Friday, June 07, 2013

The Need for Cognition

A friend and colleague of mine at Xavier and I often get onto the topic of “need for cognition” in our discussions. What “need for cognition” 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 neither of us believes that this need is 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.      

I’m reminded 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, instead, go drinking with me.  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.  I wonder whether writers in general 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?



Cloudia said...

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, described "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience"

When we are in flow we feel optimized and powerful and possessing control- be it motorcycling or chess.

ALOHA from Honolulu
Comfort Spiral
~ > < } } ( ° > <3

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I find that my train of thoughts, usually when I'm on the move, revolves around all kinds of ideas pertaining to my work, my blog or the book I hope to write someday. However, those thoughts or ideas dissipate the moment I sit down to write them down. They're never the same again.

Ty said...

Charles, I know where you're coming from. My mind seems to be working just about all the time, and not always on writing, but often enough. It even causes me troubles with going to sleep.

I don't know if this "condition" is something that hits writers more than others, but my guess would be it at least affects a certain portion or sub-class of writers, as I've heard others talk about this. Even Terry Brooks mentioned something similar, though I believe he called if "fuzzy brain" or something similar, being trapped with thoughts all the time (mostly about his writing).

My dad suffers from OCD, and he has mentioned something similar with his own thought processes, so I have to wonder if this "need for cognition" is a mild form of OCD or something related, perhaps some evolutionary trait in some of us.

the walking man said...

OK this will sound like absolute bullshit because I know so few, if any, who are like me. I have no thoughts twisting through me, my mind is 99% of the time absolutely quiet. The other 1% is when I choose to interact with someone else's question or action.

I do not think of ways to improve or degrade, I do not simply accept everything, but most things that have to do with others is beyond my control so why think about their problems or lack there of?

I sleep but do not dream, or let me say I do not ever remember them, one moment I am awake and the next moment I am waking up having no sense of time passing.

I do not avoid things, but the or an answer comes when I need it to in between times I do not dwell. Maybe decades ago I did, I have memory of great questioning periods but I had found answers that satisfy me to this day.

*shrug* Living in silence of mind, it is not all bad.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, I didn't think about how it might be related to flow. I'm gonna have to give that some thought.

Prashant, I find lots of ephemeral thoughts flowing around at times too, and they can indeed dissipate when I sit down to focus. Something to do with short term memory I'm sure.

Ty, that's a good idea about the OCD. I definitely show elements of that behavior, and my mom and a couple of my brothers do as well. I bet that has something to do with it. From an evolutionary perspective, close attention to detail could definitely be adaptive.

Mark, I'm glad to hear you say it because I believe there are folks just like you describe yourself, but I don't know of course because my mind is very different. I do think having a quiet mind can be a great boon. certainly at times I've wanted it.

BernardL said...

I never try to silence the voices in my head. The characters thrash out scenes and plots all day long... and many times unfortunately, in the middle of the night. :)

sage said...

I used to play chess, but now I do puzzles... and walk (but I often think when I walk) or sail (in which I think, but only about the water and wind and other boats).

nephite blood spartan heart said...

A favorite way for me to do this "Stop thinking " thing is to rewatch beloved movies that I have seen dozens of times.

I could quote the whole thing to you and yet for these stories I get into them again and again in simple joy and mindlessness.

Riot Kitty said...

I think you're right, and I'm wondering if this is especially present in writers. I watch BBC shows or read murder mysteries to tune out.

Greg said...

That makes sense. I'd venture to guess that writers in general probably think more than the average person -- this may or may not be a good thing.
- Greg

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernard, My voices may be more obnoxious than yours. I could believe that.

sage, walking ignites my thoughts full scale, which is one reason I use it when I'm plotting stories.

David J. West, that does work. Like Aliens for me maybe. or The The Wrath of Khan. Lana and I quote that move back and forth all the time.

Riot Kitty, I can see that murder mysteries would work because it would be like a puzzle.

Greg, probably a two edged sword I'd guess. Good and bad.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A new to me and lovely concept. I cannot ever shut my brain down, which is why I blame my fractured remembrances on thinking I was doing at the time

G. B. Miller said...

I used to do word logic puzzles to keep my brain focused when needed.

Then I would write blog posts to stay occupied.

Now I just read non-fiction.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

By the second drink, my brain has shut down.
Like you, I'd say video games do that most effectively. (The yammering comes loudest when I'm trying to go to sleep at night and unfortunately I'm too tired to get up and go do something constructive.)
Could be some truth that it drives us to creative outlets.

David Cranmer said...

My thoughts run along Patti's comment. Stories, concepts, ideas keep smashing the cerebrum.

Charles Gramlich said...

Patti, it's the yammering, if there is such a thing. (Matrix reference) :)

G.B., fiction or nonfiction does focus my mind usually. If the book is good at least.

Alex, since I've largely quit drinking, I think that's probably why I play more video games now.

ivan said...

Just a slapshot, but I think all intellectuals flitter from one idea to another, hoping for salvation.
This is especially hard in these postmodernist days, when intellectuality seems a dead hand. :-(

Oscar Case said...

I'm perfectly fine until my head hits the pillow at night and the thoughts come streaming in about my project or what other people say or write. Getting back up and reading or just sitting in a chair helps.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, in a world of extroverts, intellectualism does seem rather dead.

Oscar, I tell myself stories at nights to help me go to sleep. It seems to work.

Vesper said...

My brain never shuts down. I sometimes think it's an alien entity... :-) :-) :-)

Erik Donald France said...

Cogitating aggravation ignition invitation . . . oh, yes. I agree on both fronts -- that writers tend to be in drive or overdrive with thoughts much of the time and that quiet solitude (or temporary oblivion) is also needed from time to time, brought about by any means necessary (or at hand). . .

Richard Prosch said...

LOL you and Lana riffing on Star Trek. For me it's the first one. Geek alert: my secret is that I had it on audio cassette for years and would listen in the car on long trips. ST:TMP might not be the best of the movies, but I think it has the best music of them all --which also can carry me away. Great post!

laughingwolf said...

mine goes nuts all the time... but i found a hidey-hole in it where i can get away from it all - then, couch or bed handy... nap ;)

Snowbrush said...

You've outlined a major difference between Peggy and me because whereas she is quite bright, her thoughts are primarily task-directed or interest-directed, whereas mine are primarily analytical-directed, and neither of us has the least option to be different. I don't know if you're right about writers, although I would suspect that, if terms of %s of the population, you probably are.

Charles Gramlich said...

Vesper, yes, mine too, like a face hugger on steroids.

Erik, that's part of the reason I need so much solitude, so I can get some control over those thoughts.

Richard, I like the first one, of course. There had been such a Star Trek drought before it came out. I was ecstatic.

Laughingwolf, when I nap, I dream, sometimes pretty hard dreams.

Snowbrush, Lana continually tells me she's not a linear thinker and I believe she is right. But she can certainly focus when she wants to.

Ty said...

Charles, I realize this is an older post of yours, but I recently ran across an article I think is relevant and interesting. Thought you might like to see it: