Taxonomy of thinking tools

An attempt at categorizing the different physical and mental tools that help us shape thought

A thinking tool is a thing that shapes thought. There’s probably a more robust definition out there, but this simple one works for this sketch / game / mindtoy.

Yesterday, within the first five minutes of attempting to write a note titled “A building is a thinking tool,” I ran into a mental block. My instinct for what a thinking tool was, suddenly felt very shallow. The way I usually make this feeling go away is by doing a light review of what other people have said on the topic…but in the last few months, I’ve found myself less anxious about wading into a topic without a literature review. Maybe it doesn’t hurt to come up with a few half-baked ideas first, and then see afterwards how it maps to the ideas of others?

So this note is a quick doodle around the idea that there are a few broad categories of the thought objects that we call thinking tools.

The methodology was basic: I asked a few friends (and then I asked the internet) what the first example was that came to mind when they heard the phrase “thinking tool,” and then I tried to find common patterns from the responses.

1. Tools that think

This is a category of thinking tool where you input some variables, and it returns something you didn’t know.

Examples include: smartphone, calculator, spellcheck, Google Alerts, the “more like this” section on Pinterest, wargames.

2. Tools that occupy the body’s attention so that the subconscious can work

This is a category of thinking tool whose purpose is to distract the body, so that the subconscious can graze on a problem, and then spit back an idea.

Examples include: fidget spinner, stress ball, worry stone, prayer beads, walking, cycling, doing the dishes, getting under the shower.

I think it’s a mistake to consider these tools as “passive.” The mind is still working, it’s just a part of it that we’re not used to engaging directly. It’s the “voice at the back of your head” that can sense when something in an environment is off. And as researchers learn more about the enteric nervous system lining our bellies, it’s emerging that the saying “I had a feeling in my gut” might be more true that we ever realised. It turns out that the neural tissue in our gut handles far more than digestion. It also impacts mood and mental health, leading some scientists within the nascent field of neurogastroenterology to nickname it “the second brain”.

All of which is to say, there is a lot more “thinking” happening within our bodies than our conscious mind is aware of.

3. Tools that provide wayfinding

This is a category of thinking tool that helps you lay things out in some order, and sort through multiple options. I think when people say “thinking,” these are the types of thinking tools they imagine themselves using.

Examples include: diagram, doodle, writing, moodboard, whiteboarding, wardley maps, a list.

I think questions are an interesting flavour of this category of thinking tools. A question is a provocation - a thinking tool that can provoke you to an answer you already knew, on some level, but couldn’t let yourself admit. That, too, is a kind of wayfinding.

4. Tools that create (and hold) space

This is a category of thinking tool that creates a mental or physical space that increases the efficiency of the other types of thinking tools. It is an amplifier / accelerant / catalyst.

Examples include music, being in transit.

I think there’s something about being in a different physical environment and mental state that unlocks something about how well thinking tools work. Many people have had the experience of feeling themselves be in a different “mental register” while on a train or on a plane. Something about being in those spaces seems to to give you easier access to a certain headspace.

5. Tools that rehearse possible outcomes

This is a category of thinking tool that helps rapidly simulate different possible outcomes.

Examples include: conversations.

6. Tools that provide a shortcut

This is a category of thinking tool that gives you faster access to something you already know.

Examples include: rules of thumb, equations, frameworks, mental models, formulae, theories, philosophical “razors”.

I feel like ideas around the generative power of analogy - “the realization that A is like B, or A is like B combined with C” (h/t Geoff Manaugh) - falls here in some way.

Psychedelics or consciousness-altering substances (like ayahuasca) might also fall into this category?

7. Tools that store memory

This is a category of thinking tool that allows you more easily access / retrieve a thing from memory.

Examples include: mind palaces, journals, Roam, Notion, talismans, as described by Visa. See: “a talisman is any object that can be imbued with meaning. anything can be a narrative battery charged with meaning” (more here) and “if you don’t recharge your talismans, they decay” (more here).

A few notes that came to mind while noodling on this:

First, I realised that I use the word “thinking” to describe a pretty broad spectrum of mental processes. Thinking is rarely a disciplined series of mental steps to arrive at a conclusion. Often, when I say “thinking,” I mean “waiting for a something to come to me.” Sometimes, more specifically, “waiting to remember” or “waiting for more information to arrive, to make the best possible guess.”

Secondly, taxonomies are discrete but the real world is not, which means that there are things that don’t sit neatly within any one category, and instead sprawl across several of them. For example, the tool Roam exhibits characteristics of multiple categories.

Hands, too, come to mind. Hands are incredible thinking tools that seem to defy strict classification. You can count off of your fingers, sure, but you can also figure out a physical system by feel. And then there’s the bizarre magic of muscle memory. I return often to Bret Victor’s love letter to hands:

Go ahead and pick up a book. Open it up to some page.

Notice how you know where you are in the book by the distribution of weight in each hand, and the thickness of the page stacks between your fingers. Turn a page, and notice how you would know if you grabbed two pages together, by how they would slip apart when you rub them against each other.

Go ahead and pick up a glass of water. Take a sip.

Notice how you know how much water is left, by how the weight shifts in response to you tipping it.

Almost every object in the world offers this sort of feedback. It’s so taken for granted that we’re usually not even aware of it. Take a moment to pick up the objects around you. Use them as you normally would, and sense their tactile response — their texture, pliability, temperature; their distribution of weight; their edges, curves, and ridges; how they respond in your hand as you use them.

There’s a reason that our fingertips have some of the densest areas of nerve endings on the body. This is how we experience the world close-up. This is how our tools talk to us. The sense of touch is essential to everything that humans have called “work” for millions of years.

When you remember how amazing our own two hands-as-thinking-tools are, you have to wonder what’s going on with the octopus, which, unlike almost any other animal, does not have the majority of its neurons centralized in its head. Two thirds of its neurons are instead distributed across its body and eight arms.

And then there’s the entire other matter of thinking tools used by non-human persons. Like how we suspect that spiders offload cognitive tasks into their webs, or the vast underground mycelium network that allows trees to “talk” to each other, signal distress, and share resources.

To be clear, I’m taking extreme rhetorical liberties in using words like “think” and “talk” in relation to spiders and trees…but it’s all so fascinating.

Last thought: it’s out of the scope of this post, but: is embodiedness a requirement of thinking tools?

Sure some thinking tools are abstract/mental - but you could argue that interacting with these abstract tools requires an embodied medium? Like a pencil, or a whiteboard, or mousepad? Our interaction with conceptual tools seems to require mediation through matter.

Hokay. That was fun. Now to start whittling away at “A building is a thinking tool.” (Update: here it is)


I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone who participated in this thought experiment over the course of the last 24 hours by replying to my tweet. And two extra special thank yous.

First, to Niti Bhan, for introducing me to the phrase “thinking tools.” This is the specific tweet where it happened. Niti is careful to clarify that she borrowed the phrase, but I learned it through her, so she has my thanks.

And lastly, a major thank you to Yri, whose response triggered the idea of a thinking tool taxonomy.

(If you’ve encounted a different taxonomy for thinking tools, please let me know! You can reach me on Twitter, and you can also send it via the form at the end of this page)

(If you enjoy my writing and want to support my personal research projects, the best way is to buy me a book!)