Finding clarity in your thinking

Clear thinking can be enhanced by wise use of some simple cognitive strategies. Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

Humans aren’t really designed to think in a crystal clear way.  An example of this is the smallness of our short-term memory.  A typical person can only hold about 7 single items in their ‘working memory‘.  Given that clear thinking can rely on multiple comparisons, this isn’t likely to lead to the avoidance of confusion.  If you are human, therefore, confusion is likely to be a normal part of your day.

There are, however, some ways of maintaining a sense of clarity in terms of how we conceive our world.  Here are a few.


This method of avoiding confusion relies on adopting the practical wisdom of those who have gone before.  An example is the law, which embodies the cumulative practical wisdom of thousands and thousands of past situations and their resolution. A big advantage of hiking a ride on the back of tradition is that we rely on something bigger than our individual self.  However, a disadvantage is that tradition can get out of step with the latest context.


If you lay out 50 objects randomly on the floor, the mind is likely to feel confused.  However, if you align them into a pattern, the mind will be better able to comprehend the whole.  Intellectual stress will reduce, and the mind may experience a sense of greater beauty.  This is the practical difference between a mess and something tidy.  An advantage of using patterning is that it calms the mind and gives a greater sense of control.  A disadvantage is that patterning can put the critical mind to sleep.


Those with diseases of the memory can often hang on to functionality by using the effects of repetition – what is normally called habit.  Our nervous system is built around the reinforcement of habit, and our brains may use ‘chunking’ to identify and learn routine behaviours.  (See for instance this link to some MIT research on habit formation.)  While we are performing routine tasks, our brain does not have to work as hard, and therefore the feeling of confusion will reduce.  An advantage of using habit is anxiety reduction (this is partly why obsessive compulsions are so attractive to anxious people).  A disadvantage is that we can reduce our ability to handle novel situations (i.e. we can freak out when our ‘habit lives’ are disturbed).


Rest and sleep are critical to mental clarity, and particularly to memory.  (See for example this link to an article by cognitive neurologist Pierre Maquet.)  It seems that both deep sleep (usually early in the night), and REM sleep (during which we dream more), are critical in memory processing.  An advantage of using sleep to enhance clarity is that it is free and natural.  A disadvantage is that sleep patterns are often hard to control.


Given our poor short term memories, humans are likely to be confused on a regular basis.  We can expect, every day, to encounter things we don’t understand or can’t assimilate.

To make life easier for ourselves, we can try the following:

  1. TRADITION – We can borrow existing cultural knowledge and established practices
  2. PATTERNING – We can use systems to tidy up our surroundings, making them easier to use and understand
  3. REPETITION – We can reinforce our cognitive confidence with routine practices
  4. REST AND SLEEP – We can work with our mind’s need for sleep for cognitive maintenance

One word or warning though… the above techniques, although they impart a sense of clarity, can make us mentally lazy.  Sometimes, in order to solve particular problems, we may wish to break with tradition, disrupt patterns, break with routine, and stay up late.  But we shouldn’t be surprised if our mental health suffers a little in the process, and we may wish to return to the above four techniques eventually, to regain some equilibrium.