Developing Your Exocortex

Blog / Rhys Hill / January 24, 2020

“A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea.”
– John Anthony Ciardi

If John Ciardi knows what he’s talking about then your exocortex is the place to plant those seeds. Your exocortex is the collection of knowledge you have available to you that exists outside your brain. Think your bookshelf, the predictive text on your smartphone, the shopping list you made right before you went out for groceries. These all contain bits of information you have quick access to, but they’re not sitting at the front of your mind taking up space. In the software space, this idea is taken a step further. Your favourite IDE which autocompletes common patterns you no longer need to remember, your bash history that lets you forget details about that command you use all the time, or the StackOverflow link that explains that concept you can never quite articulate. The advantage of these tools is self-evident, but in most cases, we use them unconsciously. In this post, we’ll explore a few ways in which, being conscious of, and developing your exocortex can help you facilitate collaboration between your L-mode and R-mode thinking styles, capture all your great ideas, and turn them into something tangible. Conceptually your brain operates as two distinct CPUs which work in vastly different ways, but share the same memory. The easiest to recognise of these is L-mode thinking, (often referred to by the misnomer, left brain). This style of thinking is logical, procedural, and at the forefront of your mind. It’s responsible for verbal communication and the tasks you’re concentrating on at the time. R-mode thinking (right brain, but not really isolated to one hemisphere) is more abstract; it can be thought of like an asynchronous background thread which returns results in random order. That might sound kind of useless, but what it can do is search through everything you know, find patterns and form associations without you realising you’re thinking about a topic. Ever had the name of that band that sings that song come to you in the shower three days after it was important? Thank you, R-mode.

L-Mode thinking often hogs the memory bus making it hard for the two styles to collaborate

But therein lies the problem; L-mode can only work on what you can keep straight in your head at a given moment and R-mode doesn’t help out until you’re not thinking about what you’re trying to solve. Taking control of your exocortex can help on both of these fronts. Next time you’re working through something complicated with a bunch of moving parts, try dumping everything you know about the problem into a document. I myself, tend to use a Google Doc which I call the Useful Doc, but anywhere will do. Pen and paper works, or the homepage of a personal wiki. The important thing is that it doesn’t matter if a piece of information ends up being useful or not, just add it anyway. What you’ll find is that suddenly your L-mode thinking has a little more room to breathe and you no longer have to concentrate on keeping all the details in focus. The best part, however, is you now have a way for R-mode to help; next time you’re struck by a shower time epiphany, you know where to put it: into the Useful Doc. Then when you’re ready to start working on the problem again, L-mode has all those R-mode insights at its disposal.

The utility of this technique doesn’t stop there, though. You don’t even need to be working on a problem to start collecting insights in a document like this. You can jot down any fleeting thought just in case it becomes relevant later. This does come with a caveat. You need to periodically read through and sort these tidbits. Pretty quickly you’ll see that this sorting step brings its own benefits. Ideas which seemed disjointed and singular will start to coalesce into small groups and slowly form something more substantial. A Google Doc might be reaching its limits once you’re at this stage. Perhaps try starting a personal wiki and each time you find a group of related ideas on your brain-dump homepage, move them to their own hyperlinked page. As this wiki is built up, it should become more intuitive to navigate because you’re forming it to match the way you associate concepts. Even better than that, a tangible view of how you associate concepts will begin to emerge. A view of R-mode that L-mode can understand, if you will.

Example snapshot of the Useful Doc. As you can see, there’s not much structure involved, which is kind of the point. You shouldn’t be afraid to dump anything in here

Remember John and his greening landscape? The other thing you’ll find about your new wiki is that it starts to behave just like his idea of a good question. New thoughts will start to jump out in front of you to fill out each new page after it’s created. Most people are probably familiar with an interpretation of this phenomenon, the frequency illusion, blue car syndrome, or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, but the name that fits best, in this case, is sense tuning. By providing yourself with a place to put down random thoughts, you start to become more aware of them, and by grouping these ideas you start to find more information on particular topics. This makes the act of sorting your insights and reading back over those pages that relate to the topic on which you’re working a powerful tool for attuning yourself to relevant data. Especially the R-mode segments of your brain, which basically means free insights.

If you capture a bunch of good ideas throughout the week, sort them into a few of the pages on your wiki; maybe make a new page. Pretty quickly you’ll realise that half a dozen or so ideas that belong on the same wiki page could form the basis of a blog post. Or if the topic doesn’t suit a blog, you could probably touch up the content and share it with someone else on a group wiki or put together a readme for your current project. The most important step to developing your exocortex is to make sure it’s producing something tangible. Everyone has good ideas—if you capture them you’ll get more, and if you work on your ideas to figure out how they fit together, you’ll be able to attune yourself to particular data. Most importantly, if you put in some time turning your ideas into something tangible, you’ll be one of those rare people at the top of the pyramid that can turn a bunch of abstract thoughts into something useful.

Pyramid of people and their ideas

This post was quite heavily influenced by a book written by Andy Hunt, “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware”, The Pragmatic Programmers, LLC, October 2008. If something in this post struck a chord I’d highly recommend getting hold of a copy.

Header image by ElisaRiva from Pixabay