“I am a camera,” said novelist and diarist Christopher Isherwood. Today, neuroscience shows us that the human mind is far more active than a camera. Rather than just recording, our brains are generating the world we see from minimal input, by assembling bits of sensory data and predicting what it might all add up to.
But I still like Isherwood’s famous remark, because it hints at one special function of the mind, our ability to “zoom.”
THE MENTAL ZOOM
Every camera today has some kind of zoom lens — you can focus on tiny details and instantly pan out to capture the big picture. Our minds can likewise “zoom in” on details or “zoom out” for a holistic view. If you’re observant, you’ll notice that each individual — yourself included — tends to have a preferred “zoom setting.”
Zoomed-In Thinkers: Some people naturally dive into the weeds, for example obsessing over the mechanics of getting a product from the factory to the distribution centers. For them, every tiny piece of information matters.
Zoomed-Out Thinkers: Others prefer to live in the clouds. They love soaring among grand ideas, setting goals and composing mission statements. For them, the largest view is the main attraction.
Neither tendency is better than the other. Problems show up when your zoom lens gets jammed. In that case, you’re always stuck at one focal length. By contrast, a dynamic mind can seamlessly switch from micro to macro perspectives and back again. This is mental mobility, one of the hallmarks of true intelligence.
Notice that this concept of zoom thinking is quite similar to the familiar — and useful — contrast of divergent and convergent thinking: spreading out to embrace lots of possibilities or homing in on one fixed idea. But it’s not identical. You can diverge and converge at any zoom setting, without shifting your level of detail or generality.
BRAINCAT FOR ZOOM THINKING
Braincat was developed after many years of contemplating the challenges of zoom thinking. It answers the question: How can we practically improve the mind’s zoom function? The Braincat solution has two main features: a completely open brainstorming stage, and the process of categorizing.
Here’s how it works.
At the initial brainstorming stage, Braincat welcomes all levels of detail. Let’s say you’re planning a talk about the history of a rural town. You can input every piece of information — every name, every date, and even the tiniest of events. At this stage, you can safely zoom in and get as lost in the weeds as you wish, because Braincat provides a quick way out.
The next step is categorizing. When we categorize, we group many details under a single heading. We look at each data point and ask ourselves, “What’s that a case of?” or “What larger group does that belong to?” — and we fill in the blank. This reduces a mass of detail to a few key ideas. In our example of a small town history, they might be “origins,” “geography,” “demographics,” “major events,” “culture.”
Categorizing is an in-built function of the human brain (and some animal brains, too). It’s what allows us to live in a massively complex universe without getting overwhelmed. In Braincat, categorizing lets you step back and take a mountain-top view of your material. What’s more, you can quickly switch back and forth, zooming in and zooming out. Any Braincat category can be instantly expanded to show its detailed content, or closed up so you just see the big idea.
THE FOREST AND THE TREES
The Braincat process flexes your mental zoom lens. That means the benefits go way beyond the software itself. The more you use this tool, the stronger you train your innate ability to shuttle back and forth between intricate details and the larger narratives. Even when you’re far from a digital device, you’ll notice a greater ability to see the forest and the trees. That’s an outcome with rich creative potential.