Jani Kaaro is a scientific journalist and researcher, and he has some of the most insightful columns that I have ever read time after time. I had to translate this one, if you have time, check it out.
The Noble Art of Staring at Walls
After philosopher Herman Spencer had published his book Social Statistics
in 1851, he was discussing it with his friend Mary Ann Evans. They spoke about the many themes in the book, but Evans’ attention was caught by a peculiar thing. The book must have taken a lot of thought to accomplish, yet Spencer’s forehead seemed suspiciously smooth. Where were the wrinkles brought on by intense brainwork?
Spencer explained, that his thought process hadn’t been a consolidated effort to which forehead furrows were often connected with. The conclusions he had come to had begun from small seeds of thought, growing inside his mind almost without notice. His theories had were born ”little by little, without forcing, without conscious pursuit or significant effort”. The most important thing, he had said, was time. Forcing it out was as impossible as forcing himself to sleep and hurrying it was as probable as trying to sleep faster.
We are used to a very different kind of thought process. Whether it’s the classroom or the office, we think that the best way to learn or solve problems is the analytical way. Chop big problems into smaller ones, find connecting factors and rearrange them – systematically, analytically and diligently, striding towards the solution. But what if the great philosophers were great just because they didn’t think like this or use these methods? Maybe they were great because they let the deep, subconscious parts of their brains do their thinking for them?
Before I continue with more practical issues, I’ll give you a few examples about the inner workings of our unconscious parts of the brain. First is from a psychological test arranged by researchers Diane Berry and Donald Broadbent from Oxford University. During the test, volunteers are playing a videogame where the player must set a balance to the input and output of an industrial factory. However, the game is designed to be so complicated that people have no possibility to “calculate” the different variables and factors influencing the factory process. The only thing they can do is to try different approaches.
When the volunteers began playing, they always put the factory in a state of utter chaos in no time at all. It’s only natural, as the game is so complicated in structure that people can’t even begin to understand what each decision made entails. With time, something interesting happens. The volunteers begin controlling the game better and better, and most of them even manage to set the factory into a near balanced state. When they are asked how they did it, they cannot explain it. They say “it just kinda happened”. If they have to explain a new volunteer how to succeed in the game, they can’t give them any valid advice. It’s not a case of luck or coincidence, as the better control of the game is permanent.
The thing is, the deeper parts of their brains have done the work for them, and any attempts to understand how it was done just hurt the process.
The other example is about a rare neurological disease, the Korsakoff Syndrome. It is mostly met in alcoholics, who have drunk long and hard, and it causes a total loss of short-term memory. A person suffering from Korsakoff’s doesn’t remember what happened five minutes ago, having to constantly come up with “things” in their mind to fill up the blanks. Sometimes people ask what remains of a person who can’t remember anything, and studies have shown that something truly does remain. When Korsakoff patients have undergone multi-staged tests, that demand practice to pass, they have become better in them with time – even though they can’t remember ever taking part in the test before. The learning is completely unconscious, but it’s happening.
These examples explain clearly what’s going on. Deep inside the brain is a subliminal process that sees what we cannot. It sees paths of progress, regularities and connections, which are too vast, too complicated and too extending for our conscious mind to pick up on. It’s responsible for the phenomenon, when you’ve thought of a problem and the next morning you wake up with the solution crystal-clear in your mind, but are unable to explain how you came to the conclusion. On this level, learning and realization happen without language. All it takes is time, and the possibility to come out.
Now I’d ask you to go back in time and think of the moments when you made small or great revelations, solved a problem or overall learned something new. Did it happen by taking the issue into smaller pieces and analyzing them on paper? Or rather that you carried it inside your mind, forgot about it for even days, returning to it on a later date, and suddenly, one day, you took giant leaps towards the solution?
A quick poll with my close friends shows, that for many, learning happens in the latter way – the way Spencer avoided deep furrows in his forehead. Cramming and concentration are good ways to learn multiplication, but when it comes to vast ideas, our deep brain is overpowering. If we replace these deep processes with analytical problem solving, we usually go wrong.
After I learned about this branch of psychological research, I’ve started to think about my son’s schooling in a different light. Next time the school sends me a note saying that my son is just staring at the wall instead of cramming information in his head, I’ll send a note back, saying that one should not disturb a child staring at the wall – he is learning in his own way.
I do have something important to say about university, research and ingenuity. When I began my career as a science journalist twenty years ago, professors always had time. They’d invite you to their office for some coffee, talk about everything between the Earth and the sky, and as I was young they treated me like one of their own students. Today it’s different. It’s hard to reach anyone, possibly only between conferences. There’s hardly more than a few minutes time for discussions. E-mails are answered at midnight or five in the morning. I’ve interviewed a doctor while he was in the middle of an operation, with a nurse holding a phone to his ear.
This might seem efficient when looking from the outside in, but it has nothing to do with farming ingenuity. This is not the way to make the hidden structures, connections and regularities behind things visible. The more stressed or busy people are the more rigid and construed the patterns of their thoughts fall into, leading to creative thinking and visions to escape even further from universities as they are right now.
A long time ago, German zoologists Konrad Lorenz and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt created the foundation for research in animal behavior. Their work was ground-breaking and genius and it has withstood the hands of time to this day. I believe that they accomplished this feat because their research methods were completely different from the ones used today. They highlighted the fact of how important it was to simply observe, observe and observe. Little by little, after years of observation, the regularities in animal behaviour rose to the surface and created the foundation to their branch of research, ethology. All it took was patience to observe and the maturity to see.
If you ask me, then no, I don’t believe that the modern University system will create anything akin to the type of deep understanding that Lorenz and Eibl-Eibesfeldt once produced. No, I don’t believe that our world will create any more philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, who did most of his creative thought work on his long, daily strolls outside. And if you are annoyed by the low grades of journalism, ask us journalists how busy we are.
We would need time to stare at walls, time to observe, time to sink into a question, time to get lost in a problem, time to walk down wrong paths and time to take the first solution with a grain of salt and keep on searching. We would need time to not think and time to let the answers rise up to the surface on their own. No amount of creative thinking workshops or weekend training sessions will save us, because the deeper processes of our brains cannot be guided, hurried or forced. Without this kind of creative time we will only measure, archive, print and ponce about in the same spot we started in.