As knowledge workers, we often find ourselves in need of fresh perspectives. A developer thinks of better ways of implementing a feature. An architect thinks of better ways of satisfying spatial constraints. A researcher thinks of better ways of designing an experiment. Searching for new perspectives is part of our work, yet we often struggle to break out of our mental frames, to break away from the thought patterns we’re most fluent in. It’s difficult to think in new ways when all you have is your own thinking.
Fortunately, there are a number of external sources of thought available. The most accessible one consists of people. By interacting with others, you have the opportunity to think thoughts you wouldn’t otherwise, thoughts that lie outside your current frame. This might be enough to cause a shift in your outlook, but there are important limitations to this approach. First, others have their own frames. When interacting with others, you’re simply distancing yourself from your previous patterns by getting closer to the patterns of others – it’s interpolative. Therefore, choosing your influences strategically is crucial. Interacting with someone who closely shares your thinking would only lead you to further secure your frame in place.
Second, people are a limited resource. Not only in terms of time, but also in terms of thought. There are only so many people, each with their own point of view. Artifacts like books, paintings, diagrams, buildings, and cities do expand your reach to echoes of the past, but even those are finite, momentary snapshots. The set of all thoughts humans ever had is but a fraction of the vast space of possible thoughts. To make matters worse, the subset of all previous thoughts which you can feasibly tap into (e.g. by reading a novel) is even more limited.
Another source of thought we have at our disposal is thoughtware – inanimate tools of various levels of sophistication. The simplicity of many of those tools stands to show just how impactful even slight divergences from our outlook can be. For instance, take randomness. Try sample a random idea using your favorite knowledge management app, and you’ll be surprised how liberating it feels to make connections you wouldn’t have considered on your own. Sample a random prompt when reflecting on a topic and you’ll be surprised by the insights you’ll end up gaining. Heck, sample a random Tarot card and you’ll be surprised by the velocity with which you move across thought space away from your familiar orbits. You don’t even need digital tools to leverage randomness. Get yourself a dice, check the seconds on your watch, or just shuffle your deck of cards.
If even a mechanic as simple as randomness feels so effective in breaking frames, then there’s likely a huge space of opportunities for improvement here. A promising direction for developing more powerful tools for breaking frames is to encode models of our frames in them. It’s easier to break a frame if you know what to break, what exactly to diverge from. One mechanic which relies on such a cognitive model is the antimemory of the conceptarium. By maintaining a model of what you’re thinking about through document activations, the conceptarium can specifically surface ideas which you wouldn’t think of yourself. It can explicitly run against your frame, and expand your awareness in ways you wouldn’t expect.
Interestingly enough, there’s a continuum between people and thoughtware as sources of thought. Many tools simply navigate human thought in non-human ways. Randomness and antimemory are both examples of this. However, more sophisticated thoughtware, like modern virtual assistants, are able to actually emulate human thought. The recent wave of language models trained on large text corpora distill human ideas into abstract representations which can be subjected to radically non-human manipulations.
“It is the very unnaturalness and artificiality of “civilisation” – compared to the closer to our genetics oral cultures – that is its strength. One way to think of modern education is that its main goal should be to help children take on and become fluent with these “unnaturals” that allow us to cooperate and grow in so many more ways.” – Alan Kay
“A new way of thinking could be invented/co-evolved, […] and when learned fluently would be almost like adding a new piece of brain – a “brainlet” – that could take us far beyond biology.” – Alan Kay
There are even more exotic ways of breaking frames out there. You might expose yourself to transformative experiences in an effort to expand your perception of what’s possible. You might meddle with your brain’s underlying metabolism by inducing hypnagogia, experimenting with psychedelics, or practicing lucid dreaming. That said, I find thoughtware to be the single most exciting source of unconventional thought out there. It enables us to explore a vast space of non-human thinking in a scalable, formalizable, and elegant way, and I can’t wait to see what’s out there.