Archive for the ‘imagination’ Category

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today I was intrigued by a programme on inspiration and genius.  Intuition is often mistaken for inspiration because it is that fast recognition of a connection between one thing and another, a couple of ideas, or notions.  But most people agree with Einstein: Intuition is simply the sum of all your experiences. As the Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman points out in his recent book , intuition is fast thinking. It evolved so that we could respond without delay to threats, but it can be very misleading, and needs to be used carefully in conjunction with our slower thinking processes, to double check the evidence. But inspiration is different from intuition. Certainly , it always comes to people who are well prepared, who have spent hours and weeks, even months pondering a problem. So the idea that it is 99% perspiration is probably valid. It’s not just a fast response based on past experience either.  When people try to study others who have been inspired, they also find that the unconscious plays a big part in effective processing. Why because often that is where we reframe the way we understand  the world. To cope with the world  on a day to day basis, we have to put boundaries around events, ideas, abstractions, concepts.  We grasp what is important about situations and have a sense of the limitations. But if we change the shape of those boundaries, new connections and possibilities have a chance to emerge. We see things in a different light, look at them through a different lens, figure them in a novel way.  We make connections ACROSS categories, and go beyond previously understood constraints.  That’s why dreams are often a helpful process for inspiration. Another alternative path to inspiration is a change in context combined with a change in the type of mental activity you are engaged in.   Some scientists get break throughs when, after hours of mental focus, pondering, researching and examining a problem, they change state. That can involve sitting peaceably in a garden or in the countryside. Marcus de Sautoy in one of the recent BBC TV programmes called the Story of Maths admitted that he often solved apparently intractable mathematical puzzles as a result of talking a walk.  All of that seems within the bounds of possibility, for many of us.  We can certainly imagine how all the detailed information and stimulus to thought, the multiple alternative perspectives, challenges to boundaries, opportunities for distraction offered via the social media would do a good job of supporting these aspects of inspiration.

But that isn’t all, apparently. A powerful driver for the inspiration behind genius seems to be something akin to extreme introversion – the desire to spend long periods in intense and singular concentration, in isolation with one’s own thoughts. This is often combined with the ability to tolerate the deep anxiety associated with uncertainty and searching for something unknown.  Creative people often pursues their interests alone, they have the courage to see the world differently and look for ways to challenge accepted beliefs and boundaries. Some may feel that the associated sensations are almost the edge of madness.  Certainly great inventors admit to being so devoted to their search that they drive themselves almost to the point of illness, working with such focus that everything else becomes inconsequential.  However, I wonder if these final pre-conditions for inspiration and genius are damaged by continuous participation in the social media?  In these times where being social seems to have become an essential facet of identity, where constant activity is valued more than slow thinking, intensely pondering a problem, will societies produce less inspiration? Will genius be even more rare?  If you read Nicholas Carr,’s book the Shallows, perhaps the answer is yes. Carr’s argument is that the internet is rewiring our brains, so that we are excited by continuous new input, but less able to concentrate for long periods of time; more disposed to follow prevailing opinion, but less interested in marginal ideas; we prefer to externalize problem solving, rather than internalise the anxiety; we spend hours socialising with others on line, but less time close to nature or in quiet contemplation with lack of stimulus.  Daniel Wegner’s research suggests that dependence on computers is affecting our memory (thanks to Susan Frost for that link). One can only imagine the long term consequences for knowledge economies that do not invest time and effort in encouraging contemplation, spending less time with the computer and more in physical activity.

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The Forum, a podcast  from the  BBC World Service, which claims to ”splice together the strands of disparate ideas”.  What a find for someone interested in connections and contradictions!  All I had to do, today, was to paint a bland line of balustrades, with unimaginative white gloss,  so imagine my delight. Here, I  had the chance to liven  up that plaster canvas by listening to the musings of an international line up of thinkers from the Nobel Laureate economist Prof. Amatya Sen on justice, the author Henning Mankell on imagination, and child campaigner Camila Batmanghelidjh founder of Kids Company, about how she works with violent teenagers to try to reshape their mental landscape by giving them the chance to imagine what society has been unable to give them, a connection with calm.   Listen for yourself; it’s an elegant trilogy of arguments, with some surprising moments, and the participants really do connect the disparate strands in all sorts of ways.     

 Three things stuck in my mind for the rest of the afternoon, which  probably aren’t the things that would excite anyone else, but a blog seems to be a great place for me to capture my thinking, however raw so that I can come back to it later. 

Overall, I liked the way the programme focused on the thinking of each of the people in turn, and gave them a chance to have their say, but each person came back to a common theme which was around a circle of tensions associated with between theory and practice, action and reflection.    A further lovely but unexpected connection was that Henning clearly was clearly taken with Camila’s ideas and wanted to build on the radio conversation, which prompted Camila to invite him round for a cup of tea in Peckham when he was next in the UK. 

  • Professor Sen’s arguments that by trying to define the ideal when it comes to justice, we too easily lose sight of the value of action in creating a better world. If we can progressively eliminate injustices as we find them, we keep moving towards a goal, even though we can’t define precisely what that is.   Action is certainly the priority of business. Perhaps. what we are currently dealing in in business, is the fall out of from the opposite approach to the dilemma?   Maybe the current economic crisis arose because some placed too much emphasis on practice and not enough on ideals in terms of sustainability.  I believe we should always have something to aspire to.  It seems to me that theoretical ideals and practice are so intricately connected that we neglect to keep both in mind at the same time at our peril.  
  • Henning Mankells point about the spaces in which we discuss moral issues started me thinking about how societies have changed. Despite the fact that we have so many opportunities to connect electronically, we often seem to be so much more disconnected from one another emotionally. The conversation circles and fora in which wise elders or caring communities came together to tell the stories about what matters to them, and debate different points of view have largely been lost in our modern world. Although they still exist in more intimately connected societies.  We can do things faster, but do we ponder them enough, I wonder?  Of course, anyone can have their say on anything through the blogosphere, so we have the benefit of so many more ideas and perspectives. Yet despite this option for more democratic voice, for creative input,  are we really influenced by wisdom and the connections to our communities or the volume of ill-informed and lemming like opinion?   It seems like quantity might compromise quality in some cases.           
  • Sadly, violence is a source of calm for some of the teennagers that Camila  Batmanghelidjh works with. Seems a contradiction in terms. Yet sadly no one has ever given these youngsters an alternative mental release valve.  The rewards of reflection and imagination are beyond their mindset.  Immediate action in response to their feelings is the way through.   Yet those elected to think through solutions to the problem often spend hours in democratic discussion without any practical solution emerging. I loved Camila’s provocative suggestion that politicians would be more imaginative if they thought on the move. (She suggested roller skates, but it really stretches the imagination to think of some members of our Government on blades!)  Upon reflection, I know activity definitely helps me make mental connections. I can speak more fluently while pacing the floor,  think more creatively while swimming, or remember more of the day if I physically meander while my mind does the same.  Apparently, research has shown that our theoretical apparatus works better when we are physically in motion.  Ultimately the link between theory and practice is embodied! Fascinating.

The painting got done, the activity proved to be more thought provoking than I had expected, and it provided some material to reflect on for my very first blog post.

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