Wetware: The Best Tool for Journalists

Back at the SEJ Geek Dinner, the evening ended with a discussion about how journalists can make the most of the most powerful tool in their arsenal: the human mind. This seems obvious, and it is – so obvious that this core journalistic tool routinely gets overlooked…

Three of the most important functions of the human mind are information intake and processing (learning), information storage and retrieval (knowing), and managing communication (sharing). Each of us has, within our skulls, a product of millions of years of R&D and field testing that accomplishes these core tasks with far more subtlety and versatility than the most advanced supercomputers. This tool also is completely unique and constantly self-customizing.

A journalist (or any content professional) can benefit in many practical ways from learning more about how the human mind works in general, and how your mind works in particular.

For example, what – to you – feels like your clearest thinking? What are your clearest or most profound thoughts like? Do they tend to be visual, verbal, symbolic, or visceral? In what kinds of conditions do you tend to think most clearly or creatively? When and where have you experienced specific flashes of insight? Do your insights correlate with certain times, settings, or activities? What were you thinking in the hours, minutes, and seconds leading up to those insights?

Considering these questions generally helps highlight patterns that support optimal thinking. Your patterns are unique to your mind. Recognizing and replicating these patterns or circumstances can increase your experience of optimal, insightful, multileveled thinking.

For instance, I tend to put ideas together most powerfully in the wee hours of the morning, just after awakening – but I’ve learned only to write rough notes at that time, mainly focused on connections I’ve realized. Late afternoon or early evening is the best time for me to do considered writing or other kinds of communication about those insights. Something happens with that information in my subsconscious in the intervening hours which ehances the quality and efficiency of that writing. I can’t explain it and I don’t need to understand it consciously. It’s just how my mind works, so I’ve tuned my working rhythms to reflect that.

Meanwhile, a colleague of mine writes his best headlines and leads after bouncing a tennis ball off his office wall for a few minutes while letting his mind wander. Whatever works.

It’s worth cultivating a deep respect for your unconscious, nonlinear mind and the information it provides – which journalists often experience as intuitive hunches and inexplicable nagging questions. Your hunches and curiousities aren’t mere flukes. They are signals from your unconscious mind, and they merit as much attention, respect, and skepticism as the facts and quotes you consciously collect.