What do you think about—and why?

Canada Goose

Do you pay attention to the sounds of geese swerving overhead? I never did, but that recently changed, as I saw the documentary Winged Migration: a beautifully filmed narrative, portraying the extensive journeys of migratory birds*. Since seeing Winged Migration I notice that I pay more attention to songs and appearances of birds.

Do you ever think about what keeps buildings cool? I had thought about building cooling principles, but never observed the devices that created the cooling. That changed in 2012, when I spent one week categorizing rooftop-installed cooling equipment on office buildings in Massachusetts. Spending several hours per day studying rooftops on satellite images, I started to notice cooling units on buildings everywhere: from the window of my morning bus-ride; during walks around Harvard square; even as I landed in Florida for a connecting flight to Costa Rica. My attention was triggered.

When your brain is made aware of something—be it migratory patterns of birds or rooftop-cooling units—it pays more attention to this object of phenomenon. Our awareness is influenced by what our brain has been processing. In other words: what we notice is influenced by previous mental exposure; there is a relationship between past, present and future. If you want to control what you think about, your task is to feed relevant and sticky input to your brain. Relevant because the input must relate to what you want to think about (if you want to learn about databases, reading Hamlet is unlikely to be the most effective way); sticky because the brain responds differently to different types of information (compare the mental impact of reading about the salty flavor of an oyster to the mental impact of tasting an oyster).

Time for a question: What do you think about?

Look away from your computer screen for a minute. Meditate upon your thoughts in the last hours, slowly expanding the scope to your thoughts the last days. Write down the types of mental activity you were engaged in, such as technical (how do I code this loop?), logistics (what groceries should I buy?), planning (what do I want to do today?), relationships (who do I want to see this week?), reading, or marketing (how do we get people to buy this?).

I asked this question to several friends on my visit to San Francisco last week. Pieter Verhoeven and I created a short list, sitting in Steve Jobs’ favorite Japanese restaurant in Palo Alto.

  • Technical / calculations (work)
  • Technical / problem-solving approach (work)
  • Conversations with people
  • Sleep
  • Relationships (who to call, who to spend time with etc.)
  • Logistics (shopping, rent, tax etc.)
  • Personal future
  • Non-personal future (sensors and actuators, artificial intelligence, energy systems etc.)
  • Technical / creating (drawing, programming, making physical objects etc.)
  • Nothing (meditation?)
  • Sleep
  • Dance or music
  • (Surprisingly, eating as a mental activity was not one of them—Pieter and I both noticed that we are normally engaged in conversation or work during meals. To be changed.)

I noticed that I think much about people. I spend at least one hour per day asking myself questions as “Who do I want to speak to in the office?” “Who can help me realize this idea?” “To whom have I not spoken in a long time?” Until last week, I had not questioned that type of thought—I just accepted that I thought about people. By comparing my categorized thoughts to those of friends, I realized I spent more time thinking about people than most.

Returning to the hypothesis that your thinking is influenced by the things you feed your brain, my thoughts about people are likely induced first by the fact that I make lists of people I want to collaborate with—a stimulus for the brain; second by the fact that I have enforced that mental activity; and third because I actively spend time learning about people’s stories: reading people’s blogs, calling friends, reading biographies—another stimulus for the brain. In addition, people’s stories are sticky (at least to my brain)—I find it fairly easy to remember the experiences friends tell me about, even years after their telling.

I want to improve my technical mind by deeply understanding models from chemistry, physics and biology. I do this today by picking up science books, by watching documentaries, and by visiting research labs of friends who have decided to pursue a PhD. Interestingly; I notice that some activities are much stickier than others. Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces led to many new ideas; and so did spending two hours peaking at fruitflies through a microscope with Didem Sarikaya at Harvard’s Department of Biology. The book I picked up about chemistry did not have that same stickiness.

What do you think about? What is the cause of this? What do you want to think more, or more actively, about? What stimuli can you use to foster that thinking?


My dear friend Jan Overgoor shared with me a vivid example of an experience triggering the mind. Lately, Jan has worked on different projects with wood, including the construction of a beautiful elliptical tabletop for his home in Berkeley. Jan informed me that he is much more aware of the touch of different surfaces since working actively wood, automatically comparing surface he touches to the smoothness and softness of wood.

*Since seeing Winged Migration, I have a new favorite animal: the Arctic Tern. Why? This little bird travels on average 95,000 kilometers per year. That is more than double the circumference of the earth. If we assume an Arctic Tern flies 300 days per year, the average daily travel is more than 300 kilometers—all by muscle power, no oil needed, nor snacks. What a globetrotter!

Arctic Tern

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