One of the most important lessons I learned as an adult was how to create physical representations of the way I think. Not how I track information or go about ordering my mind for effort, but specifically the way that my thoughts move around my head as I explore ideas, consider information, and create. Honestly, I think tracking information and ordering one’s mind is largely the same for most people, given that we are (generally speaking) currently only capable of doing on thing at a time, thanks to our limited number of appendages. Sure, there are people who can do two things at once, but they’re pretty rare once you filter out all the people who claim to be able to do it but are just really good at dividing their attention between two on-going tasks that they pursue by rapdily alternating between them. But where people differ is how thoughts unfold in their minds and how they build these thoughts and ideas.
Until college, I never really had a reason to consider it that deeply. Most of the time, I just did one thing at a time until it was done and had never needed the level of complex thought that requires mapping out an idea somewhere other than in your head. I was just trying to survive my childhood, mostly, and high school classes I either understood perfectly and did well or did not understand at all and struggled to accomplish anything. In college, I finally had to do outlines for papers, learn how to share my ideas with other people, and figure out how to explain my thought processes. Up to that point, my papers were poorly written 3 or 5 point essays (the Shurley English Method, taught in my home schooling classes by my mother, did way more harm than good over the long haul, but my mother was an engineer, so I’m not surprised that she thought this method of writing was a great tool for teaching me) and the only explanation of my thought processes I ever had to do was showing my work in my various math classes.
It all came to a head in my collegiate English Literature capstone, when my professor handed out large sheets of butcher paper in-class and told us to take some time developing the thesis for our capstone paper. The idea was to get something down quick and then work with our peers to develop our ideas beyond our initial thoughts. When I was confronted with a blank expanse of paper and didn’t have the lines to guide me towards bullet points, I wound up trying a few different ways of representing my thoughts. I tried idea clouds, one or more themes surrounded by a cloud of related words that developed their central them, and a set of spirals and concentric circles that started with broad ideas and then shrank as they developed support for the main idea. Neither worked super well and I was having a difficult time getting my thoughts to fit in that matter. They all felt a little too neat and confined for what I’ve always felt is a rather loose jumble in my mind.
What wound up working the best was bubble diagrams. Thoughts and ideas represented by bubbles of various sizes, support for those ideas inside the bubbles, and lines connecting various thoughts and ideas together with text along the lines to describe the relationship between them. Being able to map my thoughts out in a way that represents how they work in my head means it is so much easier for me to look at the diagram and understand it at a glance. While it’s way more work to produce this kind of thought man than is worth doing for most tasks, it is still my go-to method for plotting stories, planning Tabletop Roleplaying Game campaigns, and working through ideas I’m having a difficult time explaining to other people. My thoughts always make more sense if I can show people, physically show them, how they’re organized and why two ideas are connected. Even the stuff I do at work starts as a bubble diagram before I eventually convert it into something that makes sense to a wider number of people.
Beyond being better able to represent my thoughts physically, it helps me sort them mentally if I have a strong mental image. Instead of a “Mind Palace,” I have a series of thought bubbles that branch and connect to each other, expanding and contracting as I think more or less about something. It isn’t the cleanest mental picture, since it is difficult to think about a 3D bubble diagram given that every single one I’ve ever made or reference is 2D, but it is better than trying to organize my thoughts in a way that feels unnatural. I used to think of my thoughts like a filing cabinet, partly influenced by my love for organizing things and partly influenced by the way my parents depicted was the “correct” way to order my thoughts, but I feel much better now that I’ve stopped trying to keep my thoughts in neat rows. They’re all so much better off as a loosely-affiliated jumble of things bumping into each other and inspiring new connections I wouldn’t have otherwise considered.