Most of us probably assume we do a pretty good job of thinking as we go about our work or personal lives. Art Markman’s book, Smart Thinking, shows us how wrong many of us are — but it also shows us how to begin to change the way we think.
This is a fascinating book for those who want to think about and remember more useful information. It combines some common-sense advice with the author’s experience in the field of cognitive science. While I didn’t find every point helpful, there is much to like.
According to Markman, smart thinking is “the ability to solve problems using what you already know.” That sounds simple, but the book explains how we can put better information into our brains and then get better at recalling that information. As a result, we become better thinkers. That’s an appealing idea.
Markman’s formula goes something like this: We should develop a habit of acquiring high-quality
Markman spends a chapter or more on the topic of habits. He suggests that if we develop good learning habits, we make it easier for our brain to think. This in turn relieves mental stress and preserves energy for more challenging tasks. We likely haven’t thought a lot about how much energy we use in thinking, but Markman wants us to understand that we use mental energy in much the way we consume physical energy. When we are in our comfort, or habitual, zones of working with familiar subjects, thinking seems to come easily and without much stress. So, he posits, our goal should be to make more subjects familiar ones.
For instance, are you able to move about a room in the dark? If so, that’s because you have made it a habit to maneuver around furniture and other objects by making a connection between an action (your movement) and an environment (the room). When we make that connection in other learning situations such as a classroom or meeting room, it helps our brain to retain the information.
That example works well. But much of Markman’s discussion of other types of habits, such as smoking or overeating, is belabored. They aren’t bad suggestions; it’s just that we have read these ideas in many places before. Still, a helpful tip from the book is that if we want to change or drop a negative habit it works better if we replace that habit with a good habit. Markman adds that keeping a diary can be effective for some people.
I felt the most helpful and interesting discussion was on the subject of memory. Markman suggests that because our memory has capacity limits, it is important to take in information in a smarter way in order to retain more valuable knowledge. He uses a concept called the “Role of 3” to make his point. Even though there may be a lot going on around us, we are capable of absorbing only about three aspects at a time. Further, what we retain in long-term memory is even less detailed. For example, can you remember an early childhood birthday? Being honest, you may recall that there was a party that likely was in a home you recall and likely included certain friends. But you can’t recall much detail with certainty, including how you felt about it. Markman’s bottom line is that if you are having trouble remembering something, you did something wrong on the intake end.
Being aware of the Role of 3 can also be used to our advantage when we are delivering information, as we might in making a presentation or while teaching. We may want to tell our audience or colleagues everything we know, but this could result in their retaining the less important information. It’s better to stick to three main points. In fact, the author repeats common speakers’ advice: Tell them what you are going to say; say it; then tell them what you said.
Markman also says that we miss much of what is right in front of us. He calls it “change blindness,” explaining that although our eyes may be constantly scanning our surroundings, we only notice a small part of what we are scanning. We see examples of this when witnesses to a crime have difficulty describing the perpetrator with much detail, or describing accurately.
The book also claims that it is easier for us to learn new information that is related to something we already know than when it is a totally new topic for us. We can accept this as likely and use this to make us work harder when we are in new learning territory.
Why do we even want to become smart thinkers in the first place? Why not! It can help us in school at any level; in work and careers; and in social interaction. In showing us why we think the way we do, Markman’s book is a useful one, even if not every point is fresh. And if some of his suggestions seem to take too much effort or seem too challenging, we can still learn how to be more alert to what we absorb—and hopefully become more interesting people as a result.
Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done
Perigee, Penguin Group, December, 2012
Paperback, 272 pages