Overthinking: A Nuanced Discussion

thinking ninja

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy:  Art & Blog

I see some people posting blogs (and comments about them) on thinking and the role it plays in human life.  As someone who has expertise in thinking—especially in what some call “critical thinking”—I’ve been feeling more and more like chiming in.  (By the way, I actually prefer the term “creative thinking” to critical thinking because all healthy thinking is, de facto, critical.)  Therefore, when I hear the term “critical thinking,” I hear redundancy.  Because all good and healthy thinking is naturally “critical,” critical thinking is really just another way to say “thinking thinking.”  Do you get my drift?

Perhaps a better way to understand what I’m trying to say is this:  Criticality is built into the very fabric of good and healthy thinking.

You’ll notice that I’ve been using the word “healthy” a lot so far.  I think it’s really important to point out, before I get any deeper into my discussion, that I have to distinguish between thinking that is healthy and thinking that is unhealthy.

I have heard it said that all overthinking is somehow bad.  I would like to add a little nuance to such a claim because I don’t think that overthinking is necessarily problematic.  It depends on what is meant by “overthinking” and on whether or not the sort of thinking that’s being exercised is healthy or not.

Overthinking can be unhealthy if it is obsessive.  Obsession is a kind of thinking that is unhealthy.  Obsessive thinking is also ineffectual in the sense it is not used to come to any sort of conclusion or solve a problem or provide greater understanding or clarity.  The purpose of obsessive thinking—to the extent it can be called purposeful—is to perpetuate the obsession.  In a sense, obsessive thinking is a kind of thinking loop.  The same idea or thought pattern just keeps replaying in the head, thus crowding out everything else.  Healthy thinking—when it is done well or artfully—liberates the thinker because it (hopefully) leads to a breakthrough or even an epiphany.  Unhealthy thinking, when it takes the common form of obsessive thinking, enslaves the thinker.  He or she is unable to move beyond the obsession and is trapped.

Not all overthinking is unhealthy, though.  When I was in graduate school working on my MA and PhD in the liberal arts and humanities, I was trained to be a kind of critical thinking Ninja.  My analytic abilities were honed to a very fine point.  This point allowed me pierce through the surface of things and understand them deeply and profoundly.  In a sense, I was turned into someone who overthinks or hyper-thinks—I’m pretty sure I just invented a new word.  Skilled critical or creative thinkers never accept things at face value.  Skilled critical or creative thinkers never stop asking questions.  They remain skeptical.  They tear apart and analyze and then reconstruct.  They try to build associations where none existed before.

Some might read this and call it overthinking.  I would call it hyper-thinking—the kind of thinking I can never turn off.  Nor should I ever want to it.  Why would I ever want to embrace artless or sloppy thinking?  I can’t come up with a single situation where doing so would be in my best interest or the right thing to do.

One who has the ability to think well should think well.

I’ve certainly given us some things to discuss.  The floor is yours…

50 thoughts on “Overthinking: A Nuanced Discussion

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  1. The Tibetan monks hold that it is ridiculous to attempt to stop thinking entirely, even in the deepest meditation — and they’re without a doubt some of the finest practitioners I’ve ever run across. Forget poverty, chastity and obedience — these guys live by 600 vows! Bottom line, I’m with you: we’re woefully short with only the one word stretched to represent all the different types of thinking that exist (or of meditation, for that matter), and doubtless we’re dealing with the vagaries of shoddy definition — each of us with a different take on the word!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I was doing a little thought experiment after you left your comment. I tried to think of all the ways (in English) we talk about “thinking” versus the words we use for “eating.” I’m pretty sure we have a richer vocab for the latter than we have for the former. Even when we are supposedly unconscious–while we sleep–our minds are still busy dreaming/thinking. It also dawned on me that obsessing about things is a form of thinking but that we rarely distinguish between healthy thinking and its opposite. I really appreciate your insightful comment.

      By the way, if you like mandalas, check out those I’m made using a variety of digital methods:
      https://troyheadrick-thinkerboy.com/digital-art-mandalas/

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmm, I’m going round in circles with this one, bear with me…
      Coming from an interest in child development I think that it is virtually impossible to distinguish between critical and creative.
      When a toddler creates a boat or a rocket from lego without being shown, is she being analytical or innovative?
      She must work out how to put the pieces together to make the shape she is aiming at (or put them together somewhat randomly and analyse what she’s done against what she knows).
      On a global level this is not innovative as it’s been done a million times before but I would describe it as ‘everyday creativity’ and it is new for her.
      Can you think critically without being creative? Yes. Can you be creative without thinking critically? No.
      Critical thinking is a part (the thinking part) of a creative process. The point at which the creative process culminates in an innovative act may be beyond conscious thought but there must have been some elements of critical thinking within the gestation process.
      There’s a great book by Tina Bruce calked ‘cultivating creativity in babies, toddlers and young children’ which explores this really well – even if you’re not interested in child development it can be good for looking at how to nurture your own creativity.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh I definitely agree with you. Learning through play is definitely creative! I come from a high school education perspective so my intention was distinguishing whether someone was travelling a “well worn path” or coming completely “out of left field”

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      2. In terms of the thinking bit though, the path may be well worn but not yet traveled by the individual high school student concerned. Is there a discernible difference between critical and creative even at this point?

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      3. Well worn for the individual specific traveller I should specify. If it’s new to anyone, that is the marker of creativity.
        I see it as creativity = creating. Something new. Whereas critical thinking is recreating or reiterating the metaphysical steps.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Oh, ok. Is it still critical then? I think the critical thought has to interrogate the steps not just walk up them or re-iterate- that’s more like a fitness exercise? (we really don’t have enough language to describe thinking)

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Mindless repetition isn’t really critical, that is mere retracing instead of whatever they were. It depends on how the word “critical” is applied/understood. The it becomes asinine to split hairs levels of depth or potential meaning.

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      6. Like you, I struggle trying to understand these distinctions. I think I come down on the side of not being too rigid in being either/or about it. The analytical mind is a creative mind. That’s for sure. I guess my primary beef is with the idea that we have some kinds of thinking which are not “critical” and so we talk about “critical thinking” as if it’s different from ordinary thinking. Ordinary thinking is critical. Just making a decision about what one wants to think about is act that involves higher-order decision-making. Calling some thinking critical and other kinds non-critical is creating an artificial hierarchy. There’s a bit of elitism in making such distinctions.

        I truly appreciate your comment. You’ve given me things to think about and I really like the book recommendation. I’ll check it out! Thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Like you, I struggle trying to understand these distinctions. I think I come down on the side of not being too rigid in being either/or about it. The analytical mind is a creative mind. That’s for sure. I guess my primary beef is with the idea that we have some kinds of thinking which are not “critical” and so we talk about “critical thinking” as if it’s different from ordinary thinking. Ordinary thinking is critical. Just making a decision about what one wants to think about is act that involves higher-order decision-making. Calling some thinking critical and other kinds non-critical is creating an artificial hierarchy. There’s a bit of elitism in making such distinctions.

        I truly appreciate your comment. You’ve given me things to think about and I really like the book recommendation. I’ll check it out! Thank you!

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      1. It is grounded in mathematics with the implication that, if we had better ways of measuring and collecting data it could be applied to ordinary life problems. I believe we tend to do this, except cognitive biases sometimes send us down the wrong path. The math is hidden in the “massively parallel” brains we have.

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  2. I very much agree, though sometimes I feel like a slave that learned how to read and is sent back to slavery. Is ignorance bliss? I say that because while, much like you, I was working on my graduate studies, I enjoyed this “critical thinking” so much and was so inspired by it until I realized that the ideas I was exposed to meant little to so many others out there, those that only have time to see the surface of things. Fewer and fewer seem to have the patience to dig deep.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I definitely understand your frustration. Perhaps the biggest problem facing the world today is the widespread lack of critical thinking skills among the public. This problem rivals global climate change. As a matter of fact, until more people get better at thinking, governments will probably ignore such issues. I recall very little of the “informational” stuff I learned in grad school, but I will forever hold on to the skills such advanced studies gave me.

      The lack of critical thinking skills in America–though I have lived in other countries, I feel most comfortable talking about American culture and politics–is the primary cause of where we are today politically. Lack of critical thinking is literally threatening the political and cultural health of the nation.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. David Bohm (1917-1992) dissected “thinking” into thinking and thought. Most of the times we play with thoughts (which is basically silos of memories) and call it thinking. DB introduced two interesting aspects that should be included in the process of thinking to make it creative; as you nicely put above. One is ‘attention’ and the other is ‘perception’. Both should happen in the present and in the moment of thinking itself. Attention is prerequisite for Perception. If you are lucky you reach a breakthrough and acquire creativity. I very much enjoyed this blog and discussion. Thank You:)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love the way you think! This is such an insightful and interesting post! I agree with you about healthy and unhealthy thinking. Do you ever think about whether we are able to control our thinking? Like when we start unhealthy and obsessive thinking… can we simply just stop them? Why do we have these obsessive thinking tendencies? Are they beyond our control?

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    1. It’s interesting that you ask this question because I was just thinking about the relationship between thinking and control just yesterday. I’ll give you a real-life example that might answer your question. I love to walk outside. But because I’m such a thinker, I often find that I am too much in my head and therefore totally missing the beauty around me. When I find myself thinking while I should be simply soaking things in and being in the moment, I literally say this to myself, “Troy, get out of your head! You are missing all this wonderful beauty and experience.” This usually helps me reprioritize and disengage my mind. I do think we have to work to discipline our thinking. If not, thinking can become “unhealthy” or “unruly.”

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I started reading a book called ‘Shift Your Thinking, Change Your Life’ today. I came across a very interesting point as well – when we are told NOT to think about something, we can’t help but think about it. The example was this:
        Stop what you’re doing and for 30 seconds, whatever you do, do not think of Donald Duck.
        Now be honest, did you see a picture of Donald Duck?
        (I did!)
        This kind of thinking (about what you don’t want) actually interferes with you concentrating on what you do want. It made me rethink how to frame my thinking! Your post and this book is giving me a lot of think about!!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks to everyone who has left a comment. Unfortunately, there seems to be a glitch in the system this morning. I have commented to several of your posts but my responses are not appearing as replies immediately under the comment I wanted to respond to. This happened to ELLEN EFENRICEA. The comment I intended for you starts “Like you, I struggle trying to understand these distinctions…” I’m sorry about this malfunction. I’ll discuss it with Bogdan later.

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