Maybe ideas don’t come fully formed, instead they are a sequence of ideas that pour out of you one after another in a cascading instant.
Full show notes: https://www.thejaymo.net/2021/01/22/301-2103-thinking-out-loud/
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Thinking Out Loud
This week Matt Webb over @ interconnected.org posted ‘The feeling of percolating on stubborn problems’. He wrote that occasionally he will be thinking about a problem, or an idea and he will get stuck.
He can’t write, can’t make slides, and can barely articulate what’s interesting about the subject.
During this period which for him can last for two or three days he’ll find it hard to focus on other tasks. Becomes short tempered and disinterested in his todo list.
Its as if, as he puts it “there’s something occupying 30% of my CPU, if you know what I mean”
Then suddenly the entire thing will pop into his head. A structured articulation of the idea, key goals, next steps, the whole thing.
It’ll then come out of him like automatic writing.
Webb then asks what’s going on during those 2 days?
What is this “background processing” feeling?
How come it’s a black box?
What’s happening, brain-wise?
I don’t know at all, but since he threw the question out there I thought I’d chime in.
Firstly, this phenomenon is covered really well in A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. It’s only 38 pages long and 2 quid on Amazon. If your a creative type its definitely worth checking out.
The essay can be compressed down to a 5 step process.
- Gather material
- Wwork the material over in your mind
- Step away from the problem
- Allow the solution to come back to you
- Test your idea in the real world and adjust based on feedback.
The period of irritability that Matt experiences is what Webb Young calls “the mental digestive process” – or step Three.
Step Four is the flash of insight, that only occurs after you have stopped straining for it.
He goes on to quote the 1932 locked room mystery novel Miss Pinkerton by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
And it was while I was folding up that copy of the Eagle and, putting it away for later reading that something came into my mind. I have had this happen before; I can puzzle over a thing until I am in a state of utter confusion, giving it up, and then suddenly have the answer leap into my mind without an apparent reason.Miss Pinkerton by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
When speaking about creativity and ideas I once heard the notion of ‘Seedling Ideas’
Ideas are like seeds that lay dormant in the soil. At the back of one’s mind, waiting for the climatic signals to germinate.
Then it starts with a single thought. And then a few minutes, days or months later, another one will pop up and then another and another.
Maybe ideas don’t come fully formed, instead they are a sequence of ideas that pour out of you one after another. Flashings of insight as geminations happening in a cascading instant.
What is going on during this period of ‘mental digestion’, is anyone guess. Webb calls it a black box. It makes me wonder how Matt usually thinks. Is it in sentences? words strung one after another? An internal monologue?
I want to talk a little about where I am after 8 and a half years of taking a meditation practice seriously.
I’ll be Upfront. I still have an internal dialogue and I certainly can’t claim to have killed mine. But it is however far less talkative than it used to be. More and more in my daily life, thoughts and ideas spring from below the soil.
My entire life up until about 5 years ago ‘thinking’ (for me) was sparring with my own internal dialogue. Literally having a conversation with myself. How about this – no – what about this – ah ha – ok then – that – i’m thirsty – let’s make a cup of tea.
If you think like this habitually, I belive it’s easier for other lines of thought or internal voices to chime in. Negative self talk etc. The citric or the watcher at the gates of the mind etc. This is what my inner life used to be like.
But after 8 years of sitting practice Its different.
I still do have an internal dialogue, but it’s not a calamitous chatter. It’s usually a long stream of dialogue, with no second counter argument. It happens more often when I’m emotional or doing something on automatic pilot. I’ll be in the shower and realise that I’m er ‘thinking out loud to myself in my head’. I’ll remember to breathe and it will melt away back below the surface of the conscious mind. I don’t doubt that I’m still thinking about whatever I was thinking about – just not explicitly.
My inner world at 35 is very different from 25.
Sometimes I’ll be staring off into space. Eve will ask me what I’m thinking about and I’ll automatically reply ‘nothing’. Which is in fact not quite true.
What I should be replying is ‘no idea’.
I’m clearly having a moment as it were. That’s why she asked me. But it’s all below the surface. A roiling whirl of emotion rather than any one line of thought expressed as internal chatter. Its Abstract and non-verbal.
The idea that I used to experience never-ending, Virginia Woolf-esque trains of thought—expressed in language as full sentences — now seems like an exhausting Hell. Looking back it kind of was.
But as Jung said. People don’t have ideas; ideas have people.
You always have to make space for the thoughts to find you. So one has to organise ones inner landscape to encourage thoughts to geminate from the ether.
The script above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in audio due to time constraints.