Head Space

How much would you give to have a bigger brain, one that could instantly remember everything in perfect detail and solve problems with dizzying speed? I’ve been reading a bit about the brain, memory and cerebral effectiveness this past year. Most recently, I finished a book by Daniel J. Levitin titled “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information.”

Levitin focuses on the concept of externalizing memory, which is basically the practice of using outside information storage tools to improve cerebral prowess. The storage tools in question are commonplace devices like file folders, storage drives, libraries, scrap books. By taking the responsibility for storing all the information we encounter in a lifetime from our brains and externalizing it, we allow ourselves “space” to store more information, namely information we regularly rely on in our daily lives.

To be productive or creative or efficient we need space, head space. Companies routinely externalize, or outsource, work in an effort to free up organizational resources for innovation and increase operating efficiency and speed. Homeowners who can afford to outsource routine maintenance like cleaning and landscaping. The concept of externalizing is quite familiar in life and as long as you externalize the right things, you can improve the way you work and live.

Externalizing memory, notes Levitin, also allows the brain to daydream, a task as critical to healthy brain functioning as is the ability to focus and problem solve. It is during daydreaming that our minds make out-of-the-box connections amongst ideas, spurring growth, innovation and creativity. No less than Albert Einstein embraced the value of daydreaming, noting that “the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge.”

I’ve written quite a bit in this blog about the topic of information overload and its detriments, a simultaneously modern and ancient problem. Humans have always struggled with finding the time and space to create, none more so than today when the expectation – real or self imposed – that we manage insane amounts of information daily is the norm. This expectation is simply nuts. Genetic adaptations to external conditions take multiple generations to manifest. To think that sometime soon our kids, or their kids, will seamlessly adapt to enormous, rapid-fire information demands is grossly naïve. Just as the pioneering work of Clifford Nass points out, we are not built to multi-task, forever parsing up our attention into smaller and smaller bits. We are not designed to automatically deal with the surging tide of information around us. What is more like likely to happen is smart people will learn to change their behaviors or devise clever short cuts to maintain focus and, more importantly, a sense of sanity.

Norman Doidge’s fantastic book, “The Brain That Changes Itself,” outlines the inherent changeability or plasticity of the brain and how non-genetic adaption is an inherent faculty of the human brain. Humans essentially have the ability to re-wire our brains when necessary, even though cataloguing the practical steps to do so is still under development. Nonetheless, the fact that we possess this faculty is a good thing for it might be the nearer-term solution to dealing with the vicissitudes of the Information Age.

But what can we do today, in this very moment? How can we find the head space needed to be productive, creative, innovative or to simply enjoy our daily lives? Back in late 2013, I offered a few steps to build a useful practice. Here they are again:

  1. Have the mind of an editor: A skilled editor cuts away what is not needed and sharpens what is required.
  2. Maintain the focus of an athlete: A true athlete is clear about what will bring him to his goal and keeps that clarity front and center.
  3. Cultivate the patience of a teacher: A great teacher understands that knowledge sometimes appears in the midst of noise and its appearance cannot be forced.

These steps remain relevant. I’ve found myself returning to them again and again, ever mindful that possessing information is one thing, learning what to do with it is another. It’s sometimes uncomfortable to concede that having a big internal memory bank is not a guarantee of recognition or success, in spite of how useful that memory bank was while I was coming up. No, now the true measure of my productivity rests in the balance between executive functioning and plain ‘ol daydreaming. In the middle of this balance I’ve found what I really wanted all along: achievement and glorious growth.

 

 

 

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