How can you learn to think more deeply?
When pushing our thought beyond what we know, my experience is that we need to loosen our grip on the tiller. By grasping too hard, we close off access to the parts of the mind that yield creativity and insight. The real process of discovery is not made in full view of our conscious minds: we have to trust the unconscious, even when we feel as if we are stuck or “struggling.”
It should be no surprise that this is hard to do. Our feelings of confidence and security are largely built upon western metaphors like standing on firm ground and having a concrete grasp of things. By way of contrast, the psychologist Carl Jung’s chosen metaphor for the unconscious mind was water: knowable from experience, and yet ungraspable.
To answer your question, we will explore three aspects of unconscious learning:
- How the creative process feels
- How to direct the process of discovery
- Methods for tapping the unconscious.
Sailing into a squall
Like mental overwhelm, squalls at sea are usually a mental challenge more than a threat to life and limb. A squall can hit quickly and ferociously. Suddenly the boat and her crew are thrown into violent chaos, with gusts strong enough to shred sails, and sudden shifts of wind direction that can confuse a helmsman. This is often topped with torrential rain, and wind chill that sucks the heat and calm out of people. The time to deal with a squall is not when it hits: by then its too late.
Putting ourselves in the shoes of an experienced skipper, he knows the indicators of a squall and what to do. He has been scanning the horizon, as a matter of habit. He sees the tell-tale sight of a conspicuously tall cloud with its menacing dark underbelly smearing the horizon. Looking up above him, he sees the clouds moving fast towards his position and decides to act fast. Sometimes these clouds will yield an anticlimactic wind drop; but at other times it will pack a Tyson-grade knock-out.
As it could be on top of them quickly, the skipper instructs the crew to reef down the sail area and ready the boat for the worst that might happen. Donning rain jackets, the crew feel in good spirits. As the squall hits, he watches its attempt to frighten them with its howling through the rigging, loudly flogging the sails and lashing their faces with rain. Confident in the boat and his ready crew, he can just ride it out, marvelling at the forces of nature.
In the ocean of your mind, your conscious thoughts are like that sail boat heading for a squall. The squall is only a temporary overwhelm that comes from the deep stirrings of unseen forces, revealing themselves to you as emotion. Your rational self-talk is that of the skipper’s, either trusting that all will be well or imagining the worst and focusing on your fear of the unknown.
Confusion & re-calibrating what progress feels like
You can’t think your way out of confusion. I’m sure you know that by now, or at least you know it’s not always the fastest way to make progress. But if you can’t always think it through, what can you do? There’s that itch to grab the tiller firmly again!
Steven Pressfield has helpfully named the collective forces that conspire to confuse our minds in the face of a creative challenge: he calls it “resistance.” His book The War of Art explores resistance and how to beat it, and is essential reading for navigating creatively difficult waters.
Why am I speaking of creativity? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is famous for his research on the optimal inner state of peak performance that he called “flow” and which he also applied to creativity. Although he defines (pure) creativity as originating ideas that transcend what is currently known by all humanity, the idea of invoking the right mental state to think creatively also applies to personal discovery.
All learning is a journey of discovery, by making mental leaps between previously unconnected concepts and experience, and adding new knowledge that might inspire new connections. These connections between ideas and concepts comprise your mental map of how the world works. To “imagine” something that you cannot currently understand (or “see”), you have to find another way of seeing the problem.
Iain McGilchrist narrating RSA Animate’s video summary of his book, “The Master and His Emissary,” a story of the left and right hemispheres, told through the two lenses of neuro-scientific research and human history.
Iain McGhilchrist explains in the video above the misconceptions about our left and right brains. He characterises the left brain as our grasping brain: it allows us to pay narrow focused attention to things, using its simplified theories of how the world works. Using these mental maps of the world, we can navigate easily what we already know from experience. The problem of course comes when we encounter the unknown.
Our right hemisphere is concerned with what might be; it wants to make sense of our connection with the world, and is concerned with living things (unlike the grasping brain’s fascination with mechanical things). It enables a sustained broad alertness to what is all around us, scanning the environment (physically and metaphorically) and remaining open to change. It seeks to embody meaning in our relationship with the world.
McGilchrist asserts that our modern world is too dominated by left hemisphere thought, whether in the guise of scientific reductionism or an organisations’ obsession with compartmentalised expertise and efficiency. Its therefore not surprising that our education system and culture reinforces the left hemisphere’s grasping and controlling nature over the right’s open and connecting nature.
But how can we calibrate our mental states between left- or right-hemisphere modes of thought? Not so easily: we use both all the time. But I think a potential guide is your level of discomfort (or struggle). That feel of grasping for something that’s not there is your left-hemisphere’s fight for dominance: it wants to know and be in control. Stick with the discomfort.
Letting go of familiar thinking
Growth comes from going to the edges of what you know or can do. And then going beyond those edges. Which raises the question, “How can you navigate mental journeys into the unknown?”
In your case, the waters may be new to you but they are not uncharted, since you are guided by writers whose ideas you are exploring. You are tracing their steps. But since you are travelling to these destinations of thought for the first time, you will either need the right frames of reference from your current experience, or you will have to build new ones. There is no short cut to real understanding.
For quite a few years, I was obsessed with the thrill of motorcycles and started taking to the race track to learn how to ride properly. I enrolled in a course to learn the art of fast cornering through the California Superbike School franchise in the UK. I ended up doing all four of their 1 day courses. What is interesting in retrospect is the learning process employed. To ride a motorcycle fast round corners is not an intuitive act for most people, because the physics of a motorcycle require you to do the opposite of what feels right. You have to unlearn bad habits of thought and skill.
I remember vividly the first day of training. We were instructed to ride at 70% of our maximum speed at all times, so as not to overwhelm our brains by riding at our limit as we try to learn new tricks. The day was split into classroom theory lessons followed by on-track drills. Each drill trained a single element of fast cornering, so that we had just one variable to think about and play with on track. Skills were layered one on top of the other, requiring increased complexity of thinking and action.
Central to every drill was the goal of over-riding your survival reactions with new thoughts and behaviours. Survival reactions make you do the wrong thing, as police investigations of bike accidents show. The typical accident on country roads involves summer leisure riders. A slower member of the pack is chasing to keep up. He enters a bend going too fast (according to his self talk), and either brakes or throttles off as he panics mid bend. Either he grabs too much front break and loses traction, hitting the deck, or he runs wide into oncoming traffic or off the road.
The physics of the situation (if you know them) tell you what you should do, but your survival instincts tell you something else. The survival brain says, “slow down” as your self preservation instinct kicks in, and you find yourself braking or throttling off to slow things down. The physics of the bike, however, mean that the transfer of weight from back to front wheel will reduce available traction at the front. The front tyre has a smaller contact patch that the rear, but is carrying more of the load now. With available grip split between cornering forces and braking forces, the front tyre will easily become overloaded by heavy braking. Or if you throttle off, the turning forces on the bike change as the engine revs reduce and the bike starts to try and stand up straight, causing the bike to veer off wide with no other rider input.
So the training drills allow you to experiment with moving your focus of attention around on one thing at a time. As you take a deep breath and over-ride your instincts, bit by bit you gain confidence in the new behaviour. And hey presto, your map of the riding world changes and your modified thoughts and behaviours gradually become adopted as the default habitual response.
Whilst knowledge work - and intellectual thought - is not usually thought of as having a physical dimension, I think you can introduce it as I will explain below. Most forms of knowledge have an observable or physical or experiential dimension. But regardless of whether you are physically experimenting with ideas, there will be fears, beliefs and existing mental theories that are being challenged. If you are struggling, as you should be, they need to be unlearned and modified to make progress. And your fear instincts may be sabotaging your efforts unconsciously. Thoughts like, “I’m not smart enough” or, “I was never good at X” or “this is beyond me” are like versions of self preservation instincts, designed to let us off the hook and reduce pain.
Don’t get me wrong: whilst I agree with Carol Dweck’s theory of optimal learning, and advocate adopting a “growth mindset” over a “fixed capability mindset,” I’m not saying that anyone can achieve any feat of understanding. There are limits to our talents. My point is that our limits are usually far beyond our ability to imagine them. Just like the track rider at a race school who discovers that the limit to improving his track times is his mastery of mind and skill, and not the bike’s performance, so too will your prowess in deep thinking be constrained by your mastery of your mind.
Pushing beyond boundaries requires trust: we don’t want to go places where we think we will die (even if only metaphorically). Trust is tested in acts of courage: putting yourself at risk, taking leaps of faith, and believing that all will be well.
Heading in a direction, not for a destination
Sticking with our sailing metaphor, every yacht has a log book. At the top of each log book page, it asks you where you are “departing from” and “heading towards.” There is wisdom embedded in this seemingly inconsequential tradition.
Heading out to sea on a journey that takes you out of sight of land, you are for all intents and purposes alone. Self sufficiency dictates that you be prepared for the unexpected, whether in the form of some kind of trouble or a mere change of heart. Trouble could take the form of an engine failure when starting it after the wind has died, with tidal currents sweeping you off course. A change of heart could be brought on by a beautiful sunset as you approach harbour, when the decision to drop anchor off the beach in perfect conditions beats the idea of a night bobbing up and down over the constant wash of traffic in a busy harbour.
So a yacht’s log doesn’t ask you for your destination, only for your direction of travel. There are too many unknowns for your destination to be a certainty. More importantly, your mindset needs to be open to whatever happens. Writing in the log book the direction you are traveling towards, triggers two mental anchors for a skipper’s thought process: being aware of the changing situation, and being open to alternatives.
Too rigid a fixation on getting to harbour in strengthening on-shore winds, and you could find yourself fighting a loosing battle against strong currents, whilst crashing through tall wind-over-tide swells that pile physical strain on top of the tiredness of your crew. One thing can all too easily lead to another, in a causal chain towards making a MAYDAY call.
Experienced skippers know to keep their options and minds open. They have studied the different ports of call close to the intended destination. They will contain their ambitions for a trip according the experience and expectations of the crew. And since a cruising skipper’s goal is to have fun, he is always on the look-out for opportunities to do so.
The attitude to learning in the face of complexity, demands a similar approach. Destination goals can’t be rigidly determined before you start, since you don’t know what mental difficulties you will encounter. An open mind is required, and that means accepting whatever your mental journey throws at you, and rolling with it. You may need to make diversions to get to your destination, or you may find short cuts that you didn’t expect. All you can know in advance, is that no two A to B sea journeys (unlike on firm land) are ever the exact same. Conditions - in the learner’s mind - are always different, and the maps of knowledge and experience they contain are unique. Some journeys will be plain sailing. Some will be challenging and hard at the time, but will offer an inner afterglow from the satisfaction of battling towards a goal.
The unconscious mind: your user manual
There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that you’re going to need to continue with your struggles. But there’s good news too: we are learning about the brain at an exponential rate at the moment, as you can’t have failed to notice.
A good starting point is the book Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking by Richard Nisbett. It’s available on the Kindle reader and in Audible’s audio form, narrated by the author. It provides research-based theories and cheerful encouragement, that can help us confidently side-step the myriad pitfalls of thought that the unconscious mind throws in our path. It doesn’t promise any more than it can deliver, which is the knowledge that there is really no manual but rather just a path of awareness and conscious effort. Personally, I felt comforted at least to realise that I can’t drive my mind in the way that I drive a car, using deliberate practice to develop unconscious skill. Skills can be honed this way, but thought is more mysterious. However, you will learn to trust and tap your unconscious the more you become aware of its workings.
If you’re interested in complexity and the linkage with learning, another good book is The Art of Learning by Joshua Waitzkin, a chess grand master and Tai Chi world champion. In this book, he journals his experiences of learning to learn in both the mental and physical realms, which it turns out are not so separate in reality. He has a lot to say about the unconscious, and its opaque workings, and of the process of self mastery.
I will finish with a tip from Joshua Waitzkin, taken I think from an interview by Tim Ferris (Google Tim Ferriss’ podcast) or maybe his Google HQ talk (also on YouTube). Josh, if I may be so familiar as to call him that, teaches his clients to cultivate the habit of writing in a journal. I’ve experimented with this and it works better the more you do it (so perhaps I’m contradicting my statement above about unconscious competence?).
Paraphrasing, in his book Josh talks about deliberately avoiding the temptation to work ‘too hard’ at thinking things through. Instead, he advises us to let the unconscious take the reins. Richard (he sounds like a Richard on the Audible recording) advises the same. Nothing new in that: we all know that creative insights and leaps of imagination tend to take place when we are not thinking about the problems or ideas that we are trying to explore.
Josh teaches us how to build disciplines that lead to better access to our unconscious mind’s creativity. He suggests that we ask a question to our unconscious at the end of every working day, focused on a complex issue that we are trying to resolve. The next morning, he advises taking 30 minutes first thing, to brainstorm in writing whatever comes to mind on that problem.
Since first starting to experiment with this a few years ago, I’ve been waking up regularly with ideas in the middle of the night. I’ve captured fully formed solutions in the morning, just as I was emerging from sleep. And as the journal practice became habitual (my journal being captured in Evernote, which I have taken the time to learn to use well), the process of capture seemed to get less in the way of the creative ideas I was trying to surface. It takes practice, like most things.
However, often the shoots of an emerging new thought find it hard to push through into our conscious awareness. They can be just below the surface of consciousness, frustratingly out of reach. Quite often, when I’m researching a subject by reading books or academic papers in search of connections or insights, a tentative thought will be just beyond my comprehension or ability to articulate it, and surface as a feeling. I find this is a good time to just let go, perhaps asking a question as you do so. Later something will bob up to the surface of thought, perhaps not seemingly linked to your initial question (perhaps it was the wrong question?). The more you trust this process of unconscious enquiry, the more you will notice the subtle but detectable energy flows of your unconscious mind.
A final tip of my own on journaling. By learning to habitually mind map (or doodle if you can draw) your emerging thoughts, you can unconsciously mine for connections and insight. As you map out a problem or subject, seek to simplify and reduce your understanding to its essence. Keep redrawing your maps as your understanding and thinking matures, always trying to find the simplest formulation. You don’t need to look at most of these maps ever again, but some you will return to as you detect the scent of an emerging understanding or idea.
Since the mind stores information in the form of associations, we can understand the mind as a network of constantly changing connections between concepts, people, places, time, sensory experiences and so on. We can borrow here, from the worlds of linguistics and psychology, some methods that will help our thinking process.
‘Chunking’ is a useful way to zoom in and out on a subject as you seek out the right perspective and focus with which to see your thinking with clarity. As explained by Steven Pinker in his book The Sense of Style, “There are two ways in which thoughts can lose their moorings in the land of the concrete. One is called chunking. Human working memory can hold only a few items at a time.” He then explains that we can probably only hold 3 or 4 items in our working memory, before going on to say, “Fortunately, the rest of the brain is equipped with a work-around for this bottleneck. It can package ideas into bigger and bigger units, which the psychologist George Miller dubbed “chunks.” Each chunk, no matter how much information is packed inside of it, occupies a single slot in working memory.” He then illustrates with an example of chunking, that I have slightly simplified here:
- Information requiring 12 slots of memory (near impossible to hold in working memory):
M D P H D R S V P C E O
- The same information requiring only 4 slots in memory, by ‘chunking’ the letters into familiar acronyms:
MD PHD RSVP CEO
- Finally the same information requiring one chunk in working memory by formulating a story:
“The MD with a PHD sent an RSVP to the CEO”
So with the aid of chunking, we can zoom in and out - capturing ideas with whatever notation works for us - without losing the underlying ideas or connections. As you draw maps, you can use this device to handle increasing complexity as your knowledge and familiarity grows, allowing you to hold and manipulate in working memory more complex ideas. Of course, you’d better have the Mindware book to hand as there are plenty of mental traps to fall into…
This process of mentally sifting connections and relationships, is a sort of loose enquiry method when you don’t have a well-formed question that you can ask yourself. But avoid pushing too hard on a closed door, and going into cognitive melt-down: as soon as fatigue sets in, mentally or in the form of physical tension, then move for a bit: do anything that gets your mind off topic, and your body active.
Pinker’s book is primarily about writing, but since we often understand our own minds best when we articulate our thoughts, there is a lot to be learned. He explains with great clarity the complexity of putting ideas into words, both in terms of the neuroscience behind this process and the use of language: i.e. the order of words determined by the rules of syntax.