Deep thinking is fast becoming a more critical part of a knowledge worker's life. We’re living in a world that was formed around how we use to work in factories when instead the real value lies in our ability to solve problems with our minds. However, even when using our intellectual capacity to solve problems there are differences in how we can apply ourselves; from rote memorization to deep thinking.
In a world that is increasingly moving towards automation, deep thinking will set apart those who can solve problems of the future and those whose work will fall to the routine of machines.
So What is Deep Thinking
A lot of the problems we solve on a day to day basis are systematic and linear and do not require anything special from us. This includes the mundane like backtracking to find our car keys and setting up our new TV. However this kind of thinking isn’t what one would call out of the box or thinking that could produce breakthroughs and result in significant leaps forward rather than just iterative. Our “aha!” moments more readily flow when we are in a state of deep thinking.
A study published by the National Academy of Sciences attempted to locate in the brain where deep thinking occurs in highly original and creative thinkers. What they saw was strong connectivity between three separate networks of the brain; the default mode network, the executive control network, and the salience network. The default mode network is most active when you are at rest and is associated with introspective spontaneous thought such as daydreaming (it is also posited to be the biological seat of ego). The executive control network also is associated with introspective thought though of a more focused & active nature and normally works antagonistically to the default mode network. The salience network helps determine, from the many stimuli we receive in real time, where to focus our attention.
In deep thinkers they found much higher than normal connectivity between these networks, which a lot of the time can work opposite each other. The ability to bring in multiple resources of the brain that normally don’t work together seems to be a critical part.
How to become a deep thinker?
Some may believe deep thinking is an innate quality for the reclusive erudite, however like any skill it can be cultivated, practiced, and made more readily available as a tool in your mental arsenal. Let’s go over some of the methods.
Improve the quality of your thinking
There are many hallmarks of an educated and improved mind, each of which help you get out of your own way when making time for deep thinking. Being able to hold and evaluate multiple opposing thoughts in your mind objectively is an example. Often when we have opposing ideas in front of us we are already leaning towards one due to previous biases. Becoming always aware of this and mitigating helps improve your own thought process. This allows you to objectively see from a different vantage point and take what you are noticing at face value without putting it through a wall of meaning. One of the easiests ways to become comfortable objectively thinking through opposite points is to truly be open to having your mind changed regardless of how entrenched your biases may have been towards one side.
Aristotle once said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
One of the keys to deep thinking is to create space both physically and mentally for it. A Carnegie Mellon neuroscientist by the name of David Creswell, showed that between two groups that were working on identical problems the group that was given a “distractor” between learning about the problem and starting to work on it performed significantly better. That space allows for their conscious attention to be held elsewhere while their non-conscious does some of the work. This is one of the truisms behind the trope of the messy inventor.
It has also been shown that 4 hrs seems to be the minimum, and for many the sweet spot, amount of time needed to do deep work. So be sure to set aside time to allow for continuous concentration and flow.
Mindfulness meditation is no longer a woo woo subject. It has been proven to create real changes in the brain and can increase mental performance. There are many ways this happens though there are two main ones we’ll focus on; attention and detachment.
A lot of people, when they first try meditation, get discouraged by the fact that thoughts keep arising in their head and they can’t keep their mind clear. This is misguided and the answer is actually even easier. The point is to practice realizing you’re lost in thought and then coming back to being mindful. That is where the real work is, you want to treat that like you’re doing a rep, like any other workout. So as you're meditating and focusing on the breath or sensations, once you've realized your mind has wandered and you were lost in thought, just come back to paying attention. You will get better at staying “above” your thoughts and wielding your attention & concentration like the true mental tools that they can be. That idea of staying “above” is our second focus; detachment. Detachment is along the same line as creating space. Mindfulness meditation teaches you to really pay attention to your lived experience and as you pay attention you’ll notice what is affecting you rather than just reacting to what is affecting you. Creating that space between what is and how you react or think about it is the key. A really great mindfulness meditation course can be found at WakingUp.com.
Writing is a powerful tool when it comes to clearing the mind and honing your thoughts. Writing out your thoughts forces you fix any gaps in your processes that are easy to skip over when you’re just talking to yourself. It also helps, again, create more space in the mind. We all have a million to do’s in our head and they are all vying for our precious attention. Taking the time to write down ideas helps quiet the incessant mental reminder about them, while giving you the opportunity to strengthen your own reasoning at the same time.
All of these tools should help you on your journey to becoming a deep thinker. However, like any new skill, it’s a function of time and priority, the more intentional time & practice you put into this pursuit the more you will improve in your profession and mental performance.