Why we doodle, journal, and sometimes think out loud

Thoughts are peculiar things. You can’t put your hands around an idea and give it to someone else to see what they think about it. You can’t capture a thought and inspect the details that make it up closely.

To analyze our thoughts – to really understand them or to see what they can become – we have to change what they are.

In neuroscience, a thought is little more than activated portions of the brain, each firing to create an image or other sensation, in a way that creates a vivid “picture” of something in our minds. To quote my personal favorite neuroscientist Paul King:

“In current models of thinking, a ‘thought’ could be viewed as a chaotic attractor of neural activity in the brain – a semi-stable transitional state that is sufficiently organized to have some associational structure.”

That is to say: a thought is nothing more than a series of activity in the brain that is structured enough to feel like something solid, something we can imagine and hold onto mentally.

For creative thinking, this is troublesome.

How can we know the value of an idea – what it can evolve into, or whether it’s good or not – if it exists only as a series of fluctuating activity in the brain, only briefly presented as a stable thought?

This is where the value of writing, voice recording, doodling, speech therapy, and generally “talking aloud– comes into play.

If you’ve ever worked around a professional creative types (artist, educator, writer, philosopher, and so on), you’ve undoubtedly already recognized the behavior of talking out loud that is common with creative thinking.

When tasked with a problem or while pursuing an idea, it’s not uncommon for individuals to speak out loud. This is because the action of having to vocalize an idea turns it from some intangible, fluctuating series of brain activity into something more tangible, explicit, and lasting.

By doodling ideas, speaking them out loud or recording yourself talking about them, writing them down, or otherwise getting ideas “out of your head” you are forcing the concepts that form what we think of as “an idea” into something that is more easily evaluated, modified, poked and prodded.

Is it any wonder why so many creative greats – the Einsteins, Edisons, Curie, and Poes – doodled, journaled, or spoke to themselves?

The importance of these activities isn’t always what is produced as a result, it’s the methods themselves! These actions allow the thinker to take a rudimentary, hard-to-grasp idea and turn it into something more solid and easily manipulated.

If you want to get the most out of your ideas (or if you find yourself struggling with ideas), find a way to turn them into something more than simply a mental idea.