Mental Tools: Mind Palaces, Speed Maths and Creativity

By on December 27, 2017

Something that I love about writing and coding, is that they are jobs I can work on in my ‘mind palace’.

Or to be a little less dramatic about it, these are tasks that are highly based around thinking, problem solving and planning. This in turn then means that the ‘hard work’ all goes on inside your head and all that’s left to do is to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) when you sit down ready to go to work.

If I know I have a big writing project coming up then, I’ll often dedicate some time during the prior days to come up with a basic structure, an angle and a conclusion. And if I have a programming problem I want to solve, I’ll often tackle it while I’m walking, driving or dozing off to sleep, just to pass the time.

I also have some ‘long term’ projects that I like to work on in this way. For instance, whenever I’m board in a queue, I’ll often try and work on the problem of locomotion in VR. Or something I’m very interesting in inventing: a better form of touchscreen input for writing.

I’ve yet to come up with solutions for either of these problems, but they’re good for a little mental workout and they certainly pass the time.

Internalizing Moodboards and More

Coming up with an article outline in your mind’s eye is an interesting practice because it’s essentially like using a virtual word processor. You use the creative parts of your brain to think about direction etc., but you also need to ‘store’ the ideas that you’ve already come up with in your working memory.

In this way, you’re almost running software in your brain, which is something I’ve alluded to in the past.

I encountered another interesting example of this the other day. I was coming up with ideas for a new logo for my website and struggling for inspiration. Thus, I decided I would rely on my favourite old strategy, which is to use a moodboard. A moodboard is essentially a collage of sorts, which involves collecting different words, graphics, videos and concepts that you like and that you think speak to your brand.

But I was too impatient to wait until I got home to do this on the computer, so instead I created a kind of ‘mental moodboard’. That involved rummaging around through my memories, and then ‘collecting’ ideas to hold in working memory. Then I could try combining them in different ways.

In my case, I knew I wanted hexagons. And I knew I wanted to invoke a sense of activity, fitness and human performance – but with a kind of scientific and almost sci-fi bent. That eventually drew me to the idea of the Vitruvian man. This was perfect because it also kind of spoke to the mental aspect of the site, what with DaVinci being a famous polymath. I also wanted a technological aspect, which I thought could be expressed through virtual reality. The color would remain my current cyan. I combined the Vitruvian man idea by placing him into the hexagon and then simplified the image into an almost low-poly look. By doing this, I realized that the image was also somewhat reminiscent of a g-force simulator or the VR set-up used in Lawnmower Man! Perfect!

Of course, there were other elements I included in my mental moodboard that never made the cut. They included tablets, wires, headphones, a brain, muscles, DNA strands and more.

But the point I’m trying to make is that I was able to come up with something cool not through fluke but by using an existing tool as a ‘framework’ to guide my thinking. This is the kind of process we use unconsciously all the time in creative works, but we do so in a kind of intuitive and implicit manner.

My call to action here is to try using this precise system for guiding your own creative thought process. And maybe to ask what other tools you could internalize to become more effective.

More Examples

Another example is decision making. I was recently struggling to make a decision regarding work (specifically which clients to keep and which to drop), when I was advised to make a spreadsheet to help me find the right solution.

In the end though, I was too impatient to wait until I got home and instead I created the spreadsheet there and then – with weightings and more – to determine what I should do. I simulated Excel and got an answer that was smarter than the one I would have come to otherwise.

Another example is overcoming functional fixedness by listing resources you have available rather than just items. Watch the video for a more in-depth explanation.

Visualization and Speed Maths

Of course, we can relate this to a lot of what I’ve been talking about on this site for a while now: the power of visualization, our ‘internal physics engine’ and our premotor cortex. When we go to throw a ball, we first visualize its trajectory based on our intended aim and force and we do so through activation of the premotor cortex (visualization) and through an internalized physics engine. This is an internalized ‘tool’ of sorts.

But how else could you hack this system for useful ends? Could visualization add an additional element to your mental software?

One obvious example is to create a mind palace. The mind palace was popularized by the (awesome) TV series Sherlock, but the concept has been around for long before that. Here, the idea is to picture a scene that contains elements you want to remember. You might visualize your old home, a ‘happy place’, or an imaginary location and then fill it with anecdotes, visual imagery etc.

By creating a mind palace, you can make it easier to retain lots of critical information and then to retrieve it at will. You’re creating a context for those items, which in turn anchors them to established neural pathways in your connectome.

Another example is simply visualizing a happy place to calm yourself down. This is a mental tool that can have an effect on your very physiology.

(Note that in both cases, I personally find it easier to visualize these things if I have seen them previously. Sketching a happy place or a mind palace can help a great deal for instance, and I see great potential for VR here.)

But perhaps the most fascinating example I can think of is that of the abacus. An abacus is a counting tool of course that consists of beads on a rack. These can be moved and counted in order to quickly perform sums, but what makes them truly power is their ability to become ‘internalized’. After practicing with abacuses long enough, students are taught to picture them in their minds’ eyes and thereby perform sums more quickly and accurately. This is the perfect example of a mental ‘tool’.

 “After a few months of training with the counting tool, the abacus is taken away from the students and they are taught to picture the beads in their mind for calculations through the ‘visual Abacus’. Kids learn to pay attention to their inner space inside their mind and practise to increase the inner clarity.”

Read more here.

A similar tool called a ‘Soroban’ is used in Japan with impressive results.

Amazingly, some people who experience synaesthesia report experiencing something similar in an intuitive manner using grids.

And surely this is just scratching the surface of how we might use visualization and working memory to internalize our tools and create structures for our thinking.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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