Brain scientists are still exploring the nuances of how memory works, but we do know that we have long-term memory, where you’ve stored the capital of France and how to drive, and working memory, where you would hold the memory of what you just read in an email.
The capacity of working memory varies from person to person, but on average, most people can retain seven pieces of information in working memory. This is why phone numbers were seven digits before we had to add area codes.
My theory is that our brain repeatedly thinks about the seven or so items we have in working memory to keep them fresh in our minds. Because we have so much to remember and because so much information flows into working memory and is quickly forgotten, anything we want to retain in working memory requires repetition.
So your brain loops. If you have a dental appointment in the afternoon, chances are you think about it multiple times throughout the day.
If you keep the same thoughts in working memory for extended time, the repetition crystallizes those thoughts. They act like sticks, leaves and other debris that block a stream. If you move those ideas out of working memory, your stream of thought can flow freely again.And sometimes that’s all you need to do to solve writer’s block or other forms of resistance.
We can move things out of working memory by either moving them to long-term memory or by moving them to external memory – i.e. writing, calendars, your phone.
Brain dump techniques like freewriting, clustering, mind mapping and action mapping move ideas out of working memory onto the page.
Write everything you can think of. This is not the time to evaluate the ideas; you’re clearing the stream, not sorting the sticks to identify which to keep and which to toss. If you take time to evaluate a stick, another one will float into its place and keep the dam in place. You need to clear everything out of the way so the stream flows free.
If it occurs to you, put it on the page. If you have thoughts you don’t want to record because you don’t want to acknowledge them or give them more power, that’s all the more reason to get that garbage out of your stream of thought.
If you recognize certain thoughts like “I don’t know where to start,” “This is stupid” or “I don’t know what I’m doing” as Saboteur thinking, draw a spikey circle around them so you can spot them and deal with them appropriately later. Then return to the task at hand, which is clearing your memory.
When you use your hands instead of a keyboard to brain dump, you activate more areas of the brain that will help you think of new ideas.
When was the last time you cleared your stream of thought with a good brain dump?