Thursday, January 24, 2008

Need for Cognition

Joe Ricks, a friend of mine and another faculty member at Xavier, and I were talking yesterday about a phenomenon he calls “Need for Cognition.” What he means is that some people, and academics are often among them, have a chronic and near constant need to “think” about things. He and I both have this quality, but this need is not present in everyone. Many people, it seems, are rather happy to let their brains idle. It’s not that these folks are stupid by any means; it’s just that they don’t exert themselves with thoughts when those thoughts are not directly related to the task at hand. In quiet moments, their thoughts are also relatively quiet. For me, it is often in the “quiet” moments that my thoughts race and twist the most.

This reminded me of a time in graduate school when a friend of mine and I were at a local drinking establishment partaking of more than a few alcoholic beverages. My friend’s girlfriend came in, somewhat miffed that he had blown off plans with her to go drinking with me. (I didn’t know of her plans prior to this.) She asked, in a rather exasperated voice, why we felt the need to occasionally drink too much. And both of us said at the same time, without any prior rehearsal or even discussion of the topic: “to stop our heads from thinking.” What we meant, or at least what I meant, was that sometimes I wanted my thoughts to shut the hell up, and once I’d gotten enough alcohol in me those thoughts would obey.

As an adult, I’ve found that playing a video game or chess has much the same effect as alcohol. When I’m caught up in the game my thoughts are all focused. They’re not wandering around yammering at me about this or that topic, and this can be a great relief after a day of cogitating. After my discussion with Joe, I was thinking (of course) about whether writers are more likely to come from the folks who have a “need for cognition.” Does part of the drive to write come from the very fact that writers’ thoughts are constantly yammering at them? Or am I projecting my own mental state onto others. What do you think?
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44 comments:

Bernita said...

My thoughts never shut up, so, you're probably right.

Demon Hunter said...

I can relate to this post, Charles. My thoughts are forever going, especially when I have time alone. Sleep is my only time alone, and even then, dreams invade...lol.

RRN said...

I find this to be rather fascinating subject matter. Personally , my brain will literally devour itself if left unattended. My thoughts are at the speed of light almost always. Writing is something that surely helps release energy and the stresses of over thinking.
In your so to speak "need for cognition" , have you found negative factors to this perhaps in personal relationships or work related matters and what have you ?

Shauna Roberts said...

Count me in among those whose thoughts are always racing unless I do some focused activity like make bread or dig in the garden.

When I was taking yoga and meditation classes, this constant thinking was called "monkey mind." It was considered a Bad Thing, and yoga and meditation were ways to control it and focus only on the current moment.

Danette Haworth said...

Charles,
Yes, this is definitely me! This need for thinking is the reason behind my insomnia.

BTW, the WOW! Flash Fiction Contest is open to men as well as women.

cs harris said...

Yes, I'm another monkey mind with thought-induced insomnia. I practice yoga and meditate, but that need to "quiet the mind" and be "mindfully" in the present are even harder than bow pose! Perhaps writers start weaving stories as a way to focus all those thoughts rushing through their heads, a sort of non-alcoholic calmative. What a *thought-provoking* post!

Casdok said...

And its me to!!

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernita, I hear you.

Demon hunter, yes, don't get me started on dreams. Wild stuff.

RRN, I think there are some negatives in that folks such as myself can over analyze situations and create potential problems or issues where there are none.

Shauna, monkey mind is a good term for it. I liked focused behaviors too that can keep my thoughts a little more smooth and less agitated.

Danette, thanks for the update on the WOW contest. I'll have to check it out.

Candice, I think my own stories kind of started from the tendency of my thoughts to race and I would then begin associating them.

Casdok, thanks for dropping by. It seems pretty clear that it's true for most writer types.

Wayne said...

I don't know why, but I'm relieved to have read this post. I guess it's probably something to do with sharing the burden--decreasing the floor loading per square foot. You know what I mean, Charles. As a writer, some things are hardly talked about. I'm glad you did.

Josephine Damian said...

Manic cycling? Flights-of-ideas?

Sound familiar?

Charles, are you familiar with Geschwind syndrome? I'm reading the Eve La Plant book "Seized" right now - fascinating insights into creativity.

Lana Gramlich said...

I seem to have difficulty controlling my thoughts even when I want to. On the highway of my mind there are exits & detours to the Tangent Expressway (which has no speed limit, fyi,) every 6 inches. I really need to start meditating again!

Steve Malley said...

I've spent three days reworking the same 1000 words. Excess words in my brain: *not* the problem.

SQT said...

I have a tendency toward insomnia due to thought overload. I don't know that my thoughts are particularly profound, but there are a lot of them.

I wish I could control the direction too. Stupid little things from the past always pop up to torment me. Little stuff too, nothing worth getting worked up over. It's like my thoughts are constantly poking me in the ribs just to irritate me.

Sheila said...

I love learning about things. If school was free, I'd go forever... but it's not so I can't and therefore must rely on the Discovery Channel and all it's little spawns.

Miladysa said...

"have a chronic and near constant need to “think” about things."

Ditto!

lol

Julie said...

Phew.

Charles Gramlich said...

Wayne, it's good to talk about some things. I don't really have much of a sense of propriety I'm afraid.

Josephine, I suspect that the need for cognition is a normal pattern of human thought but that it could be an exacerabation of this norm that appears in Mania and often in schizophrenia. I've heard of Geschwind Syndrome but I tend to be a "lumper" rather than a "splitter" in psychology and am almost always skeptical of recently proposed diagnoses. It makes perfect sense that folks with temporal lobe epilepsy would experience certain thought phenomenon but I'm not sure it's a significant enough effect to warrant its own label. I'm not a clinician though so maybe they have a point.

Lana, I know you well enough to believe you here, sweetness. We are similar in many ways.

Steve Malley, we call that "Need for Revision, revision, revision."

SQT, most of my thoughts are the opposite of profound,and yet they come and come.

Sheila, that's a symptom of "need for cognition." LOL. I wish more of my students were like that.

Miladysa, I would have suspected as much. ;)

Julie, one word = one thought? Hmmmn.

Angie said...

Another one whose brain never shuts up. [raises hand] To the point at times of having "racing thoughts" at the level of a clinical symptom. That sucks, but when it's at a more normal level I like it. I don't think I'd want a brain whose natural state was idling. :P

Angie

Travis said...

One of the many reasons why I suffer from insomnia is the inability to shut my brain down. I know exactly what you are talking about here.

Many times I'll just let the thoughts ramble until they wear themselves out. Other times I'll be able to channel them into something constructive.

writtenwyrdd said...

I can relate. Yammering thoughts are difficult to ignore. Mind always going like a gerbil on a wheel. But I have mild ADD, which I always assumed explained it. Perhaps not? Refreshing outlook. Now I shall have to go and think about it, lol...

Artistic endeavors such as painting or writing make my thoughts smoothe out and stop jumping about so much. So did meditation when I used to practice it.

SzélsőFa said...

Well, I'm not one of you then ...
(And I'm not a writer, so it makes sense, Charles.)

There are times though, when my head seems to be exploding not with thoughts, but with visions.
Most of the time when my head is not empty, I tend to have pictures, smells, feelings and senses in my mind instead of 'real' thoughts (what are those, anyway?)

SzélsőFa said...

perhaps that's the reason for not finding meditation extremely special and soothing...

Julie said...

Have a few insights into this area, but they go rather beyond the scope of a comment. Bullseye of a post topic, tho....

Michelle's Spell said...

I think you're exactly right. I'm as bad about self-medicating for this problem as anyone -- tried everything from alcohol, yoga, bowling, and so on. My best escape is reading, though. It's totally consuming and gets me out of myself for long periods of time.

Erik Donald France said...

Right on, Charles. The trick seems to be channeling the restless thoughts energies; otherwise, it canb be a little akin to ADHD of the mind ;)

ivan said...

Too much cognition, especially among head workers.
It is agreed among professional writers that drinking is an occupational hazard.
...But then how else would the ideas come? :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, in so many cases a clinical expression of something is just an intensification of normal patterns.

Travis, the older I get, the more a focused behavior will smooth out my thoughts.

Writtenwyrd, I'm guessing that ADD produces some of the effect, but that seems much more of a "physical" behavior in many cases. I can be sitting very still when my thoughts are yammering.

Szelsofa, there is much to be said for a "stillness of mind." The visual effects you're talking about may represent a somewhat different way you have of processing information and thought.

Julie, yes, I suppose we could go on and on with this topic. Lots of "thoughts" spin off of it.

Michelle, I agree on reading, but for me it only works for reading fiction where I can get caught up in the story. nonfiction will often increase my "thought load" so to speak.

Erik, yes, it's all in the channeling I think.

Travis Erwin said...

Are we long lost brothers? My thoughts never shut up either, which makes for many a sleepless night.

Like you I have found Rum and video games do wonders. I usually play a video game last thing before bed to get my mind of off writing, characters, plots, or other ponderous things.

Church Lady said...

Oh, this is interesting. A lightbulb just went off for me.

I can almost 'see' the mind of my youngest swirling nonstop. And he is addicted to those video games. I have a strict time limit, and it's always a battle. What a connection you made for me! I'm serious. This is powerful.

Gabby said...

My mind wanders a lot too, creating stories, thinking of ideas to problems I may have (whether tangible, or not, like a project, etc.).

Sometimes it gets really bad when I want to sleep, because my body is resting, but my brain wants to keep going. Once in awhile, it helps to jot down some ideas (or a to-do list, of you will) right before that, so that your mind can rest a little, knowing that you won't forget. (But then, while I love to write and don't do it very much right now (though I'm trying to get back to it), I would hardly call myself a writer.... ^_^)

Sarai said...

You hit it right on the head. I can't shut it off which presents a problem at the day job. The only time the brain slows down: when I'm writing and releasing the ideas. Otherwise it pops up everywhere leds people to think I have attention problems in reality I just can't focus too long b/c my brain is doing or going somewhere else.

Sidney said...

One of the 19th century writers used to draw a distinction between Man and Man Thinking, I believe.

I like the adage - "Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits."

I could probably be a lot happier if I could manage to do more of the latter.

Shauna Roberts said...

Wow, this post really hit a chord with a lot of people.

Although the constant chatter in my brain sometimes keeps me from sleep too, I think I'd rather that than be one of those people who stoop-sits all day and watches TV all evening.

(For non–New Orleanians, stoopsitting means sitting on your porch or the stairs to the sidewalk watching your neighbors and talking to people who walk by.)

Julie said...

Charles - random this, but I was just going to ask what areas your Masters and Dissertation were in, as I'm more familiar with the outskirts of clinical psychology than experimental, so it was a surprise to read your comment!

Psychodynamic therapy has some pretty good insights re thinking pressure created by packing down emotion and poor limbic connection; guess you're familiar with K Jamieson on bp (and cyclothymia) on creativity?

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Erwin, video games require constant decision making and I think that keeps the mind on the straight and narrow.

Church lady, what's the old saying? Idle hands are the devil's playground! But it's the idle mind in reality, when that mind cannot "idle."

Gabby, au contraire, old friend. You are quite the writer. Do you forget that I've read quite a bit of your stuff?

Sarai, for me, it shows up in conversations where I'm constantly dragging the focus of the convo to different places.

Sidney, there are certainly times when I seek "stillness of mind," but I seldom find it.

Shauna, I agree. Although at times I'd like a little stillness of mind, ultimately I'm glad I am the way I am. It means, for one, that I'm neve bored. I always have my thoughts to keep me company and interested.

Julie, actually I'm not familiar with Jamieson. Since I don't teach any clinical classes I'm afraid I've gotten behind in my reading in that area. There's so much in my field, Biopsych and Comparative, that I can barely keep up there.

Sphinx Ink said...

This post hits me squarely in the face. I've had the problem all my life. Most of the time it's just part of me--my motto has been, "The unexamined life is not worth living." (Sorry, can't recall who said that originally.) From time to time, however, when the busy thoughts are near to overwhelming me, I've envied those who don't seem to be always "thinking." I've wished I could be that way.

(In fact, my growing addiction to watching TV over the last six months probably is a subconscious effort to avoid all that "thinking" during a difficult time in my life.)

I agree that writers probably are more prone than others to need cognition. We need to observe people, events, and our environment, and to analyze what everything means and how it works, so we can write about it all.

Lisa said...

I've met a number of people who have shared the same childhood experience I did -- where as a pretty little kid I always had the feeling that I was the only person who was always thinking. Other people appeared to just hum along on auto-pilot. Fortunately, as I grew older I learned to seek out other crazies like myself (at least I honestly thought I might be a little crazy), but I'm still surprised that so many people appear not to be bothered by some of the nutty things that won't leave my thoughts -- big stuff, like is there really a God and do we really have a soul and does anything happen after death and how can I conceive of the distances that exist in the universe and why does thinking about how small the smallest things are make my head hurt? I have trouble sleeping all the time because of an inability to quiet my mind (although in all honesty, I don't make much of an effort, I'd rather take advantage of it). There is probably a name for the other thing that I can't seem to help doing -- I call it the six degrees from Kevin
Bacon syndrome -- but it's when I'm focused on a particular subject and I can draw connections from it to nearly anything that catches my attention. Weird huh?

Julie said...

Charles, from what you've said, I can appreciate the book saturation demands within the experimental field. Feel this is a valuable post on a well chosen topic - thanks.

Julie said...
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Kate S said...

Thank you thank you thank you.

I can't believe I just read this post today since all of last night my mind was yammering on about why it yammers on constantly. It also considered the possibility that writing was a way to try to get the thoughts out to make room for more. :P

It was analyzing why it is dang near impossible to ever shut up and why I'll never be able to fully meditate.

It also guessed the constant yammering is the reason why I've broken so many bones (falling down stairs, running into things)- because I'm never really fully "physically present." My mind is always elsewhere.

Now, it will keep me awake being so happy that it's not alone. :)
Thanks again. :)

writtenwyrdd said...

After thinking about this some more, I can say I've noticed the racing thoughts are reduced greatly since I've been treated or sleep apnea. Gotta wonder how much of the laying in bed thinking too hard to sleep was just not sleeping well.

steve said...

42 comments so far, and counting. This post has really connected with a lot of people. I've never been tempted to get roaring drunk or to use other recreational drugs, perhaps because I've never really wanted to stop my head from thinking. It makes sense, though, that some would have that need. My dreams, at least those I remember, are pretty prosaic--not the amazingly vivid ones that you and Lana have. Maybe my head stops thinking when I'm asleep. I do find it easier to go to sleep if I'm listening to a book on tape--preferably history or philosophy--something that engages the mind but isn't full of suspense or anxiety.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sphinx Ink, I do think TV can be a soporific that helps with the over thinking.

Julie, good thing I like to read. Cause there's plenty of it to do. I'm sure you find it the same.

Lisa, I remember being surprised to find that others didn't have the same kind of thoughts I had, and they often looked at me strangely when I spoke of those thoughts.

Kate, I'm definitely absent minded. I walked flat out into a wall at a mall one time. Didn't even see it. Maybe we should start a group, "thinkers anonymous." Our motto could be: There's help: think about it."

Writtenwyrd, if I allow my thoughts to run when I try to go to sleep I just can't get there. That's why I tell myself a story every single night when I lay down. I focus my thoughts toward the visual experiences I might be having and that helps me turn off.

Steve, I never tried the book on tape thing at night. I do find it easier to sleep if there are rain sounds outside since it helps my mind drift.

Ello said...

Charles I was so nodding my head on this post!! Sometimes I can't sleep because my brain just won't be still. Mindless things are really good for lulling my brain into thoughtlessness. I wonder if this is why I'malways so tired!