“Sometimes thinking is a bad idea” – Ian Leslie

Here is the deal.

There is a fragility of mental process when it comes to coming up with ‘the idea.’  Ok. Maybe it’s not a fragility but t is certainly a tenuous mysterious process.

But research has shown <yeah … I found some more research> that it’s not that there is any decline in mental capabilities but rather the mind becomes overwhelmed with self-conscious.

Huh? In other words the mind is thinking when it should be its best by … well … non thinking. Therefore, research suggests, too much thinking can kill inspiration.

How ‘bout that my friends?

Ian Leslie sates “it is a fundamental paradox of human psychology that thinking can be bad for us.”

By following our own thoughts too closely we can lose our bearings as our inner chatter drowns out common sense.

Whew.

When I saw/read this I wish I could have presented I immediately to the leaders in the Fortune 500 companies.

“Thinking drown out common sense.”

Ok. Some proof <for the doubters among you>.

A study of shopping behavior states that the less information people were given about a brand the better choice they made.

Specifically <and this will matter to those marketers who like to give gobs of minutiae to people believing it will help them make a better choice> … when offered full ingredient details the consumer got confused by their options <unable to discern differences and importance> and actually ended up choosing a product they did not like <i.e., people were forcing themselves to select on a criteria that was not really ‘heart preference’ but rather “head <logical> preference.” And they were not happy in the end when they used.

All that said it simply suggests that we can be too clever for our own good trying to figure out patterns and what we are ‘supposed’ to do … rather than what maybe our common sense suggests we should do.

The research also shows that by leaning on our instinct we seem to be able to tap into some kind of compressed wisdom.

A psychologist, Gerd Gigerenzer, argues that much of our behavior is based on some internal sophisticated rule-of-thumb compass (“heuristics”).

He also says “to make good decisions in a complex world you have to be skilled at ignoring information.”  Awesome.

Imagine sitting around with a group of management and suggest we teach our people to ignore information <the correlation being just as bad … “maybe we should invest less time creating irrelevant information that will need to be ignored anyway and use the time to make the best decision”>.

Wow.

Either one is likely to get you fired.

Ok.

I am sure in my generalization I have ignored that there is a balance. And people need to not only be skilled at ignoring information but also assessing what information to gather versus gathering unneeded information.

Anyway.

Leslie also found in his research that a portfolio of stocks picked by people in the street did better than those chosen by experts. People on the street selected by ‘recognition’ <companies they had heard of> which actually turned out to be a better criteria than experts analyzing price-earnings ratios.

<score one for the everyday person!>

Anyway. Here is the tricky part.

Study after study states that “those who trust their feelings and make better selections” only did so when they had some prior knowledge. This is the balance thing I mentioned.

Ian Leslie states “unthinking is not the same as ignorance.”

In other words. You cannot unthink if you have not already thought <or learned>.

As he states … the unconscious minds of the most knowledgeable are like “dense rainforests sending up spores of inspiration.”

Ok. Next.

The higher the stakes the more overthinking is a problem.

Suffice it to say we live in an era of overthinking. We are encouraged by an unrelenting issuing of self-help books telling us to self-reflect, we analyze every aspect of our work and life and think about every action we take … or even think about taking.

We comment on every aspect of our lives online and constantly read article after article about what makes us happy … and unhappy.

The truth? The culmination of life may actually be found in the “careless joy.” Yup. All that thinking and planning and listing just may not lead you to happiness. And just may lead you to more … well … thinking.

In other words … in trying to solve problems we may have actually created problems. We overthought where maybe instincts would have been better for us. Interestingly that is not a new thought:

“it is an affair of instincts, we did not know we had them: we valued ourselves as cool calculators, we were very fine with our learning and culture, with our science that was o no country and our religion of peace … and now a sentiment mightier than logic, wide as light, strong as gravity, reaches into the college, the bank, the farmhouse, and the church. It is the day of the populace; they are wiser than their teachers.  – Ralph Waldo Emerson 1861

Instincts are a powerful thing.

There is a new book called Imagine: How Creativity Works <by Jonah Lehrer> who asks where good ideas come from.

Many of us think all credit for mysterious creativity went to faith, fortune and some fortunate few.

John Lehrer argues that to assume creativity is some lofty trait enjoyed by the few is both foolish and unproductive.

Drawing from a wide array of scientific and sociological research—and everything from the poetry of W.H. Auden to the films of Pixar—he makes a convincing case that innovation cannot only be studied and measured, but also nurtured and encouraged.

Me? I buy it. Creativity is often found in some fairly random nooks and crannies of different people. Oh. And it may not be ongoing … some people are good for one creative idea in their lifetime … and that is it. And others are just, well, damn good at it.

Now. My caveat thought is that some people are better at it than others. Some people are better at supporting <putting someone in position> the creation of creativity and some people are better at actually generating the creativity.

Regardless. It can be nurtured. We certainly understand that when workers are actually pushed to take regular breaks, i.e., time away from a problem, it can help spark a moment of insight. Research has proven this. Why? This is because interrupting work with a relaxing activity seems to permit the mind to turn inward into the subconscious or maybe better said … places within the mind where information is stored that when thinking, or consciously ‘noodling’, the information is not obviously relevant.  And in that down time the brain can subconsciously puzzle over subtle meanings and connections <the brain is incredibly busy unthinking>.

“That’s why so many insights happen when taking showers,” says Joydeep Bhattacharya, a psychologist at University of London.

The reason why this approach works—and why it has been imitated by other companies such as Google—is because many breakthroughs come when people venture beyond their area of expertise. Often it takes an outsider to ask the kind of dumb questions that may yield an unconventional solution.

Note: that is a different version of unthinking.

Oh.

And this is why young people tend to be the most innovative thinkers in nearly any field. It can be technology, engineering, architecture, physics or music. The ignorance of youth creates some real creative advantages.

Note: that is a different version of unthinking.

Ok.

So. I believe we all know imagination, or creativity, is not a totally conscious process. We know this despite the fact there are entire libraries of books written on how to maximize the creative process and ‘build imaginative thinking.’

As an expert suggested: New knowledge may incubate subconsciously when a person has surplus attention to focus on recombining memory and external stimuli into new meanings. Most people tend to spend a great deal of time while they are awake “daydreaming”. This may be enough to activate our default network, a web of autobiographical mental imagery, which may provide new connections and perspectives about a problem we have been concerned with.

Unguided imagination through dreaming and “daydreaming” enables the gathering of information from different parts of our memory, which may not be easy to access consciously. This information may come from a within a narrow domain or a much wider field. The more imagination takes account of the wider field, experience, and prior knowledge, the more likely these ideas created through imagination will have some originality – through complex knowledge restructuring. Creative insight occurs mostly as the result of triggers and slow incubation periods that lead to a revelation.

<good stuff>

Ultimately this means a revelation occurs through different forms of unthinking (or a different raveling, rather than unraveling, of the facts). I sometimes call this “the ability to align disparate pieces of information.” Unthinking means just that. The mind stops unraveling all the <what is supposed to be> relevant information and instead ‘re-ravels’ a new string of information.

For example:

– Einstein developed his insight for the theory of relativity through imagining what would happen if he traveled at the speed of light.

– Faraday claimed to have visualized force lines from electric and magnetic fields from a wood fire giving insight into the theory of electromagnetic fields.

– Kekulé reported that he gained insight into the shape of the benzene molecule after he imagined a snake coiled up in a circle.

Regardless. The bottom line.

Sometimes thinking is overrated <who would have ever thunk I would ever write that>.

Some truths:

To think sometimes you have to unthink.

To think sometimes you need less information than more.

And, in the end, I think the people who do not really understand how to think do not understand how to unthink.

And maybe that is the point of this post.

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Written by Bruce