Friday, 3 February 2017

About Thinking

I had the great, inestimable, magnificent luxury of being able to take a sabbatical from work for four months at the end of last year. No emails, no meetings, no classes - just reading and writing. I accomplished a lot, but the thing I am most pleased about of all was that I was able to do a heck of a lot of just sitting and thinking about things carefully. It's easy to forget how unproductive you become if you are exposed to the constant drip-drip-drip of distractions that is the modern workplace. Doing anything really creatively good needs not just time but a certain type of time: your brain needs to get itself into a state that combines both relaxation with hard work.

You can hear a fascinating recent interview with David Gelemter on this topic if you are interested. The long and short of it is that our minds tend to switch between two modes of thinking - the rational, alert, analytical type ("up" thinking), and the mellow, sleepy, dreamy, intuitive type ("down" thinking). The reason why creating things is so difficult is that you need to combine both. You need to be able to let your mind wander in an uncontrolled free associative sort of way - that is, "down" thinking - because that's where inspiration comes from. "Up" thinking polices creativity too much through overanalysis. But at the same time you need to exert a certain rationality and analysis over the process to make things concrete and to judge what are the good ideas and the bad ones - and also to discipline yourself to producing the things that you are imagining. So to be productive - particularly productively creative - your brain needs to balance (or oscillate) between "up" and "down" modes.

You can't do this without extended periods of time so that you can find that balance/oscillation. Distractions break it.

I refer you back to my earlier post about the friendliness of boredom. If you want to create things, you need to get into a zone of stillness so you can think in a very special and careful way. As soon as you check your emails, your phone, or whatever, you get yanked out of that zone (it is almost a physical sensation) and you have to wait for a long time to get it back. Give in to distractions too often, and you never get into the zone at all.

One of the greatest challenges facing mankind today is distraction, and how it prevents proper thought.


  1. David Gelernter was related to me at one point and is a terrible terrible human being

    1. I'll take your word for that then. He comes across in the interview as a right weirdo but he's clearly got a lot of interesting things to say. I actually think most professors are sociopaths, and the higher up they are the more sociopathic they tend to be...

    2. He's a Jew at Yale who says the intellectual atmosphere at Yale is bad because too many Jews.
      And the other side of that family includes a guy who used to be in a Black Sabbath cover band with Dee Snider from Twisted Sister suggesting genetics and culture aren't quite the deterministic Blue Shells he'd like them to be

    3. I always say the intellectual atmosphere at most universities is bad because of too many academics and students.

    4. I am half serious. I think we have too many of the wrong kind of academics and students rather than too many per se. But that's just in Britain.

    5. I think when you get into supporting or defending "kinds of people" without specifics you pass into a category of talking and thinking so broad it's impossible to make provable or unprovable statements

    6. No opinion is really provable or unprovable. I think in general too many academics don't really care about education and too few students make the most of being there. It's in too many cases a kind of finishing school for the middle classes rather than a real educational experience. If you've got a degree it tells the world you are a certain type of person, and that's the reason I think a large number of students are there.

    7. That's not in any way true so long as you accept that levels of reality above brain-in-a-jar skepticism.
      Opinion: There is, above this comment, another comment containing the word "opinion"
      Evidence: Look right above the comment.
      Now vague statements of cause and effect like you just made are not provable or unprovable, but you could reformulate it in a provable or form and then make a useful form, like:

      "I think the reason that most graduates don't know this list of things I think are important is caused by having this motivation" and then do social science to find out if that motivation is remotely plausible.

    8. We've probably been through this before, but social science that purports to reveal that sort of thing is pretty much without exception bullshit. It's impossible to do effectively for all sorts of reasons. Intuition and experience will tell you a lot more than any purported "study". I deal with this sort of thing every day - I do it for a living. I don't need social science to tell me what I already know and observe daily.


      Let's try a simple example and avoid the scary phrase:
      "I think the reason that most graduates don't know this list of things I think are important is caused by having this motivation" and then vary a range of variables to find out if that motivation is remotely plausible.

      Or yet simpler, you can say "People do this because they believe that" then test if they actually believe that by seeing if they behave in a way that's consistent with believing it.

      Like if everyone who goes to university doesn't know the year of the fall of rome because they like BLues Traveler you can check to see if they listen to Blues Traveler when given the opportunity.

    10. 2nd problem: How do you know it's bullshit and your intuition is right if you can literally never check?

      You've created a self-sabotaging statement "I know I am right about things when I say I can never check if I am right about things"

    11. Zak, you can't do the things you suggest. It is literally not possible to do them. The history of the social sciences are basically an account of the epic struggle by social scientists to find some, desperate way to quantify and test things that are not quantifiable or testable - like beliefs.

      The idea that you could A: establish what "people" believe and B: observe their behaviour to see if they are consistent in it is completely absurd. Anthropologists devote their lives to trying to figure out those questions in tiny narrow contexts by living for years among small groups of hunter gatherers in the Amazon. You cannot do it with university students in anything like the kind of sample size that would be required. If you could come up with some sort of observational study design which managed to overcome the problems of small sample sizes, low power, omitted variables bias, etc. etc. then you would be the greatest genius of all time. People devote their whole professional careers to this sort of thing.

      2nd problem - it isn't a problem because I don't "literally never check". I always check because I work with students and academics every day and have done for years, and I talk about these sorts of issues with colleagues and students all the time. There's no study anybody could do that could trump that.

    12. Totally wrong:
      For example:
      I can check if you think the tea is in the cupboard by going "Hey David can I get a cup of tea?"
      If you go to the cupboard, then you think the tea is in the cupboard.
      You're wrong.
      It's very easy to prove things if you make careful hypotheses about limited statements.

    13. You also haven't explained how (in your universe where you claim no opinion can be proved) you think your conversations prove something--that's a total contradiction.

    14. You guys are really good friends. You should take this to email. Think of the conciliatory hugs ... rapturous.

    15. But Zak, your tea example is completely inadequate and different because it is one single thing that is readily empirically verified - the tea is in the cupboard or it isn't.

      My statement was that I think that many students go to university simply so they can get a degree, which is a signal to the world that they are a certain type of person.

      Explain to me how you would run a study to disprove that hypothesis. You will not be able to do it because it is an opinion which is not empirically verifiable. Unless you have some way of reliably reading minds and doing so with every university student in the country. Saying "you just need to make careful hypotheses about limited statements" is all well and good - so go ahead. Tell me what the careful hypotheses are that you would produce and how you would test them.

      I never claimed anywhere that my conversations prove anything. Only that my experience gives me a pretty good level of knowledge about students and academics, which is much more useful and applicable than any "knowledge" that could be gleaned from some sort of bogus "study". It is very frequently true that a conversation with an experienced and qualified professional will tell you a billion times as much about a certain topic as a study which purportedly tells you x or y based on misconceptions about epistemology.

    16. Oi! I caught on quite readily that the denotations you two are using for the word "opinion" are very different and the cause for some hub-bub! Zak is using the word to mean anything anyone thinks at all "is just like their opinion man"(obligatory Lawbowski reference), and thus there is an overlap between opinion and veracity. Whereas noisms is using the word in way that denotes the separation from opinion and fact and thus the word opinion in this case, by its very nature can never be tested.

      Paper dragon time! Maybe I'm off base here, but it seems to me this disagreement is much ado about nothin.

    17. Noisms last comment here looks like trembling obeisance to a psycho. I would hate to be dependent on some 5' 5" faggy pratt.

    18. You said this, Noisms:
      "“No opinion is really provable or unprovable”
      This is false.
      None of the other stuff you said is meaningful if you can't go "Ok, I misspoke"
      I can address your other points after you admit that's not a universally true statement.

    19. I think Nik Henry is basically right - we're clearly using the word "opinion" to mean different things. By definition a statement of opinion to me is a statement as to something which is not empirically verifiable. A statement as to something which is empirically verifiable is to me a statement of fact.

      Neither of us probably knows, for example, how high the highest mountain on Venus is. We might put forward guesses. Those to me are still statements of fact because it is something which could actually be empirically verified (meaning, we can postulate a way that it could be empirically verified even if it isn't currently verifiable).

      The reasons why people do things - like the reasons why students go to university - do not belong in that category of knowledge - we can't empirically verify anything nor even postulate a means by which we could do so. Statements about those things can only ever be statements of opinion. Which is why it's good to trust professionals working in any such field, because their opinions are informed by experience.

  2. Running, man! There's no better to way approximate the ability to regularly schedule time to daydream productivity about your efforts, than to take up running. (I hear it has health benefits, too.)

    1. I can buy that, but I hate running. I keep fit but jogging drives me crazy. Hiking in the hills works for the same purpose and seems to suit me better!

  3. Psychology as a subject seems worthy only of Ted talks and youtube channels. I think the best way to understand ourselves is through classical literature and that is as precise or 'useful' an understanding as accords with truth. The statistical pseudo-scientific approach to psychology is as convincing as the statistical pseudo-scientific approach to nutrition which operates on a fad cycle.

    What Gelemter says about maths isn't true. My memory of studying pure maths is that it can bring you to a trance state which is similar to being carried away by music or poetry. I also don't believe everyone is creative in a meaningful sense, or wants to be, so a more accurate question is how do people who are creative manage to create anything while earning a living doing a shitty job? And, in truth, all jobs are shitty, you are paid to do something you don't want do and for no other reason because it invades your thinking processes with rubbish for most of your waking life.

    My answer is that you can't. I don't think it is possible. Artists have always subsisted through the accident of noble birth, the kindness of relatives or in spite of destitution.

    ==I had the great, inestimable, magnificent luxury of being able to take a sabbatical from work for four months at the end of last year.

    Yes that's the ticket. Now extend that sabbatical to twelve months a year.

    1. I think he is talking neuroscience rather than psychology but I don't necessarily disagree that reading classical literature and philosophy is often better for understanding human nature. You may know that psychology as a discipline is currently going through an existential crisis because it turns out only a small minority of key studies actually have results that are replicated when the study is repeated.

      I have a real soft spot for both Jung and Freud, though.

      I also think that everybody is creative in a meaningful sense, or can be.

    2. I took a course in Neuroscience and it is almost entirely concerned with statistics, at least it was in the maths department. Now this may sound glib to anyone who hasn't studied one of the only two hard sciences, maths or theoretical physics, but statistics is a tool that is relied on when academics don't know what the fuck is going on (usually when the problem is far too difficult like economics). For example, think of the mass of astronomical data about the solar system that was available before Kepler and Newton discovered the Laws. A modern statistician ignorant of Kepler and Newton would use brute force computing to squeeze patterns out of the clouds of that astronomical data, and he could abstract the precise orbits but with no understanding of the deep concept of Gravitation which causes them. There is no *understanding* with statistics, it cleans up shitty or complex data just like the software that enhances photographs.

      ==You may know that psychology as a discipline is currently going through an existential crisis because it turns out only a small minority of key studies actually have results that are replicated when the study is repeated.

      Yep. The irony is that the awful psychologists who aren't sophisticated enough to use stats properly to follow science protocols are not necessarily worse *psychologists* than those who are sophisticated but produce and swear by the idiotic personality categories like the Myers Briggs or the Big 5 which are entirely statistically derived.

      ==I have a real soft spot for both Jung and Freud, though.
      I think of them as writers of literary essays, more artsy than sciency, deep thinkers, profound influencers and more than a little barmy.

      ==I also think that everybody is creative in a meaningful sense, or can be.

      You are very kind.

  4. Adopting your benign perspective that the transition out of the daily grind to small acts of inspiration is possible for everyone, then surely the most powerful conveyance is music.

    Stick those canal phones in anywhere and transport yourself. I relied heavily on Haydn and Mozart for study - light, unobtrusive, buoys the spirit. Bach and Beethoven are too rich and distracting. For creative work in the D&D mode I usually reach for Krautrock, of which I have a shit-ton of stuff, Julian Cope's book is the best introduction to the genre (I have it on pdf it's very expensive). Krautrock and Brian Eno are the swiftest transports I know of, usually coaxed with whiskey, into the mind realm of neverbe but shouldbe.