Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Barak Obama and Jonah Lehrer on thinking and creativity

Support for taking large chunks of time for thinking and writing, for working in the morning, and for going for a walk or otherwise distracting yourself at intervals while working.

From the New York Times, via 43folders:

Mr. Obama: . . . actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking. And the biggest mistake that a lot of these folks make is just feeling as if you have to be …

Mr. Cameron: These guys just chalk your diary up.

Mr. Obama: Right. … In 15 minute increments and …

Mr. Cameron: We call it the dentist waiting room. You have to scrap that because you’ve got to have time.

And Jonah Lehrer, "The Eureka Hunt," in the July 28 issue of The New Yorker:

Shorter Lehrer: A lot of new studies in brain science are demonstrating the power of the right hemisphere in producing insight, which is physically as well as intellectually distinct from the kind of problem-solving produced by analysis. The article isn't online, but here are some extracts:

  • The insight process, as sketched by Jung-Beeman and Kounios, is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. but, once the brain is sufficiently focussed, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will produce the insight. "The relaxation phase is crucial," Jung-Beeman said. "That's why so many insights happen during warm showers." Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas. The right brain hemisphere is also unusually active (43).
  • In his 1908 essay "Mathematical Creation," Poincare insisted that the best way to think about complex problems is to immerse yourself in the problem until you hit an impasse. Then, when it seems that "nothing good is accomplished," you should find a way to distract yourself, preferably by going on a "walk or a journey." The answer will arrive when you least expect it (43-44).

  • "You've got to know when to step back," Kounios said. "If you're in an environment that forces you to produce and produce, and you feel very stressed, then you're not going to have any insights." [He goes on to say that Adderall, etc. can help concentration but "may actually make insights less likely, by sharpening the spotlight of attention and discouraging mental rambles. Concentration, it seems, comes with the hidden cost of diminished creativity" (44).]

    heu mihi said...

    That's interesting. In grad school, I usually figured out most of my seminar paper topics when I was walking home from campus (a distance of about a mile); there was something about the rhythm of walking, and the way that my mind could sort of wander over the topic, that seemed to help. I think it also helped that, because I was walking, I couldn't write anything down or do anything else until I got home--so the pressure was off, in a way. Hm. Thanks for the post--this is a good reminder of my old habits. (I live much closer to work now, so I don't have the long daily walk that I used to enjoy.)

    undine said...

    That's interesting. I think the blood flow to the brain during a walk could be part of this, too. It works for me sometimes on walks, but sometimes I just start to fret about The List of things I haven't finished yet instead.