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Think Less, Think Better (nytimes.com)
231 points by saeranv on June 19, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 39 comments

The best material I've found on this subject so far is Barbera Oakley's "Learning How to Learn" course (https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn) along with the companion book "A Mind For Numbers".

The two modes they refer to are focussed and diffuse, and the admission that our brains can't do both at the same time. She provides examples and techniques that, while some might find silly, are effective.

I feel like this is a lot of what should be taught (and indirectly is being taught) in middle / high schools! There's so much specialization later in life that no curriculum can cover everything and learning to learn seems essential.

Great course! Relatively easy and quick to take, but gives lots of good tips on how to learn effectively. Knowledge that benefits almost anyone.

> your life leaves too much room for your mind to wander

Well, for me mind wandering is the creative state, and something often richer, fuller and more interesting than mundane stuff. When walking or hiking, one of the most important things is to allow my mind stroll too (but its much better when it has some background stimuli).

While sometimes I regret not leaving in "now" because of being to busy, I rarely ever regret mind wandering. Even if it comes at a price - see "A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind" - Daniel Gilbert http://www.danielgilbert.com/KILLINGSWORTH%20&%20GILBERT%20(....

I definitely agree that mind wandering is where a lot of creativity happens and that it shouldn't be dismissed as just extraneous activity.

However, I think in this case, the author is talking more about this kind of mental baggage that people accumulate while scrolling through Facebook feeds and the like. We're essentially - whether we like it or not - memorizing crazy amounts of unnecessary information, and thus throttling creativity because we're still processing where Kathy went on vacation and what she ate there.

I try to reduce FB feeds, and try to read more offline, as too many low-quality thoughts are not only eating time, but are tiring and distracting, with little benefit.

But... this is more like "tough rush", a very opposite state of mind to "mind wandering" (even if both are different from the "animal-like" focus on current stimuli).

I agree. My favorite scene from "No Country for Old Men" is when Sheriff Ed Tom Bell figures out how the killer executes his victim, in the middle of a restaurant conversation with the wife of the hero ("My mind wanders" scene). It struck me as the exact way in which I have often thought. I read the book to realize it was not there. Must be an original contribution of the Coen brothers.

Until now I knew the exploration-exploitation-dilemma mainly from the path finding problem in a partially unknown environment. Exploitation will definitely get you to the goal, even if not in the optimal path. You can choose to spend some resources on exploration, hoping (but not guaranteed to) find a better global solution.

It's interesting to see the same concept applied to what the author calls 'mental load'. When there are mental resources available, not being tied down by anything, I can spend some of them freely on exploration. In stressful situations I always have to fall back to exploitation-only, possibly getting stuck in the local minimum of what I'm doing.

While it is definitely good to leave the mind free of unnecessary dead weight (Did somebody already reply referencing GTD? Can't be long.), it doesn't answer the question of how much time should be spent on exploration to achieve the best results. I find it fascinating when people talk about their own modes of operation and allocation of these mental resources, for example the recent article about the 100:10:1 game design.

> In stressful situations I always have to fall back to exploitation-only, possibly getting stuck in the local minimum of what I'm doing.

The situations where you are with your back to the wall and have to hunker down to meet a hopeless deadline are exactly the situations where exploring solutions benefits the most. Taking 5 or 10 minutes before you start down a path to consider the problem from the outside does not hurt the time to completion, and often benefits it when there are relatively obvious alternate solutions that are more narrowly scoped.

Spending longer than a trivial time on exploration is only really worth it when the possible upside is also very big. Before starting a year-long project I would find it normal to spend a few weeks exploring ideas, instead of just hunkering down to write code and seeing where it ends up.

>> Taking 5 or 10 minutes before you start down a path to consider the problem from the outside does not hurt the time to completion

This is true for modern, civilized world. We humans still suffer from "savannah brain", where main cause of stress was physical danger, and taking even 5-10 seconds to consider your options might result in you ending up dead.

That's why we developed physiological reaction to stress, that with help of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol shuts down exploratory part of our brain on chemical level.

Following your suggestion of taking 5-10 minutes to reconsider requires serious effort to overcome that reaction and, depending on your individual physiology, might even be not possible at all.

On top of that there's the thing called "stress addiction", which basically means that some people start seeking new sources of stress when their live becomes to peaceful. Which again works against your exploratory brain potential.

You are right. However, failing is inevitably part of trying. It does not mean we should not try.

Mental load is not the best way to look at performance hits from psychic states. The more central concept is attention. It's the contextual switches, the act of maintaining or allocating attention and the physical effects of stress on the brain that lead to reduced performance. Though short term states (conflicting active representations, attention and working memory[+]) share some mechanisms with long term negative states ( => stress, attentional sinks meant to bias the individual towards resolution that no longer work as well in the modern setting due to reduced personal agency),

The article muddles things by overloading the two concepts.

But regarding exploration vs Exploitation, it is indeed a very important concept. It is most studied in the literature in terms of "Bandit Algorithms" (you can play Go well with a version specialized for trees), imitation learning and reinforcement learning. Exploiting too much does not often lead to optimal long term rewards or minimized regret. A fair amount of recent reinforcement learning research has been how to get an agent to explore complex state spaces more widely.

We can even look at things at the societal level using this rubric. Basic research can be seen as exploring and focusing on product can be viewed as exploitation. It is my belief that things are weighted too much towards exploitation, currently.

[+] "Another possibility, though, is that activation of the internally attended content is attenuated when attentional resources must be diverted to the articulation task. " in http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3594067/

[+] "Engle and colleagues have investigated individual differences in WMC (working memory capacity) in young adults, and have argued that WMC is related to the ability to control attention, particularly under conditions of interference or distraction" in http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2852635/

Relatedly, business schools teach exploration vs exploitation in the context of companies, with a view that a company that does one finds it very hard to do the other.

> In everyday life, you may find yourself “loading” your mind in various ways: memorizing a list of groceries to buy later at the supermarket, rehearsing the name of someone you just met so you don’t forget it, practicing your pitch before entering an important meeting. There are also, of course, the ever-present wanderings of a normal mind. And there are more pathological, or at least more chronic, sources of mental load, such as the ruminative thought patterns characteristic of stress, anxiety and depression. All these loads can consume mental capacity, leading to dull thought and anhedonia — a flattened ability to experience pleasure.

This claim might well be true, but it isn’t at all proven by the experiments done on people trying to keep a string of numbers in short-term memory during a word-association game. Both of those demand deliberate conscious attention, it’s little surprise they’d interfere with each-other.

I doubt many people continuously dwell on their grocery list items throughout the day; once the list has been memorized, I doubt it’s seriously taxing problem solving or creative thinking. I’d suggest anyone who finds this to be a problem should try committing the list to paper.

Someone who is practicing a pitch before an important meeting either (a) prepared enough, and doesn’t need to fill the entirety of their mind with the narrow content of the memorized pitch, or else (b) didn’t prepare enough, and probably should be focused on the narrow content, to make sure they don’t screw it up.

If making sure you don’t forget someone’s name leads you to anhedonia, I recommend making an excuse up front and not worrying about it. Personally, I’ve never found learning a small number of names prevented me from paying attention to a conversation, but I’m not great with names, so perhaps the wrong person to ask.

As for a wandering mind: it’s entirely possible to both be focused acutely on the details of the environment, and simultaneously free-associating / letting the mind “wander”. The main time I find thoughts intrude sharply on paying attention to the immediate environment is when I’m trying to solve some very difficult technical problem.

I’ll certainly back the author up that depression and anxiety make it difficult to think creatively. These involve hormonal changes which give thoughts a narrow short-term focus. I find about ½–1 alcoholic drink helps relieve minor/temporary anxiety. Someone depressed should probably seek professional help.

>I doubt many people continuously dwell on their grocery list items throughout the day; once the list has been memorized, I doubt it’s seriously taxing problem solving or creative thinking.

That's because the list was just an example among many.

And you don't need to dwell on it "throughout the day" for it to be harmful in the way described: just dwelling on it for the 1-2 hours before you get to the supermarket is enough.

Often I find that stepping away from the computer and do a bit of "mind coding" is when I produce some of my best solutions to problems that I need to solve. I suppose this is not a perfect representation of what the author is describing because I am still actively pursuing answers in my mind. But detaching from the physical environment of the grind (i.e. sitting at a desk, staring at a blank Sublime Text window, etc.) often gives my mind just enough space to wander so that I can discover an innovative solution to a problem instead of trying to force it.

I really wish people would stop drawing insanely over-broad conclusions from studies of something that is really quite narrow.

The leap from 'cognitive load decreases variability of free associations' to 'we should all go on silent retreats' is pretty silly and enormous.

Yeah, but leap works perfectly well… if it were presented as a hypothesis. It's only the jump to conclusions that is the problem.

Can we stop posting articles that are behind a pay wall? What's the point of sharing if the link won't work for many readers?

You could pay.

It is a radical solution, and one I haven't implemented for myself yet. But there are some reasonably serious arguments for it, and it would solve your immediate problem.

True enough. I was just proposing, for a site like HN that is about open discourse between members, that posting content that excludes many of our members is a poor choice.

Or you could always open NYTimes in incognito mode.

I think NY Times content is frequently good enough that the inconvenience of various methods of getting the content makes it worthwhile.

dang, the moderator here, has said many times that paywall links are acceptable on this site.


Clear cookies.

I greatly dislike paywalls, and disagree, strongly, with HN's tolerance of them. But as paywalls go, the NYTimes' is rather permeable.

And for the obligatory "but writers/publishers need to be paid":



A $100/year fee would cover all existing Internet advertising paid by the 1 billion richest inhabitants of the world (roughly: US, EU, Canada, Japan, Australia, NZ).

A $500/year fee would cover all advertising, full stop. Again, for the 1 billion richest inhabitants.

I would prefer indexing this (progressively) to income.

You can bypass the paywall for most of them by clicking the web link and visiting from Google search results.

I know that. So why not post the search link instead - i.e. one that will work for everyone? Or HN could implement a "search on Google" feature to get around it. Requiring readers to a) know this hack and b) perform it on a mobile device keyboard is the ultimate in poor usability.

You don't need a keyboard. Click on the comments link and then click on the link marked "web" at the top of the page in the comments. There is a search link.

I've never noticed the "web" link before - that works for me (should this not be "search", btw). Thanks.

Should be Google, I believe.

No, just open in incognito.

NYT doesn't have a pay wall for the first 10 articles per month.

So now I'm left playing link roulette - maybe we could only allow nyt links for the first 10 days of the month!

Sure everyone's mind wanders, but there are some jobs where there isn't much room for that compared to other jobs. For example when I am programming I rarely make real progress when I am not pretty close to 100% focused on the task, because most of the time what I am doing is not really a routine problem for me.

This is consistent with what Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking Fast and Slow" says - engaging System2 (thinking) diminishes System1's (intuitiveness) capacity.

That is a comfy looking futon mattress in the picture. Any idea where one can be purchased in North America (Bay area to be more precise).

This explains why I could solve some problems when I was in toilet.

I get many of my best ideas while taking a shower.

Man do they lack vision. Two things stand out for me in this article:

- Lack of mention of the semantic web

- Obsession with privacy

It seems obvious to me that the semantic web is the way to organize the world's information. It also seems obvious to me that the web is incompatible with privacy.

I'm always surprised when people don't realize these things. It's even more the case when those who invented the web do.

They didnt control for how much ghrelin (the hunger hormone) is circulating which is known to increase intelligence in particular spatial intelligence which can be linked to creativity a naturally occurring survival function.

Afterall if in the wild, if you go hungry you need to innovate and be creative at feeding that belly.

Maybe people should not give some "sciences" so much of what Milgram observed as "obedience to authority" if they choose to not look at all factors which will influence their "scientific" results.

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