Friday, October 03, 2008

Cultivating Good Ideas

I read a New Yorker article not so long ago about how the process of insight works, and since then I've been noticing how and when different kinds of my ideas originate.

We all have flashes of insight at unusual times--not the times that we're thinking about a problem--but times when we're somewhat relaxed. For me it's when I'm waking up or going to bed, in the shower, on the longish walk between my car and my office or, most typically, when I'm out for a run. These are not times when a pencil or computer is handy, and I'm always nervous I'll forget them. Why the bad timing?

According to the neuroscientists interviewed in the article, there are different brain pathways for cranking through a routine problem and for finding solutions to non-routine problems. The latter requires the brain to explore all kinds of cognitive resources, and the flash of certainty we get with an insight is due to the unconscious cognitive work that we've already done, not just generating an idea but checking its fit, as well. (And this raises questions about how much of our "selves" we are actually aware of!) The process of insight requires that the brain relax and that the conscious mind pay attention to the weaker and more distributed signals it gets from unexpected quarters. This happens when the soft voice of what we might call the insight module is not drowned out by the insistent and confident voice of the grinding module. Naps help.

Knowing how the insight process works and which kinds of problems need insight rather than grinding should help us to work more productively. All creative work feeds off of some insight. I do think that in philosophy, there are some routines or scripts that are used to generate ideas, such as the many iterations on "A Kantian Analysis of..." the latest social problem in the headlines. The most interesting ideas, though, have more unique forms. Interdisciplinary work also requires bringing ideas that have not yet met each other into contact, and that resonates with the insight process.

Most of my work is of the grinding along nature. I have systems and reminders set up so that my lecture planning gets done on time. Also, the research writing that I'm doing right now is on some scientific research that is already completed, so that when I have the time to work on it, the process involves just describing what I did and what the results are. All the truly creative work came in the doing.

Blogging often feels creative to me, and sometimes driven by insight. Surfing others' blogs, perhaps because there is an element of the unexpected in what I will find, helps to turn on my own insight machine. In blogging (and for some, perhaps in writing their facebook updates), I pay attention not to something that I'm reading, but to my reactions about what I'm reading. I read something and then, an hour or day or week later, notice that I'm still thinking about it and that I have something to say. Knowing that there will be an audience is the motivation for thinking it through.

A piece on digital identity and security in the New York Times points out that many of us go through this process:
It is easy to become unsettled by privacy-eroding aspects of awareness tools. But there is another — quite different — result of all this incessant updating: a culture of people who know much more about themselves.

Many of the avid Twitterers, Flickrers and Facebook users I interviewed described an unexpected side-effect of constant self-disclosure. The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you’re feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It’s like the Greek dictum to “know thyself,” or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness. (Indeed, the question that floats eternally at the top of Twitter’s Web site — “What are you doing?” — can come to seem existentially freighted. What are you doing?)

Having an audience can make the self-reflection even more acute, since, as my interviewees noted, they’re trying to describe their activities in a way that is not only accurate but also interesting to others: the status update as a literary form.
It occurs to me that this is a valuable and underappreciated effect of Web 2.0: it increases self-knowledge and reflection.

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