About a year ago, I took a free MOOC course called “Learning How to Learn.” I’m not bad at learning–in fact, I’ve had a successful academic career; I double majored in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science and graduated top of my class with awards to show for it. I took this course because I had thought, perhaps, I wasn’t actually good at learning but rather good at “playing the game.” The game, mentioned in this essay by Paul Graham, is one where students try and guess potential exam questions for classes and study for them. If you were good at the game, you would study for the right questions and do well. Surely enough, I was quite proficient at this game during my time in school.
Now, as I entered my 20s, I also felt a noticeable difference in how my mind functioned from childhood to now; for example, when I first came to the United States, I became fluent in English from nearly ground zero within a year and even became my class representative within that same year. I remembered how quickly I picked things up, making neural connections seemingly instantaneously. As I reflected on my childhood, I realized I so desperately wanted to have that level of plasticity today. Thus, I figured the MOOC class might allow me to hack my brain–to learn like a child again.
Disclaimer: there was no silver bullet.
With that said, I found the class to be mostly intuitive. However, there was one idea that stuck with me: the diffuse mode of thinking. The idea of a diffuse mode is simple; once you learn something, you let those ideas marinate–mingle, if you will–with all the other thoughts in your mind. By doing so, your brain naturally will find new connections and strengthens neural pathways. In other words, your subconscious mind is just as important as your conscious one.
In particular, there was a specific technique used by a famous scientist to purposefully induce diffuse-mode (I can’t recall who). This scientist would take breaks (kind-of like naps), but held a heavy ball while attempting to doze off. When he inevitably drifted off, he would drop the ball, causing a loud bang–forcing him awake. As soon as he did, he would write down the thoughts he had just moments before. He was attempting to materialize the diffuse-mode thoughts on paper!
This was fascinating. Throughout my life, I always felt my thoughts were more creative, intriguing, and whimsical right before going to bed. It almost felt like the brain eased up at the end of a long day, randomly testing new connections to see if they worked. Unfortunately, I found these thoughts to be rather ephemeral; once I entered into my dreams, they disappeared as quickly as they manifested.
Thus, I started writing those thoughts down, right before I lost them–just enough to jog my memory when I woke up in the morning to evaluate them, but usually not so in depth as to lose my sleep. There were some nights, however, where I was so excited about an idea or thought that I spent hours into the night formalizing it onto paper, afraid of its fleeting properties.
All that to say–I’ve noticed some of my best thoughts and ideas came at 3 AM. My brain seems to become confused around this time–half asleep, half awake–forming sporadic connections it normally wouldn’t. When I’m in this state, I leverage this phenomena to jot down as much as I can so that I can revisit them the morning after.
I don’t advocate an erratic sleep schedule to induce this effect–but as you head off to bed, I’d encourage you to start paying closer attention to your thoughts and see what they’re like!