Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1882:
QUIETING THE CONVERSATION

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we try to quiet a conversation. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The questioner asked me, "You said we have to be receptive to the passing idea -- the idea we catch out of the corner of our eye. Well, how do I get into a mental state where I can do that?"

That really is the 64-dollar question, isn't it! I said, "We need to turn off the endless conversation running in our heads." Easily said, but that's also difficult. How many times have we all sat down to work on a nagging problem by formulating it in words or equations -- and then wound up running in circles?

The great nineteenth-century psychologist William James used to argue with his Harvard colleagues over whether thought was possible without words. He knew perfectly well it was, but many of his colleagues did not. For them, thinking had to be verbal.

We do have to work systematically when we're wrestling with something that yields to process -- like a calculation. But that's death when we look for a new idea. New ideas always enter from the corner of our eye. If they didn't, they wouldn't be new.

Through the ages we've found many means for turning off our own mental noise. The Buddhists ask us to block out the racket by focusing upon a minimal contemplation object. Various Christians use repetitive rosaries, walking a Labyrinth, or singing plainchant. Hindus often chant the name of a god or gods, over and over. But they all provide a subdued focus that overrides our mental chatter.

When the Romantic poets looked for a creative mental state, they found it in the brief period of reverie that we enter between waking and sleeping. For sleep will not arrive until all our formulating has been stilled. A very creative colleague tells me that he does some of his best work before sleep, simply because he's separated from his pencil and paper.

I too can say, categorically, that I don't deduce new ideas. And I'll bet you know the same thing from your own experience. I can trace all my really fresh ideas to such moments -- a concert where the music was good enough to put me at ease, yet not quite interesting enough to awaken my analytical interest.

States of tedium can often be useful. Driving a car, for example, takes just enough focus to break up any serious analytical attack on a problem. I put the question to another creative friend at lunch. He said that a tedious seminar often provides him with a fine spur to his best thinking.

But that friend also stressed the importance of pencil and paper. It should be completely obvious that formal work is crucial. Process is like the steppingstones across a stream. Solidity has to be there, but we cannot get across without making unaided leaps.

An interesting corollary question might be, "Who among us doesn't wish for a week of uninterrupted thought!" I have a sinking feeling that, if I ever find that state of grace, I'll end up spending the time sharpening pencils and getting ready to think.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.