Does Thinking Hard Hurt Your Brain?

This is a “typ­i­cal mind fal­lacy check” post. Cu­ri­ous how much (within and with­out the ra­tio­nal­sphere) peo­ple’s ex­pe­rience varies.

I gen­er­ally ex­pe­rience “think­ing hard” to be some com­bi­na­tion of stress­ful, headache in­duc­ing, and en­ergy drain­ing (some­times I feel like I ac­tu­ally am burnt out of en­ergy, some­times I just need to switch tasks). I’ve talked to other ra­tio­nal­ists and they of­ten don’t have this ex­pe­rience, and I’m try­ing to figure out what’s go­ing on here.

I speci­fi­cally ex­pe­rience this when do­ing con­scious, de­liber­ate thought. In par­tic­u­lar if it strains the bounds of my cur­rent skills, or my work­ing mem­ory. This most of­ten in­volves think­ing strate­gi­cally in a care­ful way (i.e. I get this when play­ing Chess).

When I’m writ­ing char­ac­ters or imag­in­ing talk­ing to peo­ple I know (i.e. simu­lat­ing an­other per­son in my head, or pre­tend­ing to be an­other per­son) I also get a headache if I keep it up for over an hour.

I’ve only talked to a few peo­ple about this, so not sure how wide the spread of ex­pe­rience is. But at the very least this varies a bit among peo­ple-I-know.

Some hy­pothe­ses (or par­tial hy­pothe­ses) so far:

A. De­liber­ate Prac­tice is strain­ing. Do­ing de­liber­ate-prac­tice think­ing (i.e. strain­ing at the edge of your com­pe­tence of a skill) is en­ergy drain­ing, and peo­ple vary on a) what things strain the edge of their com­pe­tence, and b) how of­ten they do such things.

B. Strain­ing is wasted mo­tion. Some­one I know re­cently ar­gued that think­ing shouldn’t drain willpower or oth­er­wise cost re­sources other than time, and that any time you do that, it’s be­cause you’re do­ing some wasted mo­tion. This ini­tially sounded wrong to me. After ex­per­i­ment­ing a bit I at least be­lieve that much of “drain­ing” think­ing is wasted mo­tion that you can learn to skip.

C. Peo­ple vary in raw cog­ni­tive power. Some peo­ple may just think faster nat­u­rally, or have a higher band­width of work­ing mem­ory.

For now, mostly in­ter­ested in get­ting a sense of what di­ver­sity of ex­pe­rience we have of this on LessWrong. I also sus­pect there’s some re­search into this some­where and am cu­ri­ous if any­one ei­ther knows about that, or has fur­ther thoughts on mechanisms.