Conquering Pinball Brain

pinball brain

There are times when thinking can feel like a slog through molasses. And then there are times when thinking is like careening off walls and bouncing everywhere. This is pinball brain and it may feel more productive, but the rapid-fire chain of thoughts is moving too fast to truly engage with. You can take steps in conquering pinball brain, though, and restore your calmness.

Pinball Brain, Defined

Pinball brain is when your thoughts start to bounce off the walls. You have one thought that leads you to in a direction, and then suddenly you are spinning off in another direction. This doesn’t happen once, but quickly, multiple times, as your thoughts feed off one another.

To an outsider, the most common reaction is “how did you get there from x?” Where x is the topic you were just speaking of. Having observed someone whose brain was pinballing recently, we went from speaking of a programming project to frogs to Star Wars to brands of toilet paper within the space of about 3 minutes of conversation. It was dizzying.

To an observer, it can seem as if the person is changing the subject randomly, but the person who is pinballing can see – and retrace – the path of the thoughts and explain the connections.

Is it Daydreaming?

I’ve noticed that sometimes my thoughts take seemingly random paths when I allow myself downtime and let the thoughts come. The difference between this state and pinballing is the speed at which the thoughts come.

My brain has always been a bit random, with thoughts connecting in rather strange ways. But I’ve noticed that pinballing gets worse when certain factors come into play. These factors include:

  • Fatigue
  • Stress
  • Busyness
  • Sugar and caffeine (on top of one of the other factors)

It’s not daydreaming. Daydreaming is a floaty type of thought pattern, where you drift. Pinball brain is like high speed bumper cars that are on double charge.

Pinball Brain Can Be Conquered

There are a few ways I have found that will stop the pinball thoughts.

Accept That It Happens

One of the things I have found is that putting active energy into fighting against pinball brain is counterproductive. The harder I resist, the more things ping around.

Taking a deep breath and telling myself that this happens from time to time – and that it happens to many people from time to time – is the first step in getting the loosely linked thoughts to slow down.

Slow Down My Movements

The activity is happening in my brain, but my body is probably not doing anything to engage my attention.

I find that if I get up and physically do something slowly and deliberately, the cycle is interrupted just a tiny bit. This could be something as simple as walking into another room or drinking a glass of water. As long as I make my movements slow, I can usually stop the mind as well.

The Distraction List

I have applied the focus technique of the distraction list to my pinball brain with good success. A distraction list is where I write down everything that is distracting me.

In this particular case, I try to capture everything that is going on in my mind. Every last thought gets written down, usually electronically so I can keep up with the pace. (It’s entertaining to read it afterwards)  Eventually the thoughts slow to match my fingers, and I can get back on track.

The bonus of doing this particular technique is that I don’t lose any of the threads of thoughts and I can follow up on them later.

Yoga/Tai Chi

Meditation calms the mind, but I find that in the case of pinball brain it doesn’t stand a chance on its own. Doing yoga or tai chi, where both move the body and calm the mind, is a good way to slow down.

Tai chi, with its smooth flowing movements, is particularly good for me because it takes concentration to move through the forms gracefully.

Making Time To Free Form

Since one of the “triggers” is a lack of time in my schedule, I make time to go for a walk and let my mind wander. This means walking outside by myself without music or podcasts playing.

I let my thoughts roam, not bothering to try to rein them in. Sometimes just giving myself permission to be in the state can stop it in its tracks.

Pinball brain, while entertaining on some levels, can be a serious problem if you are trying to concentrate. By taking active steps and accepting it is happening, I can get myself back to a place where I can focus.