Writers are notorious for their punishing inner critics – tragically, those intimate bullies are impotent, having never successfully coerced creativity or muscled a great idea out of any terrified author. Luckily, a writer can nurture her creativity instead by developing skills like pattern identification, that help the brain get used to making connections. The result? Better content ideas. Why? It is “the habit of mind, which leads to a search for relationships between facts that becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas,” said James Webb Young, in his “Technique for Producing Ideas.”
The good news is that our brains are wired to look for patterns; in fact combining raw pieces of information to create something meaningful is a crucial aspect to learning and consciousness according to Cambridge scientist and author of The Ravenous Brain, Daniel Bor:
Perhaps what most distinguishes us humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ravenous desire to find structure in the information we pick up in the world. We cannot help actively searching for patterns — any hook in the data that will aid our performance and understanding.
This familiar activity of working through an idea, of trying to make sense of a thing, making lists, taking notes, drawing pictures, asking questions, waiting for something to crystallize, it’s what we’re programmed to do.
Hacking the brain’s limitations
The less good news is that we’re only human (for now), and our mental capacity often limits our ability to interpret the world. For instance, what we call the “visible spectrum,” is only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, we can only really process one task at a time, and our memories stink. We’re resourceful critters though, and rather than banging our tiny heads against a wall, mankind has systematically sought out cognitive tricks and adaptive technologies to extend our mental boundaries, our performance, and in this case our ability to consistently generate good ideas.
Remember more with chunking
Our working memory can only hold up to four items at once before it starts to break down. Instinctively, we “chunk” information, compressing it into memorable groups that are easier to process. For instance, a phone number is seven digits, but it’s remembered as a string of [three digits + four digits]. When we add the three-digit area code, we can recite ten digits, but we’re actually recalling three separate chunks.
A more deliberate use of chunking could entail recalling an epic shopping list of bacon, unsalted butter, yogurt, maple syrup, eggs, nutella, oatmeal and waffles by mentally spelling out BUYMENOW. Whether instinctive or deliberate, identifying or applying a pattern makes disparate bits of information more memorable to us.
From the Victorian era black book to the modern day Moleskine, humans have sought to overcome recall limits by recording their data. Written language itself increased our functional memory and ability to communicate ideas and now technology has raised the stakes offering infinite storage space, tagging and searching abilities, it strives to allow us to “remember everything,” if you believe Evernote’s popular motto.
As you can imagine, we love that kind of stuff around the Oz office and we share and store all of our thoughts and ideas using content tools like Dropbox, Google Drive, Evernote, or one of our new favorites, Slack.
Think Efficiently—like an Expert
Do you pay attention to what works? Another intuitive, but powerful pattern finding mechanism is to use your own experience to identify what works. The theory is that over time you begin to only consider options with a high probability for success.
This characteristic of “selective attention” is the hallmark of expertise and author Kevin Ashton uses it to describe why chess grandmasters evaluate fewer moves and reevaluate them less often than unskilled players. A grandmaster only considers the top-five best moves, while other players consider moves as poor as 22nd best. Experts in all fields have learned to think efficiently, Ashton says,
“the expert’s first impression is not a first impression at all. It is the latest in a series of millions. The more we learn from our experience and the experience of others — whether in chess, radiography, football or anything else — the more selective our attention will become, and the faster we will think.”
While you may not consider yourself an expert you surely have developed a sense of selective attention that you use constantly, particularly to navigate mundane situations. Consider your commute home from work. It’s likely you have several possible routes and depending on variables like the time of day, the weather and traffic, you choose the most efficient way home without much effort. On a subconscious level, your mind is tapping past experience, common sense and intuition to allow you to quickly select the best route.
Human augmentation improves performance
Human beings have always enhanced their physical and cognitive functions through adaptive techniques, developing language, writing, maths and sciences, extending their understanding of the world and their ability to process it, and inventing tools like the calculator, telephone and computer to manage new information.
With the Internet at our fingertips and a civilization’s worth of data to sort through, we’ve entered a new era of super adaptive learning where we can build intelligent tools to help people reach their goals and surpass their wildest dreams. Undoubtedly, some enhancements like militarized cyborgs terrify and titillate us at the same time.
Intriguing, yet less threatening prospects can be found in considering augmentations that facilitate analysis, creativity and even inspiration. In fact, the goal of some data analysts is explicitly to build tools that would help writers, marketers, and researchers—tools that would help civilians identify patterns formerly only accessible to experts “We would hope to make interfaces, using machine learning that help a broader set of people create more interesting creative artifacts,” says Harvard Professor of computer science Ryan Adams, in his great new podcast “Talking Machines.”
It’s become such a pervasive field of study and innovation that Y Combinator, the popular startup incubator, which launched companies including Airbnb and Dropbox, this year called for a startups specifically in the area of human augmentation.
Human beings have always wanted to be better, and if, in this high-tech era of abundant information we have the chance to use to improve our memory, attention and creativity with a little help from our robot friends, history indicates we human beings are going to have better ideas than ever before.