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The difference between thinking of something sexy and seeing something sexy

Have you ever noticed that thinking about something sexy, let’s say a Victoria’s Secret commercial, is a different experience from actually seeing it? No matter how well you can clearly remember and visualize it, I find that it feels different.

Since I’ve only lived inside my own head, I don’t know if this experience is unique to me, or whether it’s universal. It seems that my pleasure center gets a more direct jolt through my eyes than through my imagination. I have no doubt that there are different neural pathways engaged in seeing, versus imagining. Or that the messages have a different quality to them as they travel through my brain.

So, assuming that this is not a phenomenon unique to me, what is the value of this observation? Well, I would have to say that there are clues here regarding how to live more effectively.

I used to play a game called Black Box which had a hidden 8×8 grid, in which your opponent would hide atoms (or subatomic particles, I can’t remember which). You would then fire probe particles into the grid from a given row or column. Your opponent would then determine where your particle came out of the grid, if it did. There were three rules:

  1. If your inbound particle hit one of the grid atoms directly, it was absorbed and disappeared.
  2. If your inbound particle arrived at an empty space diagonally next to a grid atom (imagine an X around the atom), your particle would make a 90 degree turn away from the atom.
  3. If two grid atoms are on the same row or column, with an empty space between them, and you fire a probe particle at the space between them, the probe particle is reflected back to the space from whence it came.

By carefully analyzing the results of the forty possible probes, you could figure out what was happening inside the hidden grid and where the atoms were placed. (Somebody also did a software version of this game upon which I whiled away many hours.)

My point in bringing up Black Box is that we can similarly send certain probes into our own brains and analyze the results coming back to deduce what’s going on inside. And the difference in experience between thinking of something sexy versus seeing something sexy gives us a very important clue.

We’ve heard so many times that it’s important to write down our goals. But I know exactly what my goals are. They are clearly defined in my head. Ah, but in that head is the same brain that doesn’t like thinking about Victoria’s Secret models as much as it likes seeing them. So maybe there really is a difference when you write your goals down.

I can tell you that I’ve taken reams and reams of notes in my life that I’ve never referred to. Yet, I’ve often remembered what I’ve written. In fact, memories of taking notes can be so vivid that I can remember what part of a page I wrote certain notes on. (The capacity of a human brain to recall detail is so remarkable that it strikes me that it is more a tool for accessing data than storing it, as if the data is actually stored elsewhere. That’s a very heady idea for some other post.) I’ve always believed that the act of taking notes helped me remember things, even if I never read the notes again. It’s physical, it’s visual, it’s the act of translating what is heard into internal thoughts and physical action.

With this realization, I have to conclude that many of the tidbits of advice I’ve heard in every Nightingale-Conant tape set, every magazine article, every seminar, even in movies like The Secret and What the Bleep, have some basis in fact: Writing your goals matters. Surrounding yourself with pictures of what you want actually does make a difference. Test-driving the car really does have an effect on your brain.

It’s not just airy-fairy stuff. It’s the way we’re wired.

[Comment] hi

Interestingly, I feel this is partly driven by the trends in geographically distributed engineering teams and outsourced development. There's more of a need to tie it all togther through a product manager or product marketing manager.