Cached Thoughts in Conversation

Kaj Sotala, on LessWrong, says that in oral conversation he frequently has trouble formulating sentences and thoughts fast enough to keep up. His solution: cached thoughts.

Both of these problems are solvable by having a sufficiently well built-up storage of cached thoughts that I don’t need to generate everything in real time. On the occasions when a conversations happens to drift into a topic I’m sufficiently familiar with, I’m often able to overcome the limitations and contribute meaningfully to the discussion. This implies two things. First, that I need to generate cached thoughts in more subjects than I currently have. Seconds, that I need an ability to more reliably steer conversation into subjects that I actually do have cached thoughts about.

I agree it’s hard to think new thoughts in real-time. 90% of the things I say in conversation are probably formulations of stuff I’ve already said / written / thought about.

But if the most fluid conversations between two people rely on each person drawing upon the appropriate cached thought to suit the moment, doesn’t this mean that neither party is learning very much or generating new thoughts?

Possibly. However, in oral conversation there is spontaneity and randomness. You can never be certain where a conversation will lead. The joy is in following a conversation’s natural arc.

Real-time interaction with another mind can introduce — in the same frame, in the same moment — two or three of four cached thoughts you have never before thought about at the same time. In this way, conversation can still be a learning device inasmuch as it helps you make connections among your existing ideas and knowledge. Oral conversation may not generate brand new thoughts, but it can enrich and make interconnected your old ones.


Here’s my popular post on in-person conversation skills. Here are annoying conversation stoppers.

9 comments on “Cached Thoughts in Conversation
  • “Oral conversation may not generate brand new thoughts, but it can enrich and make interconnected your old ones.”

    I’ve certainly experienced this, especially when reminiscing with high school friends. We each have a “hit list” of cached memories that come up when we get together. We’ll invariably talk about the most memorable, but each time the conversation will arrange itself differently, bringing to light a memory each of us had forgotten.

    No doubt the same occurs with opinions and arguments.

  • Always entertaining to see how different minds work. I have never had this problem and it almost seems bizarre to me to try to manage this consciously and deliberately. But different strokes work for different folks.

    On the other hand, if all this means is that it’s worth thinking about topics when you’re on your own, of course I do that, and I write about things and debate them, and probably use the same arguments and approaches in verbal conversation as I have previously used in written efforts. But I don’t manage it explicitly. That would take all the fun out of it for me.

    I’d also give this advice to Kaj: it’s ok for a conversation to have pauses if you need to formulate your sentence. It doesn’t have to be like TV or movies – you know all that is scripted, right? Real life can run at a different pace.

  • I’ve never thought about this concept before but it’s true for me as well. However, out of this realization grows a new one: If I’m not generating new ideas and connections out of conversation, the words tend to bore me. Or at the very least, the discussion is less interesting.

    Secondly, the most stimulation conversations I have are the ones where I’m LISTENING more than talking. (If I’m teaching a class, it’s an other dynamic.)

    Thirdly, the process of caching ideas is automatic with me. If I’m having a human interaction or I’m reading new material, I either process the data at that moment or I think about it later. My thinking is an organization of the new stuff with what I already know. Hence, I build more complex resolutions somewhat effortlessly. I guess we call that “LOGIC!”


  • Caching thoughts – wow, sounds great…but how do you do that? Brain normally works by the rule of recency. Thought retrieval depends on quality of articulation of a thought by its conceiver and intensity with which its consumers have debated and internalized it – either by experience or by observation. For instance, whenever I think of a Warren Buffett quote (not his original, but popularized by him) the one that comes to mind instantly is “Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent” – just because almost every investor have experienced it, staking their own money upfront!!!

  • The idea of “cached thoughts” reminds me of a hilarious passage in Pride and Prejudice, an instance in which Mr. Bennet is poking fun at the ridiculous Mr. Collins. It perfectly illustrates my opinion of the concept:

    Mr. Bennet: “May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?”

    Mr. Collins: “They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.”

    Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance.

  • It depends on the informal contract between the people conversing. Sometimes the intention of the conversation, even if implicit, is to signal value to each other; in that case it would be wise to always seem quick and cached thoughts aid in that. If the conversation is between people who already have a strong relationship and familiarity devoid of the necessary signaling maneuvers, then they are free to be more creative, take more intellectual risks without fear of looking foolish.

    In an interview, Murray Gell-Mann once commented that Richard Feynman would use cached thoughts in many of his lectures, but act as if he had just derived them on the spot, thus appearing incredibly quick.

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