Summary: You can prompt your own brain, just as you would GPT-3. Sometimes this trick works surprisingly well for finding inspiration or solving confusing problems.
GPT-3 is a language prediction model that takes linguistic inputs and predicts what comes next based on what it learned from training data. Your brain also responds to prompts, and often does so in a way that (on the surface) resembles GPT-3. Consider the following sequences of words:
A stitch in time saves _____.
The land of the free and the home of the _____.
Harry Potter and the Methods of _____.
If you read these one at a time, you’ll likely find that the last word automatically appears in your mind without any voluntary effort. Your language prediction process operates unconsciously and sends the most likely prediction to your conscious awareness.
But unlike GPT-3, your brain takes many different types of input, and makes many different types of predictions. When we listen to music, watch movies, drive cars, buy stocks, or publish blog posts, we have an intuitive prediction of what will likely come next. If we didn’t, we would be constantly surprised.
You can take advantage of this knowledge by prompting your brain and causing it to activate the relevant mental processes for whatever you're trying to do.
When you stare at a blank page and struggle to find inspiration, the easy explanation is that you have no prompt. The brain has nothing to predict. That’s why one of the most common solutions to writer’s block is to put something, anything down on the page. Now the brain has a prompt!
If you’re writing fiction, you can start with a template like “my protagonist lives in _____ and wants to _____”. If you’re writing nonfiction, you can use an information-based template like “more people should know about _____” or “I wish I knew about _____ sooner”.
The need for creative ideas might seem obvious to your conscious mind, but often the rest of your brain just doesn’t know what you want it to do. The more context you provide, the more likely your brain is to give you a good answer.
The babble method (generate lots of output with low standards) works in part because it gives the brain a prompt for generating ideas.
A babble prompt might look like this:
50 ways to earn more money next year:
- Switch jobs
- Ask for a promotion
- Start a new business
Before writing down the prompt, the brain isn’t sure it’s supposed to be generating these kinds of ideas. Now it has a clear task, and a format in which to generate the output.
If you’re trying to solve a confusing or difficult problem, sometimes you’re just stuck in a loop of unproductive thinking.
There are many prompts you can use in this situation:
The obvious thing to do here would be to _____.
If somebody smart were in my situation, they would _____.
With this kind of problem, the trick is usually to _____.
I always get stuck here, and the solution always turns out to be _____.
These kinds of prompts get your brain to think in a very particular way, and it can help disrupt the cycle of thinking that got you stuck.
Your brain is not the same as GPT-3, but this kind of prompting works because you also have predictive processes that react to input. We often think of ourselves as abstract entities with total control over our cognition, but we’re really more like collections of mental faculties that operate in certain ways given certain inputs. These tricks might be somewhat embarrassing to use in that sense, but they can be very effective.