Is It Possible To Unthink?

In a conversation with colleagues recently we were talking about thinking. We are in the process of doing some writing on a topic that is, we think, an uncommon way to understand how change takes place in organizations. It has the potential to be a leapfrog or breakthrough theory of leading and managing the strategic and tactical process of organizations moving into the future they want.

One of us expressed the desire to know more about how people in the field are thinking about organizational change at present. When I inquired about how such information would be used, he expressed the desire to make a connection to current thinking as leverage for engaging people in reading and thinking about a breakthrough way of thinking.

I experienced a feeling and a thought. The feeling was a bit of unease. This feeling always signals to me that something inside of me has yet to be unpacked, or that my personality (which favors things be exactly the way they should be) was asserting itself in an unhealthy way. The thought was, the more time we spend thinking about the present, the more it will influence our thinking about our breakthrough theory. And that drew me to the question, can we ever unthink what we know?

On Breakthrough, Leapfrog Thinking

I told my colleagues that I was interested in spending every bit of my time, energy, and thinking on that uncommon, breakthrough, leapfrog future, and had no interest in doing any thinking about the present for three reasons. One, simple math says that if we hope to produce this breakthrough thinking by some certain date, total available time is a constant, and the greater the fraction we spend on the present, the lesser the fraction we spend on the future. Two, I opined that every time we made any rigorous inquiry into the present we would be diluting the possibility of achieving breakthrough future thinking. Three, the more we think about the present, the more we anchor the present in our brains. All the energy that goes into thinking about the present becomes a tether to the present (which quickly becomes the past).

So, is it possible to unthink what we have already thought to clear our thinking for the future?

It strikes me that the question can be answered in (at least) two parts. The first is a brain-based answer and the second is a “thinking as a process” answer.

Is It Possible to Unthink: A Brain-Based Answer

Thinking, for me, falls into two large buckets. The first is thinking about what we already know. This is “sitting in a dark room with the thoughts I already have piecing them together in possibly new ways or at least going over them in some order”. The second is thinking that is a response to learning or discovery. This is when what we did not know becomes known. That does not mean it is entirely new knowledge; it may be an expansion of what we know or a new perspective on what we know. Nevertheless, it is some addition to what we already knew.

(I am neither a neurologist nor a neuroscientist. For now, I will rely on my understanding of the work of Lila Davachi, PhD of New York University and her research on memory. What follows is an extremely brief summation of how memory works (so brief that it is sure to have gaping holes but should suffice for the purpose of this article) and is limited to encoding memories, the role of the hippocampus, and generating (retrieving) memories.)

The brain records what we learn as memories. Long-term memories are encoded into the brain and from that moment forward sit around waiting to be retrieved (which, depending on the circumstances of their encoding, could be a lonely life). In between we retain them to various degrees.

Memory encoding is enhanced by several things: paying attention, working with information, organizing and generating information, distribution of practice (intervals of repetition), and context. In general, the greater the activation of the hippocampus, the more successful the memory formation. In general, the greater the emotion connected to an event, the greater the activation of the hippocampus. Memory retrieval actually plays a role in strengthening existing memory (by rewriting the memory in the brain). So, taken as a whole, the more you work with what you already know, the more the memory is strengthened.

All of this, it strikes me, suggests that the time we spend in animated thinking about what we already know (or expanding what we already know) has an inverse effect on encoding new memories that will be the stuff of breakthrough ideas for the future. So, in terms of leapfrogging into the future, the brain can be your friend at the same time it is your enemy. While retention of memory can fade with inattention and lack of retrieval, the physical brain cannot unthink what we already know (i.e., memories already encoded).

Is It Possible To Unthink: A Thinking as a Process Answer

Retention, then, may be a lever for unthinking insofar as the ability to retrieve a memory decreases as the time between retrievals of a memory increases. The brain is decently efficient in that regard. Davachi notes that as the time between attempts to retrieve a memory increase, the more the brain is inclined to send the memory to the “no need to keep this one on hand” bucket, giving the impression that the memory no longer exists.

What might favor such a “loss of memory”? Exciting the hippocampus and generating powerful new memories that create deep grooves in the brain will in time command more of the brain’s attention than memories that receive decreasing attention. Holding on to those new memories through frequent and emotional retrieval can create what Jeffrey Schwartz and Henry Stapp describe as “attention density”. And what favors such new powerful new memories? Conversations that draw our attention to future possibilities through powerful questions that create a deep shift in the way the brain works to answer the questions.

Powerful questions have three attributes. They are personal, ambiguous, and anxiety provoking. (See the article on Powerful Questions for more on this.) Taken together they make it difficult for the brain to quickly download easily accessible memories and serve them up as quick answers to the questions. Powerful questions make us pause and think again for the first time.

If the heart of the question says that problem solving the past is not on the table as a viable topic, what is left but to begin a deeper inquiry into the “Why?” of things, and in so doing discover the non-obvious and the uncommon. If the heart of the question rules out a better understanding of current ways of thinking around organizational change, what is left but to shift to ask “What if?”. Such is the stuff of breakthrough thinking and leapfrogging into the future.

Future Possibilities

It is neurophysiologically naive of course to think that even powerful questions and engaging conversations do not draw on already formed memories. The brain is quick to call a bluff. Through powerful questions we can access those memories as springboards for imagining how current mental models might give way to future possibilities – uncommon insights into new ways of understanding change in organizations. Such is the stuff of newly formed memories that combined with chosen accountability and ownership may open way into futures different from the past.

So, is it possible to unthink what we already know? The answer is mixed. The brain may say “yes” or it may say “request denied”. But as a matter of intention we can always choose to focus on breakthrough thinking and leapfrogging. As a matter of choice we can put our attention on that intention. We are continuously rewriting our memories based on what we give our attention to. And we always give our attention to our intentions, whether those intentions are actively articulated or passively allowed to frame our actions.


5 thoughts on “Is It Possible To Unthink?

  1. Excellent! Such an interesting discussion. The issue might hinge upon the differing frameworks utilized for “what we know” versus “what we imagine”. The former relies on expectations of tethering the “flight” of ideas to the “known” – that is, the concrete. In the latter we can choose to set ideas to “flight” – to release them from being “grounded”. What do you think?

    • Thank you for your comment and question.

      For me it represents the difference between “proceeding forward from” and “leaping to”. It implies that some of the ground between the present and the future is passed over (as a matter of failing to download what we know) in favor of powerful questions that create shift, questions that are difficult (or with some luck, impossible) to answer by accessing thoughts (memories) that are readily at hand.

      Such questions can be identified when one immediately starts to give voice to an answer, then stops, realizing that no ready answer is available, and then realizes that one’s current mental models are insufficient for answering the questions. Although the term is much abused, the idea of a paradigm shift ( in Kuhnian terms) hints at what happens when people come face to face with powerful questions.

  2. What an interesting discussion! I think of William Bridges ‘Neutral Zone’ and the creative solutions that are possible here, possibly ONLY here, because that gap between what is and what might be gives us a pause we don’t allow ourselves any other time. There is emerging research on the nature of ‘insight’ and how this is not so much a retrieval of the right memory for the task (which is what we get when we remain grounded in what is) but a reordering of exisitng information – and we each have TONS of it, we love to collect new bits of information – in new and powerful ways. It is well documented that strategic play ‘plays’ an important role in facilitating insightful solutions to existing problems. The downside is that it is rarely available to us when we are stressed. That kind of hyper-vigilance only engages our limbic system response to threat, which is a release of unhelpful neurotransmitters that effectively shut down the pre-frontal cortex, where the planning and decision making and problem solving executive functions of the brain like to hang out. Many of our organizations (and our projects) are stressed to the point of dysfunction. People are stressed in their personal lives. Many of us feel under seige. There is ‘Hebb’s Law’ which states: cells that fire togegther, wire together (or something like that|) and the more stress cylinders we are firing, repeatedly, the more apt we are to fire them at all threat stimulus.

  3. This a such a rich topic it is hard to know where to begin a response. At 35,000 feet, from a mostly transactional managerial point of view, the thought that frequently recurs to me is, “Why would we gratuitously annoy the brain?” That question, it seems to me, frames a theory of management that could cause the general quality of management in this country to leap into the future.

    As I read your thoughts, the other idea that leapt to mind is the well worn axiom, “There is never time to do it right the first time but always time to do it a second time.” I imagine this takes quite a toll on the brain, and from a SCARF point of view would have the brain on crisis level high alert all the time, which would take a terrific toll.

    The high leverage point, it seems to me, is finding the entry point into a conversation with senior leaders that would lead from this insight (what you write above) to a pragmatic, down on the ground shift in how to conceive the order and pace of work in organizations. The “speed of change” is such a common conversation, and it is often uncritically accepted as having no options, that it crowds out the possibilities of framing change in a way the preserves the brain at its best and leads to solid productivity.

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