Unconscious thinking

It’s been my experience that ideas – we could call them ‘creative thoughts’ to represent the fact they’re thoughts about writing – come to me while I’m out walking. I don’t often write on the hoof in the sense of composing specific strings of text, but I do think through plot, conceits, scenes, images. Sometimes that’s what I’m trying to do; I take the dogs for a walk and deliberately mull over a creative problem. But just as often, I’m not consciously thinking about writing at all – I’m thinking about that hedge, or picking up the dog’s poo, or paying the car insurance – and a solution, or step forward, or idea, comes into my mind unbidden.

Talking to other writers, that seems to be a common experience: that we make creative advances unconsciously, when we’re concentrating on something else, or on nothing at all. I don’t think it’s limited to walking, but I do think walking is a particularly fertile activity for having those thoughts, maybe because the body is active and the mind is pretty idle. (Other suitable activities might include running, swimming, washing up, hanging the washing out, shopping, and so on.) And, just as walking isn’t the only activity to encourage unconscious creative thoughts, the thoughts themselves aren’t limited to writing, but occur across the range of human practices.

There’s a well-known story of the mathematician Poincaré making a big advance in his thinking while out on a geological jaunt:

The incidents of the travel made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go someplace or other. At the moment when I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to find the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry. (quoted in Arnold H. Modell, Imagination and the Meaningful Brain, 28–9)

There’s also a story that Peter Higgs thought of the Higgs boson while out walking in the Cairgorms (see here and here), although the truth seems to be a bit messier than that. Buthe point is that not only artists but also scientists may have ‘creative thoughts’ arriving unexpectedly in the conscious mind, and that walking seems to be an activity likely to foster such experiences. And in fact neither artists nor scientists should be thought of as special: the geographer Jennie Middleton has reported that people walking to work may have similar experiences. One respondent said that:

“It’s amazing how I suddenly start conceiving ideas about work whilst walking along, even without realising it” (quoted in Jennie Middleton, ‘“Stepping in Time”: Walking, Time, and Space in the City’, 1946).

So much for the rarefied Romantic writer–walker receiving special insights; creative thinking is available to anyone.

I’m not a neuroscientist or a psychologist either, so I need to be cautious here, but the simple phenomenon of finding oneself making an advance in thinking without conscious effort seems to be one of the forms of creative thinking outlined by Arne Dietrich in his article ‘The cognitive neuroscience of creativity.’ Dietrich describes how both conscious and unconscious creative thoughts might be mapped on to brain function. (Of course ‘creative thoughts’ in this context means something much simpler than the complex processes and practices of high-level artistic and scientific work – one example of the need for caution.) Most interesting for me is Dietrich’s assertion that unconscious creative thinking is less bound by our existing structure of knowledge – less policed by consciousness, as it were – so the thoughts that come unbidden may be riskier, more radical, more creative than those that are willed. So taking the dogs for a walk – or going for a swim or a run ‘to clear the head’ – might help us to achieve different and better creative work than chaining ourselves to the desk.

I’d really like to hear from you, whether you’re a writer or not, about whether you experience unconscious thinking when walking or undertaking other mundane activities. You can comment  on this post or email me at tony.williams@northumbria.ac.uk

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6 comments
  1. Ironing does it for me: the crucial two elements would appear to be that the ego is somewhat disengaged (ie the task isn’t about it and its magnificent achievements), and the body has something intricate to accomplish (shirts are good if there’s an element of pleating). This rebalances things between the part of the brain which thinks it’s in charge, and the bit that actually does the computing. Consciousness is only there to assess or edit the result.

    • I think that’s it absolutely, Bill, though I’m an unskilled enough ironer that I actually have to concentrate really hard. My ego is totally involved: after every shirt I go running through the house shouting, ‘Clever Fido!’

  2. Rockcru said:

    I think it is important to prepare the mind to create. You do this by regularly indulging in creative exercises, writing down ideas for poems, prose pieces, snatches of phrases that have some resonance, things that you can expand upon at the moment or come back to and expand later. Mental preparation is also aided by reading a lot, diversely. Knowing what’s in the news is as important as keeping up with the latest authors. By doing so, you are opening up channels for creative thinking. When your mind has a creative task, your best bet is to find a way to relax. Walking may do it for some; it worked for Wallace Stevens who used to compose his poems walking to work. Engaging in something that you can do and at the same time allow your mind free range to fly into the ether. I find I am relaxed most after sleeping (waking sometimes with a great idea) or during the morning shower (I say this at the risk of indulging the prurient minded) where I can daydream and let my mind wander. When you have are refreshed and relaxed, the ideas come readily.

    • I’ve heard a few writers say first thing in the morning is a productive time, Steven, though it doesn’t for me – I need half an hour to wake up and drink coffee. I know what you mean about relaxing – it’s hard to write while anxious about something else – though it may also be that when you wake up, the creative part of the mind is less encumbered by the sleepy consciousness…?!

  3. Angela France said:

    I find it is a particular balance between attention and inattention that provides the ideal conditions for me. I have recently been very irritated by all my usual walks being muddy (and very relieved it is drying up now) – the muddiness meant I needed to spend more attention than usual on where I was putting my feet, and not slipping. Although having to deal with muddy paws and boots twice a day is a nuisance, your writings here made me realise that my irritation was much more to do with my attention being taken up too much by the mud which prevented the conditions for the ‘right’ sort of unconscious thinking.

    You might also be interested in an interview I’ve done with M R Peacocke (will be in the next Iota) in which she says (having said poems first came to her while building a dry stone wall):

    “… physical activity only of a certain kind: fairly slow, moderately strenuous and with a rhythmical basis even though that may often be interrupted. Walking some distance, in particular, and digging the vegetable plot; and yes, when I was farming there were several things such as walling and scything and mucking out, which I miss although I’d no longer be up to doing them.

    All those activities entail what I’d describe as physical thinking: watching your step, getting things regular or level, assessing sizes and shapes. There is method in them, enough to override the busy bits of the brain. When the busy bits are quiet, other thoughts may come floating up. (Up, or in, or out, or by… I’m not sure which gives a more accurate account.) What I find necessary then is, first, to make a note of them as soon as I can, otherwise they can disappear like dreams on waking; and then above all, not to judge them or ask questions.”

    • Angela, that interview sounds up my street – will you let me know when it’s out? And yes, I get upset by small changes to the routine, and I think it’s because it leads to a qualitative change to the experience, and hence to the thinking conditions, exactly as you describe.

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