A highly rational friend recently noted with some surprise that sometimes just saying a problem out loud helped him figure it out.
And why was that?
Have you ever been struggling with something, felt a lack of clarity on which direction to go in, or even understand how you felt about an issue?
Have you written about it in an email, a letter, a journal and gotten an insight from the act of writing? Or talked to someone about it, and gotten a better perspective, even though the person you were talking to hadn't said anything? Or even just bounced something out loud into an empty room, and found an answer rebound back to you?
I expect many have. Most likely everyone has just accepted that experience as being just a strange exercise that for unknown reasons simply seems to works.
But for my rational friend, achieving that insight through those means was a surprise. For him, there hadn't seemed to be any point in talking or writing about the same information or questions that were in his head—what difference would it make? The information was already in his head, it wouldn't change from being said out loud or written down. So it got me thinking—well, why does it help?
And I came up with this analogy:
Do you remember math problems where you would be given a sequence of numbers and asked to figure out what the next number in the sequence was supposed to be? Well, the more numbers you were given in the sequence, the clearer the underlying formula was. So if you were only given one number, correctly guessing the next would be impossible—too many options. If you were given two numbers, then your chances were better, but still had a very high level of uncertainty.
For example 2 doesn't give you much to go on. 2, 4, gives you a lot more, but not enough. The sequence could be 2,4,6 or 2,4,8. So with three data points, you can be far more confident of perceiving a pattern, making an assumption, getting clarity.
So my theory is that when you have a problem/issue in your head, that's one data point. But when you say it out loud, so you are knowing it, thinking it, saying it and hearing it, or additionally writing it and reading it, you are adding more data points and increasing your ability to make a more accurate assumption, to chart a more solid course. And agreed, some of these point only offer a tiny bit of new information–a slightly richer or more detailed appreciation, a new perspective, but it's something; it helps.
In one of those Malcolm Gladwell books, he talks about how you can have a group of two or three friends, but if it expands to four or five, the group often falls apart. He noted that one more person isn't just an addition of one, but for everyone in the group, so the increase is exponential. Everyone is managing not only their own relationship to each person in the group, but observing & incorporating each permutation of every element of each member of the group.
So if you have a group of three, A, B, C, you need to maintain awareness of the relationships between A/B, A/C, B/A, C/A, B/C, C/B and ABC. If you add D, it goes from 7 separate relationships to 16 (A/B, A/C, A/D, B/A, B/C, B/D, C/A, C/B, C/D, D/A, D/B, D/C, ABC, ABD, BCD, ACD). Yes, OK, I may not have all the math right, but you get the point.
The more points you can chart or the more ways you allow your brain and intuition to process information, the better it will be able to build a viable theory, or chart a hypothetical direction to consider.
Also, it's very hard to lie to yourself when you are writing in a journal. Much easier to wrap yourself in denial and not go there if it's just in your head, or even talking. And in fairness, sometimes you don't even know you are lying to yourself until you write something down. Reading it, you think…well, no, that's not quite right, and start thinking about what is actually true.
It is helpful to get an external perspective on things—that's why editors were invented. But if you don't have an editor or critique group, or a boss or anyone to be a sounding board, try putting it out there & using yourself.