Stacks and Stews
I’ve decided to try a stream of consciousness style for now. I have no agenda and I won’t make large edits. A professor once inspired me to exercise writing as I exercise a muscle: a little every day. Some will be shit, some will be inspiring, but it’s a Vonnegut exercise in creation for oneself only.
There is no reason for me to write again today. I deloaded my brain stack yesterday, and did it again today when I spoke with my brother. Then I did it again when I spoke with my dad and brother on our video chat (thanks to COVID-19 for making us more communicative). There are still more things for me to discuss, however. I think the one topic that is most poignant is the stack.
There is an abstract data type used in computer science called a stack. Think of it literally like a stack of papers. Last item placed on the stack is the first item accessible to the user: LIFO. I make the analogy to my own mind and the way I keep thoughts floating in my head. Throughout the day we add memories onto the stack and the most recent memories are the most easily accessible. When we take a few memories or thoughts at a time it can lead to some interesting syntheses, but unless we stay organized it can be very inefficient to try to juggle multiple, disparate thoughts.
It is important to have built in times throughout the day to deload the stack. If we have preplanned download times it can help to preserve memory in the brain and help us store memories for later. These stored memories can then be accessed when it is more appropriate and better for them to be processed. At times, however, we are not able to deload the stack or download our thoughts. When I was in grad school I bounced from classes to my job to my wrestling practice often without any breaks or downtime. I remember driving home late at night and just staring down the road at nothing — my brain literally could not take any more stimulus. In programming this is appropriately called stack overload. There is no more space for memory let alone processing the memories already on the stack.
If you treat your mind like a lossy, shitty computer you will begin to see that it needs a certain amount of space to store working memory. How can you synthesize new ideas or analyze old memory without space in which to execute? Simply put, you can’t. Moreover, given that memory is for the most part stored as a stack it is more efficient to block out time for deep work dedicated to one channel. Then after that block is complete you can give yourself time to download memory to the back brain and thus make room for more deep work.
You can say this is not exactly correct, but I do think it is a useful analogy. Possibly a better description would be that the brain works on momentum. Leftover signals and chemicals in the brain perpetuate the prior thoughts and that leads to recent memory. Even more, deep work leads to reinforced connections and more buildup of the thought chemicals needed for the specific channel in which we are working.
Whatever the exact science, I find it useful to examine how my brain and mind work. We have a stack of thoughts that are most accessible from top down. If we don’t unload the stack at regular intervals we can lose thoughts, become less efficient thinkers, and become confused. just as important, if we are distracted and not allowed to deep work we become literally scatter brained and can’t make efficient use of the positive feedback loop that deep work creates wherein related thoughts are created from related thoughts and continued thinking on a given channel.
The brain stack is one of the common analogies that I use when talking with my friends and family. Everyone has a stack and knowing how to take advantage of it can lead to better uses of our time, but also to a better relationship with our minds. Don’t fight your brain; embrace it!
Once I discovered the stack I was much more comfortable with taking breaks. I used to be a classic workaholic. I thought that I was a failure for becoming scatterbrained at a certain level of output, I was lesser for not being able to work longer. But really it was more important that I make quality use of the time I could give. Deep and channeled work was more important than broad work. Then at the end of the block I could let go of the front brain thoughts and allow them to be filed away in the back brain. Sleep would then defog and defrag the brain computer.
The next issue that I faced was that of fleeting inspiration. Also called moments of clarity or intuition, there are times when we all feel an “A-ha” moment. The times when you allow the thoughts to stew in your head and produce a synthesis of creativity. But what if you can’t use the obviously brilliant idea at that second? Do you just jot down a note to self? Do you allow the thought to distract you from your deep work?
Most would make a note in a journal or idea log. Others would become distracted. Whatever the case it stems from fear of missing an idea, fear of losing that spark forever. Often I like to turn these situations on their heads. Let’s start from the genesis. What caused the idea in the first place? There was some stimuli that met in your brain that created a sequence of thoughts that churned into life as your inspiration. But people all over the world experience similar stimuli and still don’t have the inspiration. Thus there must be something internal that met with the external to create something new. Those thoughts, however, have been there for quite sometime: they are permanent to your self. So, if you have thoughts that already existed meeting stimulus that you can recreate, and that new stimulus has already become a memory, what is to say that your unique, new inspiration can’t come again? Moreover, what’s to say that that inspiration isn’t stored permanently in your brain?
I don’t lament losing a thought or losing inspiration. If it is truly important, you will recall it, and even if you lose the current iteration, there is always more stimulus that can be taken in to enhance the thought. The thought, too, can sit in your brain for years and marinate until it is even more mature and fully baked, and arise when you are truly ready to take advantage of its brilliance.
Thoughts are fleeting, but they always come back. Give your brain time to marinate on its own. Embrace deep work, and give your mind time to deload its stack to make room for more thoughts and deep work. Last, take in more stimuli and experiences to enhance the existing memory and thought to create an even stronger synthesis and analysis.