On Thinking Caps

I’d like a literal thinking cap. A regular baseball hat, but with the look of an orange or yellow construction hard hat. It would say “Construction in Progress, Do Not Disturb” on it.

Here’s why. There is an annoying asymmetry between inside-head and outside-head thinking. A thinking cap would solve this problem.

Somebody thinking outside their heads looks obviously busy. Whether they are cleaning, doing laundry, assembling furniture, performing brain surgery or repairing a broken computer, they send clear “do not disturb” signals.  You are unlikely to interrupt a coworker or spouse obviously occupied in such external thinking tasks to ask them to do something unrelated. I use the phrase external thinking rather than the word doing to distinguish tasks that require active logical thinking/planning and nearly full attention from those that are more mindless.

But somebody busy doing some intricate thinking inside their heads doesn’t send such clear signals. They just look somewhere between idle and spaced-out. Or they might be doing something that seems low-effort and okay to interrupt, like putting away dishes.

This is why I sometimes ostentatiously do my thinking armed with paper and pen, and make sure to occasionally scribble something, even if the thinking I am doing does not benefit from externalization on paper. Or I head out on walks in relatively isolated places. But this is not always possible. Having to actively keep up an ostentatious facade of activity just to signal that you are occupied can be very distracting.

If I had a thinking cap, and such things were culturally normal, I’d probably be wearing it for more than half of my waking hours.

Everybody does both inside-head and outside-head thinking, but the variance is huge.  Assuming eight hours of being “on” in a day, there are people who spend nearly all that time inside their heads and people who spend nearly all that time outside their heads.

What Inside-Head Thinking Feels Like

Both actually think in very similar ways. Inside-head thinking is also about putting bits and pieces of thoughts in order, moving thoughts around, putting thoughts into and out of storage, cleaning dirty thoughts, assembling and disassembling thoughts into bigger/smaller thoughts, throwing useless or used-up thoughts out, and so forth. It all just goes in inside your head. The detective story cliche of putting a jigsaw puzzle together in your head barely begins to get at the complexity of what goes on in a busy thinking-workshop inside a practiced thinker’s head.

People who do very little inside-head thinking tend to assume that inside-head thinking is vaguely emotional wallowing in straggling thoughts. That would be like a deaf-mute-blind inside-head thinker assuming that outside-head thinking (such as assembling furniture) is like always like physically wallowing in a pile of dirty trash. Believe it or not, there are people whose minds are not like garbage dumps, but clean, well-lighted workshops, carefully arranged to support thinking.

Emotional wallowing is incompetent introspection; the internal equivalent of crashing on a couch with a bag of chips and turning on the TV. That’s not the same as inside-head thinking. Inside-head thinking feels like work, does not have much of an emotional texture to it, and involves keeping track of lots of moving parts.  Any visible activity, such as showering, walking or simple tasks like folding laundry, is chosen to catalyze the internal work rather than multi-task.

When it gets to be too much to keep in your head, you pull out pen and paper and start using that as a sort of fast cache storage, the same way a computer that runs out of memory uses the hard disk to create extra temporary memory. But putting paper and pen into the thinking loop is costly and slows you down, so you want to only do that when necessary.

The Asymmetry

Inside-head thinkers are unlikely to make a similar mistake when looking at outside-head thinking because by definition, the latter is highly visible. You’d have to be deaf-blind-mute to misunderstand outside-head work.

To make the asymmetry worse, somebody caught up in intense outside-head thinking can develop an advanced case of “if there’s a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail.” A hammer in this metaphor is any externally directed strong intention like “clean the apartment.” Everything in the environment is either relevant to that intention or not. Things that are relevant are to brought under control and put to use. So an apparently idle person standing around becomes a target for delegation instincts. My grandmother used to have an extreme, constant case of this syndrome: anyone displaying even a minute of idleness in her presence would be forcefully commandeered into whatever grand plan she was pursuing at that moment.

This behavior has an analogy to inside-head thinking, except that all the moving parts that are brought dictatorially under control belong by default to the thinker. When I am in the grips of a powerful idea, I can pretty brutally make every other passing thought subservient to the dominant thought.

When this sort of internal process is going on, people outside the working skull have to actively demand attention to access that invisible internal working energy. If the inside-head thinker is not willing, he/she is liable to snap at the intrusion and reject the demand for attention very forcefully, even rudely.

Observing very young children is revealing in terms of shedding light on such matters. A young child who has not yet developed a sense of their own distinct self and “other minds” will tend to interrupt both external thinking (a parent cooking/cleaning) or internal thinking (a quiet person staring off into space) with equal vigor.

As they grow up, they learn not to interrupt external thinking, but most people never learn not to interrupt internal thinking.

Thinking caps might improve things in this department.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Tempo


  1. I see this in science and the experimental/theoretical divide as well. I’ve run into advisors who consider benchwork as ‘real work’ and analysis as something to be done when you are too tired for benchwork.

  2. This would be amazing at an office. Whenever I was thinking about a problem, I would have to randomly click around the software I was using, pretend to write notes, and scribble things on my whiteboard to give the appearance of work. But the act of doing this would always take focus off of whatever I was thinking about.

  3. The Mad Hatter says

    Wear headphones?

  4. Inside-Head Thinker says

    This is a brilliant analogy and idea, I would so love a hat like this.

    My husband is nearly completely an outside-head thinker while I am primarily an inside-head thinker. If we work side by side, he ends up asking me every five minutes “What’s wrong?” because he can’t really comprehend that me staring over his shoulder with a frown on my face is me hard at work.

  5. When I was a child, my mother used to admonish me gently to just “put on my thinking cap” when I was stuck figuring out a math problem or had lost my skate key. My ‘cap’ was lilac velvet and pointed, like a wizard’s. Thinking caps – real or imaginary – can be boon companions throughout life. Everyone has one; it’s just a matter of putting it on.