuminated floor of the supermarket. If you don't bring the boxes out of the dark backroom and dump them under the industrial luminosity hitting the supermarket floor, then you can only see a handful of boxes with your flashlight at a time—and most of your thoughts will be preoccupied with searching and memorizing. But when they are littered across the floor, you can rely more on looking instead of memorizing and searching.
Sure, it still isn't the Library of Congress of cereal or anything—but it's not like that collection of books materialized organized either.
The more familiar you become with the process, the less resistance you will have in expressing ideas as you reframe the discomfort of externalizing ideas you don't like, with the confidence that it moves the process along, it gets you to the next thing.
Once the ideas are on a medium's surface, you can drop the cognitive energy needed to keeping these ideas alive in short-term memory. The point is to try to make it as easy as you can on yourself to have the ideas. Just as what makes for a good swimmer is as much their power and athletic potential as it is their technique that reduces drag—making it easier on themselves to swim faster.
It is the quality of ideas that is rewarded, not the difficulty you went through in how you got them—ideas in a medium reduces the drag that having them in your mind would have to getting more ideas.
Disorganization of your ideas at this stage is fine—and expected—you can organize it later. Get them written out without evaluating or judging them, as listing ideas is creative and open whereas evaluating ideas on is rational and closed. Bad, vague, incomplete, boring, wrong, and impractical ideas—all perfectly expected, get them in the medium where it will be easier to improve them.
Because once they are in the medium, your mind has full capacity to begin to improve them—instead of just trying to uncover them, instead of still bumping around for them in the dark trying to identify them.
Step 2. Transform—performing Locke's acts of the mind
Now that your ideas have been transferred onto a surface—or lifted into a model—Locke's acts of the mind are easier to perform.
In this stage, you enter a cycle where you are combining, comparing, and abstracting over the previous elements you have externalized into the medium to come up with better ideas.
You can perform Locke's act of combination:
For example, by listing more attributes or details under another element.
You can perform Locke's act of comparison:
With the externalized ideas on the surface in front of you acting as previous elements, you can begin to capture the associations that come to you as new ideas just by looking over the previous elements. Or by viewing elements in spatially different areas depending on some type of attribute, you can also capture new connections as you compare the different areas against each other.
You can perform Locke's act of abstraction:
By grouping and organizing ideas to reduce the number of things you have to be aware of at a time to make thinking easier. From there you can find areas that interest you, new questions that lead to better ideas.
Step 2 is a cycle between the different acts of mind, resulting in writing out more elements in the medium that become the next stage of previous elements that lead to even more ideas.
Your mental progress—your thought process—is displayed in front of you on a medium, which primes your thoughts to keep your thoughts pertaining to what is in front of you, helping your focus.
Step 3. Frame—turning results into artifacts
And finally, after enough acts of the mind your thoughts will converge on which ideas to develop further, and which ideas can be ignored for now.
At this point you can decide what to do:
You can now erase all the intermediate ideas that you used as stepping stones to get to the better ideas and turn what is left into a document or artifact.
Or if it was a study—the process was the result, so that you can more fully understand something, come to a decision about something, or plan something out.
- New ideas are created from previous elements.
- The process of creating new ideas from previous elements involves combining, comparing, and abstracting previous elements into new ideas.
- To improve this process, you use a medium for two qualities it provides:
- To create a visual extension of your short-term memory which primes your thinking to recognize more relevant ideas.
- To increase the rate at which you perform acts of the mind.