The Secret Life of the Brain
Dr. Iain McGilchrist has been researching and writing about the surprising secrets of the brain for over thirty years. Here’s maybe the most surprising: “Less than half a percent of what the brain is doing, taking in, and knowing about is present to consciousness. We do a lot of very sophisticated things not only mostly while we’re not conscious of them, but we do them better when we’re not conscious of them.” Consider talking. “When you speak—when you think explicitly out loud—you can only be thinking of the one thing that you’re saying. You collapse all that you know down to the one thing that you’re saying. Whereas in your intuitive unconscious mind, your brain is bringing together twenty, thirty, even a thousand strands—from memory, from experience, and so on.”
That’s the theme of this SIX at 6: the very sophisticated things your brain is doing when you are doing nothing…
Random Episodic Silent Thought
Brain imaging technologies date back to the late 1880s and for decades, researchers used them incorrectly. They designed studies to include an “experimental” group and a “control” group. The experimental group would always do something. If exploring the brain regions needed for creativity, for instance, subjects might do a word association test. Meanwhile, the control group would do nothing. Always, they were instructed to lie down and “rest” with their eyes closed. Then, in 1995, Dr. Nancy Andreasen was designing her first brain-imaging study when she realized that it didn’t make sense to have the control group “rest.” “My brain,” Dr. Andreasen writes, “is often at its most active when I stretch out on a bed or sofa and close my eyes.” So Dr. Andreasen conducted the first study of brain activity when in a “resting state.” In essence, Dr. Andreasen was the first to ask, what is our brain doing when we are doing nothing?
“We found activations in multiple regions of the association cortex,” she writes. “We were not [seeing] a passive silent brain during the ‘resting state,’ but rather a brain that was actively connecting thoughts and experiences.” Essentially, Dr. Andreasen demonstrated that the brain defaults to creativity. When you are doing absolutely nothing, the brain engages in what she termed “random episodic silent thought” or…REST. And during REST, the brain “uses its most human and complex parts.”
Let The Unwatched Pot Boil
In a piece in the New Yorker, after a number of anecdotes about people having a creative breakthrough when they weren’t consciously thinking about their ideas, the mathematician Dan Rockmore writes, “an initial period of concentration—conscious, directed attention—needs to be followed by some amount of unconscious processing…the key to solving a problem is [to] move the problem to the back burner, to let the unwatched pot boil.”
The Can’t-Do-Anything Rule
Raymond Chandler, Dr. Suess, George Lucas, Walker Percy, and many other writers all have or had a similar habit. They gave themselves two options: 1) You don’t have to write. 2) You can’t do anything else. Chandler explained: “The important thing is that there should be a space of time time, say four hours a day at least, when a writer doesn’t do anything else but write. He doesn’t have to write, and if doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor. But he is not to do any other positive thinking—not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks. Either write or nothing.” Either write or random episodic silent thought. When those are your only options, Chandler said, you will write “just to keep from being bored. I find it works. Two very simple rules: a. You don’t have to write. b. You can’t do anything else.”
Where Ideas Come From
The prolific Neil Gaiman was once asked where he gets all his ideas. “From daydreaming,” he said. “You get ideas from being bored.” From random episodic silent thinking. “The trouble these days is that it’s really hard to get bored. I have 2.4 million people on Twitter who will entertain me at any moment…it’s really hard to get bored.” If there’s any difference between him and less creative people, he said, “I’m much better at putting my phone away, going for boring walks, actually trying to find the [time and] space to get bored in. That’s what I’ve started saying to people who say ‘I want to be a writer,’ I say, ‘great, get bored.’”
Sit With Boredom
Robert Greene once told me that there’s a dividing line between success and failure: the ability to sit with boredom. Great creative work, he said, is the product of a very tedious process—hours & hours of thinking, researching, and daydreaming. You have to be able to be bored, he said. You have to be able to do some random episodic silent thinking. You have to be able to let the unwatched pot boil. You have to be able to do nothing.