Tortoises, Hares, and Creativity
Revised from a previous post on the yahoogroup SG1badfic.
I'm reading a really interesting book that seems to have applications toward writing and creativity, and it prompted a few musing of my own I thought I'd share. The book that prompted all this is called Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, by Guy Claxton.
We all are aware by now that we have two ways of thinking. We're familiar with the left brain/right brain terminology, and the idea that the left brain is verbal, logical and abstract, following rules and structures and not terribly creative. The right brain mode of thinking is usually intuitive, holistic and specific, and creative.
Claxton very specifically doesn't use that terminology, because although it is familiar to us, it is technically inaccurate. The different modes of thinking have nothing to do with the physical structure of the brain. Claxton deliberately doesn't use a single term for the "right brain" mode of thinking, but it maps pretty clearly to the tortoise mind of the title, so that is the terminology I'll use to make it easier to discuss here. Claxton rather consistently uses "d mode" to describe the left brain mode, but for symmetry I'm going to use "hare brain."
The hare brain is the one we think about first when we say we have to think about an issue. When you sit down and consciously work through the pros and cons of a situation and come to a decision, you're using the hare brain. The tortoise mind is the way of thinking that lets you drive a car while holding a conversation (the hare brain talks, the tortoise mind drives) and the part of the mind that comes up with the answer when you suddenly see an "ah-ha!" solution to a problem that has been bugging you for days.
None of this is really news.
But some of the specifics from the book are news, or, at least, news to me.
One idea which Claxton described that really interested me was that people who make good use of the tortoise mind (and, interestingly, it seems that people who do rank higher on tests of creativity than those who don't) tend to keep a concept vague for a while. They don't immediately try to rush an idea or concept to its final, usable conclusion. To do that is to limit the possibilities. Instead, they sort of put the idea on the back burner. They don't forget about it, but they don't keep it in the forefront of the mind and worry at it with hare thinking, either. Also, Claxton says, some people are better at doing this than other people are.
This can be related to the perspective of writing, particularly when one reflects on the advice we so often see to "write every day." One writer (on a bulletin board) said that he did that, that he never got writer's block, and that he kept a list of "story titles" and could, whenever he didn't have a story idea, look over that list, pick a title, and write a story from it. I am, frankly, not terribly ambitious, and I haven't even tried to do the "write every day" thing. But that amazed me that he could do that. After reading what Claxton had to say, though, I think I see how he does it. That list is his simmering pot. And perhaps those who adhere to a schedule of writing every day manage to learn to keep that simmer steady and access the tortoise mind more easily than those who don't. However, anxiety noticeably decreases the ability to access the tortoise mind. Excessive pressure to write, whether self-generated or external, is also a bad thing.
So the tortoise thinking is a mode that takes practice to access. How then, can we practice? Is writing every day the only way?
Claxton asks us to imagine the brain as having routes which thoughts can take easily, worn like water carves valleys into rock. Some of the thought-valleys are shallow, because they don't get much wear, and others are deep, or wide, or both. For instance, if you have a friend, June, you have a number of different concepts about her. You have an image of her face that is non-specific enough you can recognize her even if she changes her hair or her glasses. But you also have very specific pictures of her in your mind--how shocked she looked at the surprise party, or that terrible haircut that she hated but had to just live with until it grew out, or whatever. That vague image of June that lets you recognize her is actually the most important, the most permanent (because it doesn't have to change when she changes her clothes or her expression) and it gets the deepest part of the valley. Her laugh might be a little higher in the walls, because she laughs a lot, but not all the time, and her reaction to the joke you told her yesterday is higher still, because it is more specific and limited, and therefore, worn less deeply. All of it together forms the gestalt that you think of when you think "June." And in the middle of this valley, you stick a flagpole with June's name on it, so that you don't have to delve through all of this when you hear her name, though you can if you want to.
Gradually, we put flagpoles up in most of our valleys. We have words for nearly every concept, and the hare brain likes to use just the words, because they're tidy and abstract, with none of the rough edges that make thinking messy and slow. But the tortoise takes all the different aspects of a concept in mind as it works. It doesn't just remember June as one thing, but as all of her. This tends to slow it down for complicated ideas, because there's a lot of ground to cover, but it allows it to make new and unexpected connections. Claxton doesn't say so, but this makes me think even more of the traditional left/right brain theory, and the fact that the right brain is usually not just quiet, but actively non-verbal, and I'm wondering if the tortoise is the same way. If so, this could be highly useful.
I've seen Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards recommended to writers, and based on what I'm reading from Claxton, it seems to be a valid recommendation. I would think that entering the right/tortoise brain mode would probably be beneficial any way you can get there, regardless of what you do once you've got it. Practice getting into that mode means that it will be easier to do it when you're trying to write.
If the tortoise mind is non-verbal, then perhaps shutting up the running monologue that lives most people's heads might be useful as well. Meditation is also often recommended as highly useful to creativity. If, when we think of "meditation" we put aside the idea of totally blanking the mind and simply attempt to silence the running monologue that the hare brain seems to enjoy sharing with us, but allow any "visual" thoughts that may happen, we may discover that meditation is easier than we previously believed, and we can meditate under less than ideal circumstances.
The most interesting and complex idea contained in Claxton's book is actually his basic premise. I haven't drawn any real conclusions related to writing from it, but I feel I would be doing him and his book a disservice if I were to conclude without mentioning it.
Claxton cites a great deal of experimental, anecdotal, and literary supporting material for the concepts he is explaining. One of those pieces of experimental data suggests that while the tortoise mind is generally slower than the hare brain, it is also faster. If you must make a split-second decision, it is usually the tortoise mind doing it.
That little piece of information seems very minor, but the whole premise of the book is built on it and other, similar information.
The premise of the book is ultimately that the hare brain is slower because it is a very small subset of our mind as a whole, not an equal or even dominant partner, as most dual-mode theories tend to imply. If the tortoise mind is the part doing all the processing and then passing information to the hare brain, as the data suggests, then of course the hare brain will be slower because it must wait for the processing to be finished, receive the results, and process them sufficiently to act on them. Claxton likens the hare brain to the monitor of a computer, while the tortoise mind is the processor itself. Our conscious thought is simply the part of the overall thought processes that are actually being shown to us. Which is why an answer can come to us apparently "fully formed" in a flash. The tortoise mind has finished processing and gives us the results in a sudden dump. This has wide ranging implications on how we should approach learning, uncertainty, intelligence and many other aspects of our mental life.
I'm letting my tortoise ponder the possibilities for a while. If anything comes to me, I'll let you know.