Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

6.07.2012

Do You Incubate Your Brain?

I'm always going on about how I do my best thinking while engaged in repetitive physical activities like hiking, swimming, biking, and running.  I did so most recently here, including this quote:

"When I'm out on a long run," she continued, "the only thing in life that matters is finishing the run. For once, my brain isn't going blehblehbleh all the time. Everything quiets down, and the only thing going on is pure flow. It's just me and the movement and the motion. That's what I love--just being a barbarian, running through the woods."

That's a pretty good summary of my feelings about endurance exercise, that it's how I meditate.

Yet meditation in any form is rarely without a physical component.  There are poses to hold or mantras to say or patterns to breath, scriptures to read or beads to feel or prayers to murmur and more.  It seems the mind can focus better if the body is given a bit of something to do.  I wasn't thinking of meditation when I read this because it's out of context, but now that I've made the connection it absolutely makes sense:

On a more practical note, the scientists argue that their data show why “creative solutions may be facilitated specifically by simple external tasks that maximize mind-wandering.” The benefit of these simple tasks is that they consume just enough attention to keep us occupied, while leaving plenty of mental resources left over for errant daydreams. (When people are left alone, such as those subjects forced to sit by themselves, they tend to perseverate on their problems. Unfortunately, all this focus backfires.) Consider the ping-pong tables that now seem to exist in the lobby of every Silicon Valley startup. While it’s easy to dismiss such interior decorations as mere whimsy, the game turns out to be an ideal mind-wandering activity, at least when played casually. Another task that consistently leads to extended bouts of daydreaming is reading Tolstoy. In Schooler’s earlier work on mind-wandering, he gave subjects a boring passage from “War and Peace.” The undergraduates began zoning out within seconds.

It's from an article titled The Virtues of Daydreaming.  It postulates that giving ourselves something "mindless" to do allows the majority of our brainpower to wander, making random connections between things that bubble up from below the surface of conscious thought, which allows us to open new channels to creativity and problem-solving that don't exist when we try to force them.

A daydream is that fountain spurting, spilling strange new thoughts into the stream of consciousness. And these spurts turn out to be surprisingly useful. . . .

 . . . daydreaming allowed the subjects to invent additional possibilities, as their unconscious minds pondered new ways . . . the question needed to marinate in the mind, “incubating” in those subterranean parts of the brain we can barely control. . . .

Although Schooler has previously demonstrated a correlation between daydreaming and creativity—those who are more prone to mind-wandering tend to be better at generating new ideas, at least in the lab—this new paper shows that our daydreams seem to serve a similar function as night dreams, facilitating bursts of creative insight. . . .

If this all sounds like scientific justification for afternoon naps, long showers, and Russian literature, you’re right. “We always assume that you get more done when you’re consciously paying attention to a problem,” Schooler told me. “That’s what it means, after all, to be ‘working on something.’ But this is often a mistake. If you’re trying to solve a complex problem, then you need to give yourself a real break, to let the mind incubate the problem all by itself. We shouldn’t be so afraid to actually take some time off.” . . .

This resonates with me because I've constantly, throughout my life, experienced as much creativity and productivity from incubation as from careful focus.  Whether coming up with paper topics for school, ideas for work, solutions around the house, or wording for blog posts, I've never been able to simply demand my mind produce what I want when I want, but I've learned if I give things enough time to gestate then the answers will come.  Sometimes I'm supremely unproductive, whether at work or elsewhere, but those moments rarely last long before they're replaced by bursts of productivity.  I think it's an essential cycle and the one won't happen without the other.

I have, by the way, always been a champion daydreamer.  As that favorite source, The Compleat Idiot's Guide to the INTJ, says,

We live inside our heads.
We frequently zone out. We get lost in thought and spend much of our time inside our heads. If our immediate reality becomes boring, we will retreat into our minds, and you might have to shout our names repeatedly to get our attention so we will come out again. And no, sorry, but you can’t come into our heads with us. You wouldn’t last five minutes there. You’d be driven insane by the nonstop cacophony of overlapping voices madly free-associating from one idea to the next.


Yeah, that's me.  I zone.  There are times that you might see me, even talk to me, when I'm entirely unaware of your existence.  Of my surroundings altogether.  I've written before:

The thing I find particularly apt about this characterization of INTJs specifically is that it says we disappear into our heads when others are around. I not only do so, often I prefer it that way; being alone in a quiet environment can make it too hard to submerge myself in my internal world and having some external noise and chaos actually makes it easier to concentrate. I read the bulk of one of my favorite books in a noisy, chaotic bar while checking out a friend's band, and will often go out when I want to read or at least turn the TV on at home for background noise. I can't sit to be meditative, I have to move (Trail Running Is My Favorite Form of Meditation). I'd rather catch up on email and write book reviews at the public service desk at work than back in an office.

I'll zone out unless, I've learned, I do some small, mindless activity to keep me grounded in the moment.  I'm a fidgeter.  You know I'm particularly engaged in a conversation or class because, instead of just sitting still (which means I've completely zoned out), my hands are playing with things and I'm not holding still.  If I can't find something to do with my hands, my eyes wander.  I even went through a phase in late high school and college where I read light fantasy novels in class during lectures.  Just like having something mild to do facilitates better daydreaming, I've also found it also allows me to more fully concentrate and connect what I'm hearing/seeing/experiencing at a deeper, more meaningful level.  My stream of consciousness fountain flows all around what I'm taking in, making associations and connections and lasting memories.

I keep coming back to the idea of Ego Depletion (most recently here), yet each time I just touch on it and I haven't yet fully developed any thoughts around it.  Perhaps it's an idea that still needs to incubate, whose time is yet to come, because that's what this is once again going to be: a tease of a thought related to this concept that I won't flesh out.  As I wrote last time of Ego Depletion:

Actively engaging our brains, whether to make decisions or exercise willpower or anything else, requires a lot of fuel that gets quickly depleted.  When our fuel is depleted, we go into passive mode and do things that don't require us to think or exercise control.  It can lead to overeating or staring brainlessly at the TV or playing Angry Birds or anything else that doesn't require us to control ourselves.

Hmmm.  Those depleted activities sound an awful lot like the ones that facilitate daydreaming.  Maybe there's a connection.  Maybe, in some way, daydreaming isn't just a creative connection to the subconscious just like we get from sleeping dreams, maybe it's also a similar way to rest and recharge.  Maybe.  I'll have to let the idea incubate and see what bubbles forth.

In the meantime, the next time someone accuses you of daydreaming, just tell them you were meditating.

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