Hello there! Welcome, this is the 11th episode of my Soul Searching series. The preceding 10 episodes can be found here:
- Personality Tests
- The human brain
- Thinking vs Doing
This edition of the Soul Searching series is about information. Specifically, it is about dealing with it. I’ve noticed for a while that I have the following challenges in daily life w.r.t. information:
- I receive a lot of information from many sources. For a large part, this is because I’m very curious, and continuously gather information by listening to podcasts, reading books, and talking to inspiring people.
- Only a small part of the information that I receive is actually stored. This happens to me when listening to podcasts, where out of the (say) 10 useful nuggets, only one remains the next day.
- When the information is a ‘todo’ item, then I tend to keep it in my head. This seems to give me stress.
- When the information is an idea, it often disappears from my mind quickly, even if it is a good idea. For instance, I often have good ideas when I’m out walking or during the time period that I’m in bed but not yet sleeping. If I try to get these ideas back later, I usually fail to do so.
There is a natural process occurring here. Of course, the human brain does not have the energy or capacity to process all the information that it receives in detail. It filters, selects, and stores information based on … – I don’t know what actually. But it is a useful and necessary functionality of my brain. Highly senstive people, for instance, process information in a more intense manner, and this is (I’m told) not an easy thing to deal with. People with autistic spectrum disorder can also suffer from sensory overload.
It’s time for a schematic, I think. I like working with schematics, because they somehow stay with me easily.
This particular schematic is probably woefully inaccurate and incomplete, but I want to use it here to formulate my thoughts. Just in case you are wondering: at the moment that I’m writing this, I don’t yet know exactly what I want to say. I really am using the schematic to formulate my thoughts.
I think my brain basically performs three steps with information: filtering out the useless stuff, processing the potentially useful, and then storing information (or stuff derived from it) for the short/long term. Most of this is completely automatic: my brain is running like a quiet little fan in the background, doing all that work for me.
I do have some influence, though. Of all the information out there, sometimes I choose to let it into my system: reading a book, listening to podcasts, or watching a TV series. So if I want to tackle the challenge highlighted in the first bullet, then there is a simple solution: choose well. I think I could (should?) be more selective about the books I read, the articles I read, and the podcasts that I listen to. The volume and diversity of topics that I’m currently ingesting is simply too large. This relates nicely to the larger questions in my journey of personal development: ‘what is my purpose?’ and ‘what do I want?’. Choosing is, I think, easier when I have a clearer idea of what my answer to those questions is.
In terms of processing, I also have a bit of control. Let’s take ‘listening to a podcast’ as an example. When I encounter one that I find very interesting, I often just keep listening to the end and then I think ‘that was great, I want to remember that’ – and then I forget it. If I truly want to remember something, I have to pay more attention to it. I don’t want to turn every podcast into a week-long study session, so I’m now using a different approach: I’m writing a blog. For me, this helps getting it off my mind and serves as a way to process it a bit more than just ‘casually’. Also, it is stored somewhere, and I can read it back, or adapt it later on. So that takes care of bullet nr. 2. And, as it happens, if I choose carefully what podcasts I listen to (‘bullet 1’), then I also have more time to spend on a podcast (‘bullet 2’).
I’m unsure how much influence I have on the storing of information. I could, of course, now go and do a lot of research into it and try to figure that out. But let me just share my thoughts and experiences, I think that is sufficient for me for now. I’ve always had the idea that information is stored more easily in my brain if it is related to other information that is already stored. It is as if the linking of pieces of information has more impact that the pieces of information themselves. Here, I think I benefit from my love for abstract things: when I abstract a concept from information, than this concept can be easily linked to other concepts. These concepts have other concrete pieces of information attached to it, so linking information goes quicker with abstract concepts.
Another thought that springs to mind, is that storage is susceptible to decay. I’ve often had the idea that if I want to remember information for a longer period, I should interact with that information more often. But the tricky thing is, you can’t interact with information if you forget that this information is there. Somehow, I’d like to have an index to my brain that periodically reminds me of information that I have once stored. It keeps that information fresh. I wonder what effect this would have on me?
Also worth mentioning is that, for me, it seems that memories are often associated with sounds, smells, music, and images. I don’t know what to make of that. I’ve heard about this relationship before, and there is most likely an extensive body of research on it.
Ok, let’s return to the bullets. The last two bullets came from this podcast (in Dutch), where the host Kim Spinder interviews author Mark Tigchelaar. Mark explains what the brain does when it is used as a storage space for ideas and todo’s. The brain then functions as a reminder system, and helpfully reminds you that you are not done yet. Annoyingly, these reminders pop-up whenever the brain feels like it: during meetings, at the end of the day, when you are taking a shower, or when you are trying to sleep. There is also a relationship here with brainpower: if your brain has more capacity handle the storage of todo’s, then more of them will be stored there. Simply because it can. He offers some solutions, and I remember mostly that it is useful to get ideas and todo’s out of your brain as fast as possible, and store them in a single location. Preferably a location that is already part of your toolkit (an app, your e-mail, a paper list, etc).
I have some work to do here: I have a todo list on a whiteboard, my e-mail is partly a todo list, I use Pocket for things I want to read, some stuff is still in Evernote (I tried to move from Evernote to Pocket), and I have a ‘vision board’ with my todo’s related to personal development. This requires some work 🙂
From the same podcast came other useful pieces of knowledge. First, Mark explains that many things we do for fun (for me: reading articles, listening to podcast, networking with people, etc) also boil down to processing of information. Hence, doing these ‘fun’ activities has the same effect as working. He advocates the use of those little ‘in-between moments’ (standing in an elevator, small break before a meeting, etc) to do nothing: simply stare out of the window, of walk somewhere and back. Swiping Instagram, Marktplaats, or LinkedIn (oops, guilty as charged) is not a break! Shortly: taking a break is the same as not processing information. Doing nothing gives control of our System 2 brain back to our System 1 brain, i.e. we return to autopilot. Incidentally, System 2 is also in charge of creativity. Mark goes as far as saying that creativity and productivity are each others opposites. Wow, I think I agree with that.