Request: I got a fascinating email about thinking. I'm sharing my thoughts, but I'd appreciate yours too. It's kind of a difficult question - how do you think? But it's fascinating, so I'd like you to weigh in after reading this post.
Fascinating email from Huy Nguyen -
My name is Huy, 21 years old from Vietnam currently studying in Singapore. I've been reading your blog and I must say you're 1 hell of an inspiring guy! Recently I have been pondering on the topic of mindfulness/self-consciousness and I thought why not drop you an email to say hi and seek for some help :)
My current problem is my thought speed is restricted to how much I can spell the thoughts out (in words and sentence) in my minds. And that'd be really slow. Sometimes, I'm able to speed-thinking (if that's the right word). I don't actually need to spell out the words in my mind, just link to some picture/scene and somehow I'm able to articulate and understand the situation in my mind. But this is a very rare case and I'm not fully able to control it.
Have you ever encountered this problem? Do your mind think in English as well, or some special-made brain language?
Another thing, I'm bilingual, I use both English and Vietnamese (both are equally ok). But I found myself a totally different person/characteristics when using English and when using Vietnamese. Whatever experiences I went through/articulated in English, they just aren't around my mind when I use Vietnamese. I'm not so sure if you take up a second language, but if that's the case have you ever encountered what I do?
I hope you're having a good time in KL. Do enjoy the street food there. And I look forward to your reply :)
And my reply -
Hey Huy -
This is a fascinating email, really smart email...
How do I think? Hmm. I also think in language, but there seems to be discrete "areas" of language. So, I might have thoughts on two topics at the same time, and I keep them largely separate while looking at both of them. That's how I synergize things.
I kind of analogize it to balloons. I'll have two or three balloons up in the air - for instance, let's say I'm writing an article about rationality. At that point, maybe I'll have a quote from a Paul Graham article, a quote from an Eliezer Yudkowsky article, and a main thought at the same time. Then I'll try to draw a line from the main point to Graham to Yudkowsky. At that point, once I've written down the quotes from Graham and Yudkowsky, I can let those balloons go and they disappear into wherever thoughts you're not thinking go. Now I have more mental space to fill up new balloons (thought areas) to continue with the next parts of my writing.
Huh. I've never really thought about this too much before.
Would it be cool with you if I posted your email on my blog and asked for feedback? This is a really good topic. I don't know much about it, but I know some smart people who probably do. If you say yes, how should I credit you? "Huy", "Huy Nguyen", or anonymous is okay... also, if you have a site for me to link to, I'll do that.
Would be interesting to have more discussion on the topic. Thanks for the email, really thought provoking stuff here. Cool to post it?
Additionally, on language -
Also, yes, I speak a smattering of a handful of languages. Interestingly, there's some words/thoughts that are easier to have in other languages. For a while, I was thinking probably 10% of my thoughts/words in Japanese, since there's some short words that contain big thoughts in Japanese. I'm not fluent in any other languages, but I know what you mean about that. I've heard bilingual/trilingual people "switch" back and forth with languages sometimes, and have different personalities in different languages. Often it's because they'll know technical terms in one language (like English) but not know any jokes/playfulness/sillyness. So someone might joke around and have fun in their native language, but be much more serious in their second language, especially if it's the one they learn something technical in (like finance, engineering, etc).
How about you, dear reader? How do you think? I know it can be odd to... think about, but I'd like to hear your take.
Do you think your thoughts move somewhat linearly Stef? I try to move my thoughts linearly/forwards most of the time, but sometimes they don’t cooperate. Keeping 2 or 3 different sets of concepts in the mind at the same time to try to synergize them can be difficult, but it’s very satisfying when it works.
--Linear thinking... I'm afraid I mostly am all over the place. Producing thoughts and texts with a well and a logical structure is not what I intuitively do. I suppose I usually get many associations that have to do with many things, and then it's difficult to organize all those thoughts and points into something linear. I have to focus on trying to organize, and that is usually a seperate process then.
Linear thought happens (or is made happen?), and one can practice and train it, but I suppose there are people more apt, and people less apt. I wonder if people with a strong background in logics or mathematics might do more linear thinking, or how it is determined.
Do you have an idea how to make one's thinking more linear and organized?
One difference I've noticed in my thinking is I very rarely think verbally, which I think differentiates me from a lot of people in my cluster of peoplespace. It's one of the reasons I love talking or writing to intelligent people, because it engages my verbal module that very often otherwise gets neglected.
Rather, I do my best thinking drawing connections between already existing thoughts. Really, I do my best thinking while consuming other media. I hear something, and it reminds me of something else I've heard or read, and I ponder this connection for a bit. If I really want to understand something, I call someone to explore this connection verbally and flesh it out more. I rarely do productive thinking running an inner monologue, which tends to drift and not be focused or purposeful. I wonder if this is a true tradeoff, or if I could train my verbal thinking to be more effective without sacrificing my simile/connection drawing tendencies.
This post reminded me of one by Eliezer Yudkowsky back when he was posting on OB. He basically said that you brain is really really slow and that every new thought you have is either the combination of a couple of old thoughts or built on one or more old thoughts. So you need to build a chain of inference between new and old thoughts and if you haven't thought or read much in the area you are thinking about now you thought-speed is necessarily going to be slow.
Maybe this relates to both the speed-of-thinking issue (ie, you're not entirely familiar with the mental terrain you are exploring) and the English=/=Vietnamese thought space (ie, thoughts you had in one language aren't necessarily as accessible with the other).
Of course this nothing more than an interesting thought experiment and Yudkowskys post contains no references.
I've recently begun learning Spanish, and I've noticed that I have a different personality when conversing in Spanish. I agree that it has a lot to do with one's predominant vocabulary. My Spanish vocabulary is populated with very simple words, mostly descriptive, and rarely technical. So my conversations revolve around 'the simpler things in life'. I've found a great deal of pleasure in these conversations because of that simplicity. When the topic of conversation revolves around a persons day to day life/lifestyle, food, basic interests, family, and common interests, it allows me to get to know my Spanish speaking friends in a very different way than those who speak english, my first language. Being restricted to asking someone how their day was due to a lack of vocabulary, and working to learn more words and structure had the side effect of teaching me how to listen more intently, and internalize the other person's response. Being asked earnestly in return about my day, is great too. I think sometimes people are too busy to really connect, they ask how your day was in passing instead of taking the time to sit down, clear their minds, and focus on what that question really means. A person pausing to take interest in your day, because they really want to talk to you and hear your answer. That is a great friend, and a satisfying experience.
The book you are looking for is Metaphors We Live By, by Lakoff and Johnson.
Venkat (Ribbonfarm) wrote about it:
Thinking. Thoughts can crawl, race, collapse, get all jumbled up, be organized and clear, they construct and deconstruct, they are... interesting, to say the least. Thinking, to me, is the mind in motion.
Whether the mind takes the train to see the scenery, takes a bike, a car, or carefully walks step after step on a steep mountain... the type of transport vehicle (I'll include legs in those) determines the form of thinking (words, images...), because they are the means the mind moves with, and the terrain (topics of different degrees of interest and difficulty...) largely the speed - though I'd say how well suited the type of transport is to the terrain plays a role too (It's terribly hard to ride a small car without four-wheel drive up a mountain, especially if there's snow... or alternatively think algebra in images). Some minds are more apt to use motor cars than bicycles, and others are great walkers. One can learn to use most vehicles, though, I think, and how to use them in different terrains.
I'm not sure if this analogy is quite right, I think it needs some work, but in any case...
It's interesting, that moving the body also often moves the mind - the classical walking-back-and-forth of the old times, taking a walk, driving around in a car.
...and about languages...
German is my native language, but I started learning English in 5th grade. I got fluent by spending a lot of time reading English fiction, and eventually watching English movies. When I had spend the whole day reading in English, my thoughts turned English. Nowadays, after having spend the majority of the last year in English speaking countries, I often have to remind myself to think in German, though I have been back for about three months. I don't think my personality changes when I change languages - I never noticed anything the like. The only problem I encounter is the difficulty of translating. When I read something in English, I know what it means, but to translate it to German is a wholly different matter, and it's the same the other way around. I suppose there are certain terms coined in the languages, but it rarely makes a difference to me. Maybe English and German are too similar? I wonder.
I had a wonderful chat with Oscar del Ben last week. We swapped some interesting ideas, but one that fascinated me was him telling me how fast he learned English. Given I travel a lot, I was curious as to how he did it. Here's his thoughts -
Hey Sebastian, I think that in order to learn languages quickly, you have to use them. It took me a bit to learn English pronunciation, and I still make many mistakes without knowing it, but the trick is to continue despite the mistakes you make. When I was learning, my girlfriend said that there was no chance for me (bad memory, bad pronunciation), but I didn't give a damn.
Anyway, in my case I had some background from school, even though very little. What worked for me was reading tons of books in English, and then talk with other people via skype.
If you only read books, you'll be able to understand 70% of your target language in one month, assuming it's similar to ones you know (I've never tried wit very different languages). But by only reading you'll have no idea about pronunciation, so I encourage you to listen to music or audio as well. Note that you'll have to get the lyrics of the songs, otherwise it will be nearly impossible to understand, even if you already know the language.
With this, you can get very far, but you'll be missing communication abilities, because you never exercise your speaking abilities. To do that, find a friend who communicates in that language over skype (should be easy if you do english exchange), or practice alone by recording your voice.
I've always liked the idea of a bucket list. However, it seems that for so many people a bucket list is simply a collection of things they think would be cool; a fantasy list. I want to avoid the idea that my goals are something that I would like to do but may never get around to accomplishing. I intend to complete everything on this list, whether that's within the next year or before I die.
I asked my Facebook friends for their suggestions on what to call my non-bucket list. I liked all the ideas, but Dan wins the prize for most comical with "pail plan" and Kel wins for most meaningful with "experiences yet to be had."
I've settled on calling my non-bucket list the Past:Present:Future list to emphasize that each of my goals is something that I've already accomplished, something that I am currently actively pursuing or something that I will actively pursue in the future. Nothing on the list is simply a dream.
Accepting that my goals will change, the list found on this page will remain untouched and serve as an interesting comparison to any future version of the list. The constantly evolving list can be found here and is organized by past, present and future: Past:Present:Future