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?