What Is Thinking?

15.03.2019 |

Episode #1 of the course Learning how to think clearly by David Urbansky


Hello, and thank you for joining this short series on how to think more clearly. My name is David Urbansky. I’m CEO of a semantic search company, and between making business decisions and writing complex algorithms, I developed a strong interest in learning how to think more clearly and efficiently. I’m excited to let you know what I have learned and hope you’ll get as much out of it as I do.

In the next ten days, you will learn what thinking is and how you can improve it. At the end of the course, you will have a set of thinking techniques that you can use to have clearer thoughts in your everyday life.

Let’s begin by defining what we mean by “thinking.” There is no one correct definition, so I’m going to use the one that fits best with the content of this course and its purpose: learning how to think better. It goes like this:

“Thinking is a goal-oriented and conscious mental process that usually involves inner speech.”

Using this definition, the following mental activities constitute “thinking,” and these are the ones we want to get better at:

Learning: When you learn something new, you have to consciously think about it. Remember when you first learned to drive a car/ride a bike/stand on skis for the first time? You perhaps even said the steps you had to follow out loud: “Check the rearview mirror, shift into reverse, release the break, check the distance from the curb, turn the steering wheel,” and then you parallel parked.

Decision making: We all make thousands of decisions each day. Luckily, most of them are automatic, and we don’t really have to think about them. But when you encounter a new situation in which you are presented with multiple choices, you must think about it consciously. For example, imagine you’re a tourist in a foreign city with only one day left of your vacation. You can’t see all the sights, so you probably start an inner speech like, “I’ve always wanted to see the Eiffel Tower, but tomorrow is the weekend and the lines might be long. Then I won’t have time for anything else, so maybe I should go to the Louvre and the Champs-Élysées instead.”

Forming an opinion: Making up your mind—and changing it—is an important thinking skill, especially since people don’t like to change their minds even when presented with new evidence [1]. In this era of “fake news,” we might form opinions based on bad data and need to reconsider.

Creating: Creativity has many components, such as getting inspired by other work, experimenting, letting the subconscious process ideas, and actively thinking. You can come up with new ideas just by asking yourself the right questions (e.g., “What if I give the character in my book wings?”).

Planning: Planning has been an important skill for thousands of years. The farther ahead you need to plan, the more uncertainty and more possibilities you need to think about. Our ancestors had to have a plan for how to hunt down a mammoth and think ahead regarding what to do when they used up all their spears or when a group of sabertooth tigers joined the hunting party [2]. Today, it is almost always required to have a plan, whether you are in the military [3] or have an office job.

Remembering: Memories can surface without you trying to think of them. Sometimes an image, a smell, or a sound can trigger memories. Most of what you encounter, however, is not stored in long-term memory, and you need to explicitly commit things to memory if you don’t want to forget them. To do so, you can employ memorization techniques such as mnemonic devices. Memorizing, again, is thinking—a skill you can improve. See my other course on how to improve your memory if you want to learn more about this subject.

As you can see—and really, rather unsurprisingly—thinking is a tremendously important skill that we require every single day of our lives. But still, most of us don’t truly understand thinking or know how to think properly. This course will cover what thinking is, which physical and mental factors influence it, and which thinking techniques you can use to think more clearly.

Tomorrow, we’ll start by learning how slowing down your thinking can improve your decision making.


Recommended book

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg



[1] Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The Effects of Prior Theories on Subsequently Considered Evidence by Lord, C.G. et al.

[2] How Has the Human Brain Evolved by Scientific American

[3] The Military Decision-Making Process


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