Why it’s so hard to think
Digital technologies crowd out our analog ability to make connections. That’s a problem since analogical thinking is what makes us human.
By Brad Berens
In the middle of the night, Sting’s song “Moon over Bourbon Street” went through my head. I hadn’t thought of it in years, maybe decades. I love Sting, but I hadn’t listened to his music recently. Why did this song wake me up?
Some context: I had opened my eyes to cloudy skies. I was in a sleeping bag, no tent, on a warm summer night. This was day two of a glorious, five-day white water rafting trip on the lower Salmon River in Idaho. Here’s one image:
We were off the grid: no electricity, no internet. I bought a solar charger for our phones so that we could continue to use the cameras, but the phones didn’t connect to anything.
“Moon over Bourbon Street” is from Sting’s 1985 debut solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles. It’s a dramatic monologue told from the point of view of a predator who might be a werewolf, but it’s ambiguous. The song was not the album’s biggest hit (“If You Love Somebody Set Them Free”), and there was no reason for it to be in my mind.
Or was there?
Later, journal in hand, coffee steaming beside me, I mulled over the previous day. I had chatted with Nicole, another rafter who lives not far from me in Portland. She had grown up in Louisiana. That activated a memory of a wonderful, friend-filled conference I’d attended in New Orleans right before COVID lockdown in February of 2020. Bourbon Street is in New Orleans, and we’d all listened to better-than-expected jazz at a random Bourbon Street bar. Plus, the day before my conversation with Nicole, as my family had driven to the launch site a memory of a teenaged trip to New Orleans had briefly come to my mind.
That all seemed tenuous, but my brilliant wife Kathi later pointed out that a big, bright full moon had been advertised for the night before. Rain clouds had obscured it, but it had been a topic of conversation.
Kathi provided the missing piece to the equation:
Louisiana + New Orleans + Full Moon = “Moon Over Bourbon Street.”
This is dream logic, but it’s still logic.
I’m sharing this story for two reasons.
Reason #1: Digital information crowds out analog thinking*
If I hadn’t been off the grid, disconnected from the internet and its never-ending hurricane of information, I would not have taken time to wade through my thoughts to figure out why the Sting song had come to mind. I might have grabbed a device to search the song and reassure myself that, yes, it was from The Dream of the Blue Turtles, even though I already knew that. Or perhaps I would have streamed the song on Spotify to see if I remembered the lyrics correctly, even though I already knew that I did and that the accuracy of my lyrical memory wasn’t the most interesting thing about the song popping to mind.
Maybe I’m judging myself too harshly. However, if I had been at home when the Sting song came to mind, I would only have been able to stop and tease out the dream logic if I had made the decision ahead of time to avoid digital stimuli.
Everything in our lives is stacked against that decision, from the hugely addictive-by-design nature of our digital devices to how, as Daniel J. Levitin has pointed out…
It turns out that decision-making is also very hard on your neural resources and that little decisions appear to take up as much energy as big ones. One of the first things we lose is impulse control. This rapidly spirals into a depleted state in which, after making lots of insignificant decisions, we can end up making truly bad decisions about something important.
On the river and off the grid, I did not have this challenge. Since we got back from the river, I’ve tried to create an environment where the firstlings of my morning are coffee and journaling and asking the right questions, but the lure of the smartphone is always more powerful than we think it will be moment-to-moment—those smartphones are so little, so easy to use, so helpful, so pernicious.**
If I’m in the right frame of mind at the end of my workday, then I’ll do things like put all my devices on DND, print out my task list for the next day and my calendar, and use those things as a moat around my ability to ponder and wonder. It’s a losing battle.
Reason #2: Analog thinking is valuable, but that value is hard to see
In today’s high-speed culture, we’ve seen a casual drift into thinking that digital is always better than analog. But in reality, analog is just different, untranslatable into digital value propositions. Analog thinking is what is left over after digital has chomped through everything else.
The root of “analog” is from the Greek prefix “ana” and the word “logos,” which roughly means “against the word.” Comparison is built into the word analog, which is where we get “analogy,” which roughly means making a comparison by sticking things together and then exploring how they might be similar.
Analogy is the most powerful kind of human thinking, and our minds do it all the time. When faced with a new concept, the first thing our minds do is think, “well, what is this like?” We then shuffle through ideas, trying them on for size, discarding some, putting others to the side for a moment, and then deciding to chase one option. That’s what my mind was doing as it slept and processed the different conversations and thoughts of the day, before it popped out with an old Sting song.
In persuasion, whether you’re tackling the head or the heart with a stick or a carrot, a key tool is to say, “this new thing is like that old thing you already like or that old thing that already scares you.”
Algorithms narrow down ways things can be alike. Analog thinking expands the ways things can be alike.
If I hadn’t been off the grid, disconnected from the internet and its never-ending hurricane of information, I would not have taken time to wade through my thoughts to figure out why the Sting song had come to mind. I might have grabbed a device to search the song and reassure myself that, yes, it was from The Dream of the Blue Turtles, even though I already knew that. Or perhaps I would have streamed the song on Spotify to see if I remembered the lyrics correctly. If I had been at home when the Sting song came to mind, I would only have been able to stop and tease out the dream logic if I had made the decision ahead of time to avoid digital stimuli. Everything in our lives is stacked against that decision.
The smallest unit of analogical thinking is rhyme. Rhyme connects different concepts by linking the sounds of the words that express them, like love and dove. There’s nothing inherently similar about the concepts of love and a small white bird. But because we can be made to notice how the words sound similar when those sounds are placed at the ends of lines of poetry or lyrics, a poem can prompt us to create a conceptual relationship.
Algorithms are fast at pattern recognition. Humans, analog thinkers, are slow but unparalleled at pattern forging… asking “how is this like that?” and then creating the answer rather than discerning it.
Mindfulness practitioners have a saying, “don’t just do something: stand there!” Don’t reach for an answer; live inside the question first.
It’s great advice, and it’s also hard to follow.
* I’ve adapted this from something IDG founder Patrick McGovern used to quip: “the specific crowds out the general.”
** Design ethicist Tristan Harris has put this succinctly: “Every time you open an app there are 1,000 engineers behind it trying to keep you using it.”
Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).
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July 29, 2022