Creating a mirror for your mind

To learn whether or not there’s something in your teeth, you use a mirror.

Mirrors tell us almost everything physically about the outside of our bodies. Are we having a good hair day? Does our outfit look attractive? Are the rings under our eyes getting softer or darker? Do we look how we want to be perceived today?

Mirrors can be helpful for getting a glimpse into how we look on our outside, but don’t do very much for exposing us to what’s going on inside. They’re specifically not very helpful for reflecting what’s going on our minds.

To look around our thoughts and feelings we need other, specialized tools.

Most of us feel as though we already have a good handle on our thoughts. Why would we need something to reflect back to us what we’re already thinking? But, like the time you got a big leaf of spinach stuck in your teeth, you don’t know what you don’t know about yourself until the mirror shows it to you.

For reflecting your thoughts and ideas you need a mirror for the mind. And there are a myriad of tools we can use to reflect what’s going on inside our brains. Therapists and conversations with close friends can be insightful.

Undoubtedly the best mirror for your mind comes in the form of a regular journal.

Personal journals, like mirrors, allow us to see ourselves from our own advantage. They ask us to look and interpret what it is we see about ourselves, and all the beauty or ugliness that comes with it.

When we take time to journal we’re stepping up to the mirror and taking note of what we see. Are we having good thoughts? Do our ideas feel unique and valuable? Are we consistently thinking in the same ways we always have, limiting our ability to see new possibilities? Do we think in ways we want to be?

It’s hard to know what your hair is doing at any given moment, a mirror can help. Similarly, it’s hard to know what our thoughts are doing unless we put them in a place we can reflect on them.

We can’t get the food out of our teeth if we don’t first know it’s there. We’ll struggle to think in the ways we want to—creatively, more constructively—if we don’t put our thoughts into a mirror too.

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.

Writing ideas down is a phenomenal idea

Have you ever had an idea that you thought was so great it must be unforgettable, so you didn’t bother to write it down… then you forgot what it was?

If you don’t have a way to keep track of your ideas almost all of the time, you are bound to forget something sooner or later. Is risking the loss of a remarkable idea worth not doing something as simple as writing it down?

I’ve written about how always carrying a notebook around, can help prepare you for when you get random ideas, but there is more to recording your ideas than just being able to write down them randomly, and not forgetting them.

Make sure to write these points down somewhere:

Writing down your ideas makes them nearly impossible to forget.

Sure, you could rip out the page you write your idea on, or you could lose your idea notebook, but writing down your idea is a pretty certain guarantee that you won’t forget it later. Even if the idea seems pointless or stupid at the time you think it up, you may want to recall it later, and if you don’t write it down somewhere… you probably won’t ever remember.

Writing down your ideas makes them more than just ideas.

An idea is just a mental thought, until it is written (or typed) down. Writing down your ideas takes them from being just a thought, into being a real, feasible idea. In this way the creative ideas you have also become expandable; you will be able to physically see the idea, rather than just imagining it in your mind (seeing is believing). Being able to see your idea is the very first step in acting on that idea.

Writing down your ideas puts them all in one place.

If you find yourself bombarded with a lot of creative ideas often (or if you’re a creative professional), writing your ideas down in an “idea notebook” makes it easy to keep track of your ideas. An idea notebook means you always know where to look when you want to recall an idea (or when you need some creative inspiration). Don’t want to buy a notebook? Then try to collect all of your ideas on your computer or in a pile of scrap paper. Anything to put your ideas all into one, easy to find place.

Writing down your ideas makes it easier to think up new ones.

Once you are in the habit of writing your ideas down, you’ll quickly develop a knack for thinking up, and tracking, ideas. Before you know it you will have notebooks full of great ideas. The more you write the more you will have to write about.

Try and discover ways in your everyday activity to keep track of your ideas until you can get them together in one place and in one format.

Carrying just a pen or pencil around with you everywhere is a great idea, you can always result to writing on your own skin if you can’t find a piece of paper or something else to write on. If you’re the kind of person who gets inspiration while in the shower, you can buy a shower note tablet, or just use Crayola Washable Crayons to write directly on your shower wall. If you have a cellphone or PDA, use it to keep track of your ideas.

In my opinion, the absolute best way to keep track of ideas is to carry a small notebook with you everywhere you go. You can buy some that will fit into your pockets, or you can buy larger, heftier ones.

Download Prompts on your iPhone or iPad to get creative writing prompts.