Sunday, November 26, 2017

Not So Random After All

A couple of weeks ago, I challenged myself to write every day. I thought I would see what it feels like to just write whatever random thoughts are in my head each day. The truth is whatever thoughts are in my head on any given day aren't really random. My thoughts are influenced by what I read in the news (and whether I care about it or not), by the time of year (holidays, deadlines), and by my own personality and interests.

If I really wanted to write about something random, I'd write about a topic someone else chose for me. I remember doing writing exercises like that in school. WordPress has a one-word prompt for blogging ideas (recent examples: percussive, underdog, gremlins, mercy). That's random.

If I chose a random word and wrote about it without any preparation, I wouldn't do it very well unless the word evoked thoughts of something I really care about. For example, I have no idea what to do with the word percussive but I would have a field day with underdog and mercy. I just don't express myself well extemporaneously. It's the way my introverted mind is wired. My random thoughts take a long ride through the Broca's area and the right fronto-insular and the left hippocampus. It's nice to know they're going somewhere and not just bouncing around aimlessly.

Word: brain. I'm fascinated with the human brain. Whether introvert or extrovert, I don't think the mind's wiring is random.

Last weekend, my husband took me to the public library. I always go to the one closest to our home. It's small but I always manage to find something to read. Kent wanted me to see how much better the more distant library is (3.5 miles from home versus 1.8). It was nice! Since we were there, I checked out a couple of books.

One of the books I chose is Before You Know It, by John Bargh, PhD, about the unconscious mind and the reasons we do what we do. In a chapter on gut instincts or intuition, Bargh wrote about research on whether unconscious decisions were as good or better than decisions we make consciously. He said that conscious thoughts are better if there are rules to follow, such as when you are making a financial decision based on a budget. 

Unconscious decision-making is better when there are many complex factors to consider. Bargh explains that our conscious working memory is limited and can't focus on more than a few things comfortably. 

Studies have shown that the best decisions are made with a combination of conscious and unconscious thought processes. If you first consciously think about a problem and then put your unconscious mind to work, the outcome is better. The trick is, you have to distract your conscious mind by thinking about something else entirely. Your unconscious mind remains active and helps solve the problem.

This makes me think of the "tip of my tongue" experience, when I'm trying to remember the name of a person or movie and I think it might begin with a certain letter but I just can't remember it no matter how hard I try. I've learned to just say, never mind, it will come to me when I'm not trying. I know my unconscious mind has the answer.

Writing works the same way for me. If I think of a topic with my conscious mind and then go on to do something else entirely, my unconscious mind kicks it around for awhile. I pull up long-term memories and make personal, emotional connections. My frontal lobes get into gear and plan how to organize and make sense of my thoughts.

Knowing that my thought processes aren't as quick or spontaneous as I would like them to be doesn't mean that I shouldn't challenge my brain to work differently. One of these days, I'll give the truly random one-word thought prompt a shot. 

Gremlins were lemons.

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