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Improving abstract thinking

Background

I think in some professions your ability to handle abstract concepts can make the difference between mediocre and exceptional.

For instance, I work in software, on a wide variety of projects in very different fields. Although there is some commonality among these projects, I’m frequently in situations where I need to learn and reason about multiple new abstract concepts, all interlinked. I sometimes do well, sometimes badly but anyway, there's a lot of room for improvement.

Problem Description

The problem with an abstract concept is that you can’t see it, hear it, feel it etc. Therefore, its neural representation in your brain is very small because it’s not tied to any sensory perception.

Because of this, it’s very hard for your focus to remain in that area of your brain. So it’s easy to loose focus or procrastinate, because your mind wanders to more concrete things.

As an example, imagine a doctor thinking about the chemical composition of a tissue. Because the chemical composition is an abstract concept defined in terms of other abstract concepts, the doctor’s mind may soon start to think on how he/she got drunk the night before, had fun with friends, drove to work etc. (because all these thoughts are associated with sensory perception and their neural structure is stronger).

Things I’ve found that help

  1. Cal Newport’s "working meditation" - basically you meditate but instead of focusing on the breath you focus on a problem you’re trying to solve
  2. Anki cards - for spaced repetitions
  3. Daniel Coyle’s discussion of myelin - the idea that the more you focus your brain on a certain topic, the stronger the neural links that constitute the physical representation of that topic in your brain (I've read that book after seeing the review on this website, thanks!)
  4. Avoiding as much as possible strong emotions, like anger. Those draw away your attention.
  5. When focusing on something, avoid doing a secondary activity like checking a phone(I think there is a study saying that a secondary activity can reduce retention by 50%).

Is someone else interested in this topic? Do you have any thoughts?

 

Lucio Buffalmano, Alex and leaderoffun have reacted to this post.
Lucio BuffalmanoAlexleaderoffun

Thank you for sharing this bluesky!

Sounds something like Matthew would be interested on :).

Personally, I've been more focused on:

  • Critical thinking skills: to me, the true meta-skill to advance civilization. It's still a "to do" of this website  to come up with a list of best resources on critical thinking skills
  • "Pragmatic" abstraction: what we do a lot here, such as coming up with better solutions and strategies to social problems/opportunities and thinking how real-life situations would change along hypothetical behaviors (ie.: "if I do this or say that, then... " )

There is an overlap as "pragmatic abstractions" are still abstractions, and critical thinking also requires a certain level of abstraction.

But probably not as much as in creative endeavors, since in both situations you're closer to real-world situations.

On this:

Quote from bluesky on January 21, 2022, 12:07 am
  1. When focusing on something, avoid doing a secondary activity like checking a phone(I think there is a study saying that a secondary activity can reduce retention by 50%).

Sometimes when focusing on something with no easy solution I "naturally" switch to some other easier task.

And then I go back to the resume the tougher one.

I'm not sure whether that helps or hinders me.

I've tried sticking to it and not switching, but haven't noticed a strong difference (yet).

Usually, my stance is if most people do something "naturally", then there are good chances that there might a good chances that, in many instances, it helps (many exceptions apply, but the "cognitive bias" focus in psychology may have led to believe that the brain is more flawed than it actually is).

But I'm curious and open to changing my mind on this.

bluesky has reacted to this post.
bluesky
Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

Very interesting topic!

I think the most important factors for any type of effective thinking are at least the following:

 

- Fundamentally understanding biases, fallacies and errors of the human mind. If you don't, you can't really think straight by definition while still believing you could.

 

- Understanding the topic that you want to tackle to the core. The more you fundamentally understand, the more profound insights or applications you can come up with, and the easier you can discard wrong or ineffective ideas.

 

- Being excellent at the medium of expression. For example we are all very accustomed and skilled to express our ideas through language, so this is an effective means to express our thoughts.

While drawing, producing music or dancing are others, ones that can give perspectives that the spoken word can not, we likely are far, far more limited in our ability to express ourselves compared to speaking or writing.

The same is true for other ways like photography or writing code.
No matter how valuable our ideas are, we are limited in our ability to express ourselves. If we have a great idea for a song, but are unable to produce it, it's gone to waste. Of course there is also collaboration, as we can't excel at everything.

But I think having multiple ways to express ourselves apart from language is a great way to improve your overall effective thinking ability, including intuition and "out-of-the-box"-thinking.

 

- Having no external thoughtstoppers in your mind. Sounds obvious but few actually live this.

Not being scared to think very "dark" or "unapproved" or "crazy" thoughts with very heavy implications or ones that are utterly shunned by the masses. In fact if something is utterly shunned one should look into it in particular.

This doesn't necessarily mean subscribing to these ideas, but simply acknowledging it as a perspective even if it were wrong.

Otherwise your "box" of thinking will allways be quite small and constricted, and likely very naive.

I agree what Lucio says about critical thinking. For example having the perspective of an evil machevallian is absolutely necessary to be able to defend yourself against them, while the evil machivallein seeks the perspective of their intended victims to be able to manipulate them more effectively.

 

- Utter honesty about what you actually know and understand. In many cases we overestimate our knowledge. This goes toghether with accepting your weaknesses and strenghts both, and ideally very accurately.

 

- Ego. For example if you think you are very skilled about manipulation-techniques and therefor "impossible to manipulate", you are far more likely to actually miss such an attampt, even if you are indeed very skilled.

Compare that with someone who knows exactly as much about manipulation, but knows he is fallible too, and might have weak spots, and doesn't think of himself as "impossible to manipulate".
Both have the same knowledge, which one is more likely to fall for a sophisticated manipulation?

 

- Healthy scepticism. Knowing what you know, while still being open about being wrong (being sceptic of your own perspective). The more different perpectives you have actually throught through in any topic, the less open about being wrong you actually have to be, while being closed completely is likely always wrong.

 

- An idea to cultivate out-of-the-box and creative thinking:
Whenever you come accross a very interesting, creative or fresh thought, save it somewhere.

With time you get many such, and can go through them in a row and bring yourself into such a state more easily.
The thoughts can also be unfactual or wrong, what matters is the creativity or bravery to tackle hidden assumptions.

For example some time ago I read someone theorizing that lightbulbs don't actually emit photons, but actually suck in the darkness - at the speed of dark. When turning them off, they allow darkness again and the room gets dark.
I don't think this is true, however the idea and bravery to question this basic assumption is the valuable thing here.

 

- Meta perspective: trying to see patterns and making sense of it all. For example the example with the lightbulb simply inverted the whole phenomen of light, making darkness the positive instead of light. Now after understanding the pattern one could apply it to other things, like seeing - is your gaze going outwards or the world coming inwards? Of course there are far more practical applications. But even this type of philosophising keeps the edge on your mind sharp.

 

- A healthy balance of digesting new input and expressing yourself - both. Only consuming likely wont get you to excellence, even if the content were world-class. And only expressing yourself wont be as effective either, as combining the two - theory and practice.

Lucio Buffalmano and bluesky have reacted to this post.
Lucio Buffalmanobluesky
Quote from Lucio Buffalmano on January 24, 2022, 8:46 am

On this:

Quote from bluesky on January 21, 2022, 12:07 am
  1. When focusing on something, avoid doing a secondary activity like checking a phone(I think there is a study saying that a secondary activity can reduce retention by 50%).

Sometimes when focusing on something with no easy solution I "naturally" switch to some other easier task.

And then I go back to the resume the tougher one.

I'm not sure whether that helps or hinders me.

I've tried sticking to it and not switching, but haven't noticed a strong difference (yet).

Usually, my stance is if most people do something "naturally", then there are good chances that there might a good chances that, in many instances, it helps (many exceptions apply, but the "cognitive bias" focus in psychology may have led to believe that the brain is more flawed than it actually is).

But I'm curious and open to changing my mind on this.

I think there are 2 things to consider:

- Phones being very addictive while not actually giving much value most of the time compared to the alternatives. At least this might be the perpective of the scientists, as most people are addicted to social media, and I think their conclusion has to been seen from that perspective.

So it makes sense to cut the phone out as much as possible and not let yourself get distracted to what comes down to a bell ringing and taking your attention.

 

- However, when working for a long time on a larger project one tends to get tired of this specific topic, at least I witness this in myself all the time.

I might still have lots of mental energy, but switching to a different topic (or at least different aspect/subtopic), or expressing myself differently recharges the batteries so to speak and prevents getting stuck or getting bored.

 

So I think this is a good idea, especially if it happens naturally.

All solid advice, Anon.

In "switching between tasks" when a challenging one comes up -including one of abstract thinking- I mean switching back and forth and applying yourself to the more challenging one in a more "piecemeal" approach.

The phone might not be the best thing to switch to, I agree with you.

Recently I removed the simcard from my phone as well.
Both because I almost never use an actual number, to reduce signals around me, and to avoid random calls to boot :).

Anon has reacted to this post.
Anon
Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

Very good advices guys.

Here are my 2 cents:

When it comes to abstract thinking, it's important not to try to bruteforce. Start slow with a bit of challenge, but not to the point that it becomes too uncomfortable, so that you can enter into a flow state. In this state, thinking (and everything else) becomes a lot easier.

There are many ways to trigger flow, but this would be a bit off topic to list them all. Remember to warm up like before exercising. And to expand on the exercising metaphor, if you want to be a good performer you have to take care of the machine (sleep, diet, exercise, meditation, stress management, etc).

System 2 (concept from the book Thinking Fast And Slow related to abstract reasoning) consumes a lot of energy, so it's normal to not be able to use it optimally all of the time, just like you cannot be sprinting all the time. It's also highly dependant on the time of the day because of circadian rhythms.

I like a concept invented by Ali Abdal that he calls slow burns, and I think that it can be applied to abstract reasoning. If done too much in a forceful way it is called a heavy lift. This can help you to achieve a lot of work if you're in a hurry, but like when you exercise too hard your body will need time to recover afterwards.
If you're interested to be more productive in the long run what you want is to able to do it more often and efficiently, not to push too hard.

Otherwise, abstract reasoning is associated to fluid intelligence and there are different ways to improve it such as nootropics. However remember that it's also highly determined by your genetics, so you won't probably be able to optimize it that much with this kind of interventions.
I would recommend to focus more on understanding yourself and the way you use your thinking, become aware of the patterns (meta-cognition), and use this knowledge to improve your efficiency rather than trying to increase your ability inherently.

Overall, everything that can improve motivation, willpower, focus, and your routines would be of help here. Organizing your life like a system would also help in terms of becoming more efficient.

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bluesky
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