What do we do exactly when we think?

What happens consciously and unconsciously?

We don’t know.

The way we look at thought determines how we think

A common metaphor about how our mind works came up with the first computer shown to the world in 1946. Newspapers described it as a giant brain and in the years after that the metaphor turned around.

For a decades we saw our brain as a computational machine that performs the same everywhere. Intelligence was seen as a given:

Your hardware determined the performance of your brain

The concept of the fixed and the growth mindset changed that image.

We saw our brains more like a muscle and when you train that muscle, you become smarter.

But that still addresses the mind as an entity that thinks by itself. That is what Annie Murphy Paul calls brainbound thinking in her book The Extended Mind. And that image is flawed.

‘It’s the stuff outside our head that makes us smart.’

We are not built to sit behind a desk and think about abstract problems.

Our head sits on a body. And our brain developed while that body moved. Outside, while we were doing things, together with others.

We think in interaction with our environment

Murphy Paul uses the metaphor of a magpie. A bird that collects all types of material to build its nest.

You think with what you see and hear around you and with the tools you use. When you write a piece you think on your screen. You read back what you have written, you delete, you rephrase. You see what you think when you have put it down on paper.

Writing a clear story demands quite a lot from your mental capacity.

Because logical reasoning does not come naturally to us, spatial thinking does

Try a concept map: jot down the core themes in key words. Encircle them and make connections. This process triggers your natural ability to navigate:

Just like when you read a map: You point to where you want to go. You follow the route with your finger. When you have a concept map in front of you, you start to point at the different themes, you draw the connections with your hand.

You think with your body

When you pace up and down during a phone call, you formulate more fluently. And when you talk about a complex topic, you make more gestures. Gesturing helps us to get a grip on matters we do not fully comprehend.

So use your body when a puzzle no longer fits in your head

Put your thoughts down on paper in such a way that you can do something with them. Use post-its and move around the different parts of a wicked issue. Write or draw something next to it. And take a big piece of paper when you think about something together.

We think better with others, says Murphy Paul

Our brain developed by convincing others, instructing them and learning from them. But thinking together only works when there is room to explore all perspectives. And you have to be able to disagree in a constructive way.

Commonly we are more critical of other peoples’ ideas than of our own

You need others to sharpen your mind. ‘Listen as if you are wrong,’ says Robert Sutton from the Stanford Business School. It is hard you let go of your own view, but externalizing your thinking makes it easier.

That is the detachment gain

Looking at your own ideas from a distance, makes you less attached to them and enables you to explore them further. Put different ideas next to each other, ask questions and elaborate on them.

Turn it into an object you can work on together

It starts out as a mess of scattered key words and tangled lines. That is what happens when things are complicated. Exploring and sketching together you gain clarity and arrive at better solutions.

In summary:

We cannot tackle the questions of our time inside our heads 

And we cannot solve them by ourselves. So step away from your desk when you think about a wicked problem and see if you can map it out. This free crash course gets you underway.

It is about creating a situation that matches with how your brain works. With how we work as human beings.

I made this visual as a reminder. You can print it here to stick it on you wall next to your desk.