Thought Sorter

Your brain is incredibly busy. There are always far more things you could be thinking about than you can manage to hold on to and process. In addition there are all those things that you are not consciously thinking about, but that your brain is taking care of anyway without your awareness (like keeping you balanced as you walk, regulating your body, reading this text, or remembering your sister’s birthday). How does it manage to do all this, and how do you decided which jobs you need to consciously bother with?

This post focuses on the idea that it’s good, even essential, that everything does not pass through your conscious mind. We will consider that your conscious mind is very powerful, but it is slow and expensive to run. We’ll consider that your conscious mind is not necessarily the boss of you.
That’s a strange idea – if our brains are so clever, how can there be things that our unconscious brain is doing, that we are not aware of, and perhaps did not even decide to do? Is that still you if you did not have any input in the planning or the doing? If you are the conscious entity reading this, then who on earth is that other you keeping you upright and breathing and scratching your ear? We can get lost in the philosophy and science of what consciousness is, so let’s stick to this idea of the brain just having a lot of different kinds of work to do.
The whole post is based a round a simple game where you are the conscious mind processing thoughts as they occur.
The model I use here, the Thought Sorter, looks at the brain as a machine that gets presented with thoughts –  things that need an action or a decision. You play the role of the imaginary conscious mind, and your job is to process these thoughts correctly, while keeping up with the demand, and conserving energy. Later on we also introduce a separate, autonomous mind that can so some of these tasks without you (that’s he conscious mind) having to be involved.
As always with Remented, this is not a perfect model of the brain and mind, based on the purest science of the moment. It is a simplified model that lets us think about our mind and not take it for granted. The model’s aim is to make you aware and make you question what your mind does. Enjoy the game.

Level 0: Simple Conscious Thoughts

Here is the simplest version of the thought sorter. In this, you play the role of a conscious mind, processing new thoughts and demands (in this case coloured disks) by moving them into the correspondingly coloured bin. This represents the idea of you recognising the type of problem and then solving it correctly with a simple action.
Thoughts don’t stay around forever – they will fade and disappear if not processed quickly enough.

Nothing Comes for Free

Running a brain takes a lot of energy (around 20% of your body’s total fuel), even when you might feel you are resting. Consciously processing thoughts uses a greedy slice of this. To illustrate this, try the illustration again. You now see an energy bar that will slowly run down depending on the number of thoughts in play, but it will burn much faster while you are handling a thought. When it runs out, you will be unable to process thoughts and you will have to rest and wait for it to replenish. Once replenished, you can carry on sorting again.

Practise Makes Lazy

This colour sorting is a pretty simple task, and our brains are good at recognising patterns and learning routine tasks. There are repetitive tasks that you can learn to do very quickly without much concentration (say sorting a deck of playing cards into piles by suit). There are some that are harder to learn because there is a less obvious pattern (say memorising and recalling the order of all the cards in a deck).
Think about how hard it is for a human baby to learn to walk, or perhaps for you to learn to play a musical instrument or a new language. The process is very laborious, as you learn to coordinate muscles in new ways combined with information about the task. Eventually (after many, many hours of trying, failing and practising) this learning gives way to almost automatic behaviour. Once learned, these tasks, or at least a large share of them, can shift to the background, freeing up our conscious mind for other tasks.
We won’t look at the learning process in this post, but there are two aspects to this idea of learned routine behaviour I want to emphasise:
  1. our automatic, learned processing of tasks are much faster than the conscious, deliberate way of thinking;
  2. the background processing also uses much less energy.
This is important because our brains will do whatever they can to preserve energy, and they are pretty selective about using resources for anything that they can take care of automatically. The big brain really is relunctant to bother the slow, expensive, conscious mind. Saving energy is such a high priority for the brain that sometimes it will favour doing the easier, cheaper automatic actions that it does know, even if none of them are a prefect match to the problem in hand. This shows up as the resistance you feel when you tackle some difficult proble, practise some new skill or try to form (or break) a habit. Until the new behaviour is entrenched, your brain will resist and slip into what it knows.

Level1: Simple Thoughts, Processed Unconsciously

Take a look at this illustration, where our mind has learned the tasks of sorting coloured thoughts without the need for conscious involvement. Note that it handles more thoughts more quickly that you could keep up with , and energy is used at a much slower rate.

Level 2: Trickier Thoughts

Let’s increase the complexity of the problem. Instead of colours, you now have numbered thoughts to process. Just like before, these have to be sorted into bins with a corresponding number. To make this trickier the numbers on the buckets are hidden unless you hover over to check, and this is expensive in terms of energy. So it pays to learn the position of the numbered bins quickly, so you can sort the thoughts into the right destination. This represents the cost of learning something new, and the relatively lower cost of being able to recall it reliably.
Like before there is a limited energy that burns more quickly while you handle each thought, and while you hover to check the number of a bucket.

Cognitive load

Cognitive load is the idea that some mental demands are trivial (like recognising a colour and spotting a matching colour somewhere else), whereas some are heavier in terms of the amount of conscious processing required, the need to hold multiple ideas in working memory, and the amount of distraction in the environment. In this case, recognising numbers is still simple, but slightly more complex than recognising a colour. Why? because the digit is a symbol which needs more processing (no matter how familiar it is). Further, you are expected to learn and remember the location of each numbered destination bucket. This uses short term memory, and there is a limit to how many things we can remember and for how long, without refreshing them. This increases the demand of the task, taking more time, and burning more energy.
You can probably see how much harder this is than the colour sorting level, and why we cannot expect our automatic mind to take care of this in the same way.

Level3: Two Minds for Two Problems

So now we can combine the two types of problem and have a mind of two halves. An automatic mind that is really good at sorting coloured thoughts, and a conscious part (that’s you) that can handle number sorting. In addition, since all the thoughts are coming into our conscious mind to start with, we have to send the coloured thoughts over to the auto mind for processing (kind of like we are outsourcing these tiresome simple tasks to some lower powered, but faster, slave mind).

You probably found it OK to keep up with number sorting, but using time and energy to send the coloured thoughts for sorting was a burden, and distracted you from the task in hand. As the game speeds up this gets harder and seems pretty inefficient.
By this point though you are probably getting better at sorting numbers and remembering where they are. Even though you are pretending to be a virtual mind, your own real mind is proving its ability to learn by repetition and get better at a task.

Level 4: Even Tougher Thoughts

Let’s step up the cognitive load again. Imagine if now, the numbered thoughts came not as numbers, but as simple arithmetic problems that must be solved. Instead of a thought labelled ‘3’ it arrives as ‘2+1’ or ‘7-4’, and even this label appears only briefly. if need a reminder, you can click the thought, but of course this uses more energy. These are simple enough, but still harder than recognising a simple number. This is going to use even more energy from your foreground conscious mind, and your working memory, to solve before you even try to send the thought to its correct destination (based on the result).

This is quite a bit harder, slower and more expensive. You can probably feel how much slower this is. You have to really concentrate on both the result from the simple maths problem, and remember where the numbered buckets are. The cognitive load is much higher.

Level5: Two Minds for Three Problems

Let’s look at a mind that has a stack of all 3 types of thoughts coming at it. Just like before, there are two parts to the mind, a conscious mind (that’s you) that can deal with tricky problems, but also offload simpler (colour sorting) to it’s automatic counterpart.
Just like before, you have a mind split in two. You have a fast, efficient colour sorting mind, but you have to send the coloured thoughts over, while sorting numbers (which may come as digits, or arithmetic problems to solve) for yourself.

Now you may be spotting a flaw here. Brains are good at spotting patterns and efficiently processing known problems, while our conscious mind is slow and expensive. So why are all the problems coming to us first for us to slowly and at great expense, sift and sort them. What if part of our faster, less able brain could decide if it can handle coloured thoughts on its own. It doesn’t have to solve them, just recognise the type of problems and send it on for either simple, automatic processing, or on to the conscious mind that can handle it. This is still just a pattern recognition problem, which our unconscious brain is pretty good at. Only the trickier problems get passed on to you, the conscious mind, for slow, expensive processing.

Level6: The Optimal Mind?

Lets see what that would look like.

This seems much more optimal. Our conscious mind does not concern itself with thoughts that do not need its super processing power. We just get the tricky stuff, and with this division of labour, you can keep up with a steady flow and mix of thinking demands.


In this post we looked at your brain as a machine processing thoughts, and recognised that your conscious mind, while really good at tough problems, has limits on how much it can deal with. It is also slow and expensive to run (in terms of energy). The brain has the ability to take well recognised problems and deal with them away from your conscious mind, automatically. This is much more efficient and speedy, which allows us to do more with the same brain. We looked at what a burden it would be if even these trivial tasks had to come first to our conscious mind, just so we could decide that they are better of dealt with in the background. We imagined getting around this inefficiency, by the role of a gatekeeper (the decider of what comes to our conscious awareness for processing) also being performed unconsciously, so that we are only bothered by the tricky stuff that needs the benefit of our superior, conscious mind. This is a much more efficient arrangement for doing more, faster, and with less energy consumed. But it also means that you, the conscious you with the clever mind, is not even aware of most of the tasks your brain is working on, and this can be a little bit troubling.
Our conscious, intelligent mind just happens to be the slowest and most expensive of all the departments, and that same conscious intelligent mind is not, however, the boss of all this.
I am not making claims about how the brain itself is organised, or what neurological or psychological elements, networks, are in play. This is an illustration to challenge how you think about the resulting effect inside your brain.

Exploring the Idea Further

Here I take a deeper look at some of the ideas explored in the Thought Sorter game levels

Total, Singular Focus
Imagine for a moment that you are in total control of your mental focus, and that your conscious mind is a pure, efficient thinking machine. You are processing only the current task, until you consciously decide it is done, and it is time to switch to another single, focused task. You would have no awareness of anything unrelated to your goal, and no distractions can gain your attention. It’s mode that we sometimes fantasise about reaching, and perhaps some people are able to function in something approaching this way for short periods, while very deeply entrenched in a project or mission (the mythical flow state.) This seems great, but how will you respond to the needs of your own body? What about awareness of threats and important occurrences in your surroundings? What about those dependents and peers that need your attention? Aside from your important project there are other, perhaps lesser, priorities in your world that will at some point need your awareness.
Overwhelming Awareness
As an alternative, imagine that your single, conscious mind has total awareness. Everything in your body, in your world, everything you can see, hear, feel, and remember has to be considered by the one mind, in case any of it is important. Everything is happening simultaneously: the location of objects in space around you; the insect crawling along a fence; the feel of your clothes against your skin; the pressure of the seat against your backside; the beating of your heart; the level of your blood sugar; all the upcoming appointments and chores; everything you did yesterday. All of this and more, all the time, comes unfiltered and into your conscious mind in a big crowd of thoughts and awareness for processing. It’s a pretty terrifying idea.
This Just Cannot be Right
So we have two extreme theoretical ideas of how the conscious mind could experience awareness of possible candidates for attention. In one, the mind is totally in command of whatever it decides to do, and it just does it, with all of itself, at the exclusion of all other needs, tasks, distractions. The other, is a mind that would like to get something done, but it is constantly overwhelmed by total awareness of everything, all the time, and so can do nothing. Neither of these feels like a correct account of our minds, and least not a mind that is good at getting stuff done.  As a model to describe a norm, perhaps we need something else.
Another Possibility
Let’s try something else. Imagine for a moment that as well as your conscious, aware mind, there is another mind. It is separate from your conscious mind but it’s still your mind.  Imagine that this mind remembers important deadlines or appointments, is monitoring and regulating your body, is aware of the world around you so you don’t have to be. Imagine this mind taps your foreground, conscious mind on its shoulder when it believes that any of these need your conscious attention. The rest of the time the background mind takes care of the mundane very efficiently, and passes only important or tricky stuff up to you the conscious mind. Your conscious mind is able to pass simple repetitive tasks back to the background mind to keep up with more quickly than you can do yourself. It’s a beautiful relationship.
Multiple Minds - Nothing New
The idea of a subconscious, or pre-conscious mind has been around a long time. Sigmund Freud made famous the idea of separating our mental capacities into conscious, sub conscious, and unconscious levels of processing. Some of his ideas were and continue to be disputed, and Psychology continues to argue about the specific definitions and where one stops, and another starts, but it is probably safe to accept the idea that we have foreground thinking, that we are aware of, and background thinking (maybe more than one layer), of which we are not in direct specific control or awareness, but which takes care of a good deal of the business of being alive and human, and generally functioning. More than this, we are now pretty certain of how specific physical areas of the brain (or networks between areas) are responsible for different kinds of thinking or processing. We know this for example because some parts of the brain are older and are shared with other animals with shared ancestry, while other newer developments such as the huge neocortex that wraps around most of the rest of the brain, seemed to develop much more recently and in step with developments of much more advanced abilities that distinguish humans from other animals. We also know because of extensive use of fMRI that allows neuroscientists to see exactly which areas of the brain are active when a subject is asked to think about or stimulated to think (consciously or not) about certain ideas or occurrences. This is a long way from saying that science knows how that brain works, and certainly there is no concensus on what exactly consciousness is (or where it is if that is even a plausible concept).
Who is the Boss?
This feels easy enough for us to accept, because the ideas of consciousness and subconscious thought have been around for a while and are in common language and popular culture. At one time they threatened some of the important scientific, cultural and religious conventions. Let me make it a little bit harder for you to accept. What if the conscious part of the mind, the bit that you get to be aware of and to drive, is not quite as in command as you think, and that in many ways it is the unconscious mind that sets the agenda, that passes problems up to the conscious mind for complex processing and planning, and it does these things according to it’s own idea of what is important, rather than the conscious mind’s desires. This is an unsettling idea, because it sounds like it undermines our free-will and superiority, but it’s just a shifting of assumptions from what we thought we knew to something different. Certainly these conflicting models of mind explain some of the reasons we are so curiously fallible and human.
There is quite a lot of evidence of this, but there is also evidence to suggest that, knowing this, we can influence how these drives and processes work, so that our unconscious mind wants (and therefore helps to achieve) the same goals that our conscious mind wants. This is straying into self-help territory, but there are some solid scientific ideas to back up these ideas.
Learn Through Play
Some of the ideas I talk about in these posts are hard to grasp because we are on the inside, and all we have to go on are our own experiences, and what we observe in other people, and some ideas from folk science. Most of us also are not psychologists, neuroscientists, or other professionals with tools and skills to examine and talk about the mind in any way other than inside. That’s the reason I am using simulations and visual toys to explore some of the ideas from a new perspective.
Related Thoughts


Lazy? Or Just Efficient?

When you have some task, for which the only solution is sustained, focused, mental effort, you may find you mind wandering onto other, more well rehearsed or habitual activities. Your mind can convince itself that perhaps some other task is a better use of your resources – busy work. Procrastination might feel like a kind of conscious laziness, but it is actually the result of your brain’s gatekeeper doing it’s job well – deciding what tasks really need conscious awareness, and batting away those that exceed current capacity.
Left to its own devices, this gatekeeper doesn’t really care how valuable your current conscious effort is, in terms of your personal goals and motivations. It’s job is just to allocate and preserve precious resources. We are straying into the world of attention and decision making here, which is too big a topic that we will definitely revisit another time. For now understand that your brain will often lead you to some time-filling tasks that demands less of your conscious, fully engaged mode of thought, and will help you get occupied in a simple activity – maybe a game, or watching a TV show, or scrolling a social feed – these activities will occupy your conscious capacity (so you don’t look around for something useful to do) but they mostly require little highly focused skill or problem solving that is so expensive to run.
When you hear the phrase “pay attention” just stop and think that to the brain, there is a real cost to full attention – so give the brain something truly worthwhile to spend it on.

Sleight of Mind

Our tendency to focus on just what we need to, while filtering out what seems to need less attention, gets exploited by performers, actors, and magicians. These tricks can also be used in advertising and storytelling to keep our conscious attention on something demanding in the foreground, while being unconcerned about peripheral distractions.

There are a couple of famous psychology experiments that look at this selective attention phenomenon. Both of these are reproductions of studies carried out by Daniel Simons, a psychology professor who specialises in visual perception, awareness and attention.


This image is a detail of a photo of the artwork Distant Field Lines by Lydia Wooldridge, displayed at the Visions of Science exhibition at The Edge gallery, University of Bath 2018
This image is a detail of a photo of split lentils on the pavement. Author’s own.
Other Experiences
In this section I like to have a look at the range of experiences of being a human, relating to this post This includes neuro-atypical conditions, mental health, behaviour and degenerative conditions.
  • Imagine if you did not have any filter on your awareness; that in order to decide what to bother yourself with, you had to be aware of everything, all the time. And then in the next moment, you have to do that all over again. It would be distressing and distracting, making it hard to perform common tasks easily. Some people do experience the world like this – maybe not total awareness of background events, but certainly a much more conscious awareness of many demands that the rest can filter out. This can make life very difficult, and lead to other mental conditions brought on by the trauma and friction of living a life this way, in a world designed for those with a working filter.
  • Conversely, imagine if you have no awareness, you do nothing consciously, and nothing stimulates you, and you have only your internal background tasks to occupy you. Boredom, despair, lack of mental growth are likely to occur. Animals that are kept in small, unstimulating environments have been shown to have reduced mental capacity and brain development. Similar results have been observed in groups of human orphans, kept in basic institutions for years. It is no accident that lack of stimulation for long periods is sometimes used as a form of punishment for people.
  • You may find you are very good at focus, easily able to filter out trivial demands. If we focus exclusively on front-of-house focus work, and dampen some of the background distractions, it may feel like good for work productivity and problem solving, but the wrong balance can be damaging, and can lead to difficulties in relationships, and neglect in other areas of our life.
  • Our subconscious does not think too hard about what it is doing or why, other than to meet immediate drives and needs. It will do things that it knows how to do, repeating patterns of behaviour, and doing what seems important based on cues, eg. time of day, signals from our body, things happening around us, and – this is the important one – our basic priorities and drives.
    If we have beliefs and expectations that our situation is bad, that we are bad people, that we are somehow undeserving, the subconscious will make decisions and prioritise things, notice things that correspond to that and provide us with reinforcement of those beliefs. If you believe things are OK, or you have really important goal you are working to, it can help you achieve that too. These biased mental states and beliefs about ourselves can be powerful and they can be manipulated by others (controlling partners or bullies, unscrupulous advertisers, product designeres or media editors). But we also have some ability to modify these beliefs using techniques like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).
    This may sounds easy, but it’s not a switch. You have to really believe (or learn not to believe) a certain internal story,  which can be hard in the face of external messages and existing beliefs. It takes practice, and when you are low already it can seem impossible.