(Epistemic status: Endorsed – basically a reframing of more traditional advice)
In certain communities, I often notice a tendency to frame tasks, thoughts, and ideas as objects. It seems working memory is frequently related to in this way, to explain how being able to hold more of these mental objects can lead to exponential increases in intellectual output, productivity, and ability to do things. This resonates with me – how much you can keep track of generally relates to how high your executive function is. When you start running out of room for objects, your ability to do things starts breaking down – things get dropped when other things are added, the concept of adding things feels more stressful, and general ability to work through problems that might have been easy on a clean slate seem almost impossible. I propose that there is a simple way to free up some mental objects as long as you are willing to accept some upfront costs – as your parents might have told you when you were younger, clean your room.
The mind often fills in gaps between spaces since you can only look at one thing at a time – what you are seeing in a given moment is often a reconstruction of things you saw fractions of a second ago. Your eyes are constantly scanning your entire view to give a complete picture so as not to leave confusing, attention draining gaps in your perception. In a way, what you are seeing in a given moment is a mental object; the size of that object can vary by the complexity, novelty, and frequency of that vision. Closing your eyes doesn’t necessarily help – you are still rendering everything so that you don’t collide with things or lose track of something that might be important. The brain doesn’t really turn off this in-the-moment simulation. My proposal is that having a cluttered, messy space increases the complexity of the vision your brain is storing in memory, and thusly increasing the size of the mental object that is the space you are in. When you open a space up and remove obstacles, the mind is doing a lot less background processing – with less complexity, there are less threat vectors. Additionally, there are less discrete objects to visualize in general, meaning less mental work in terms of processing shapes, colors, depth, etc. Cleaning your room cleans your mind of background noise that might get in the way of processing.
I will note, however, that I don’t have strong scientific backing for these claims. Anecdotally, I found my affect in my room changed a bit for the better when it was cleaner – I felt like I could think better and that I wasn’t getting distracted as much. I am reasonably sure I was sleeping better the last time I maintained a clean room – I had less anxiety about threat vectors in the dark. I also note that frequently productivity blogs and books will discuss the value of a clean room, though I’m unsure they delve into the theory of it. This is, however, a relatively low cost intervention with possibly large dividends in terms of memory saving.
An additional aspect to consider regarding how the mind processes space – if scheduled events and meetings are objects in a sense, I propose that the mind often has to render the meeting space before you’ve even started going there. I am less certain of this extrapolation, but I’m inclined to think a full schedule often feels stressful partially because of how much movement and space rendering is required. A full schedule that takes place in all one place is likely easier to bear than a full schedule that has you going all around town. Even if you have a public transit system that allows for downtime between destinations, you are still rendering the routes you need to take to get everywhere on time. There are quite a few simpler explanations for this, but I feel the metaphor of rendering spaces and clutter and having to deal with some level of unpredictability does contextualize how working memory can be taken up in an unproductive way. Ways to use this metaphor to reduce mental overhead are to arrange things such that you are rendering less – less complex spaces, less complex routes. Walking to a coworking space is less overhead than taking a bus to a train to a skyscraper. This also maps to relatively traditional advice – essentially, that you want as few points of failure as possible when making plans.
Overall, considering things in terms of objects in working memory, and how complex, novel, and frequent those objects are can be a useful, flexible tool. I mostly explored the relation of this concept to space and planning, but there are a variety of other uses in terms of efficient compression and use of abstraction to increase intellectual power and executive function. I invite everyone to play with how they relate to the space around them and how the concept of rendering impacts their day to day life.
Discussion Questions: How do you conceptualize working memory? How do plans impact this? How does your work space or your home space impact this? Do you notice it is more difficult or easier to think in spaces that are not well kept?