Some years ago Guy Claxton wrote Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less. It made a compelling argument that the mind works best when we trust the unconscious – our “undermind” tortoise mind.
The hare brain is the deliberative, logical, conscious thinking we all engage in and prize so highly. It’s when we apply reason to data and draw logical conclusions. The tortoise mind is more leisurely. It takes it’s time. It plays with ideas and explores possibilities. It drifts, daydreams and sleeps on the problem.
We live in fast times and blink our way to decisions. We prize the “hare brain” with its fast, decisive efficiency. We believe in the power of immediacy. Two candidates for president debate for 90 minutes and we must know who won and why and what we think the minute they step down from the podium. We give children timed tests and prize the speed with which they can fill in the blanks and pencil in the circle.
The underlying assumption is that certainty and speed trump ambiguity and contemplation. And yet – hasn’t it always been true that taking time and allowing for ambiguity lead us from knowledge to wisdom? All this much vaunted “rigor” puts a rush to judgment and blind certainty on a wobbly pedestal.
Claxton makes the case for allowing ourselves to be less analytic. And he bases it in cognitive science. Hare-brained problem solving under pressure may not be the best way to find the best solution.
John Cleese wrote an excellent piece in Edutopia picking up on the connection between thinking, teaching and creativity. Here’s how it starts:
I was a history teacher for ten years and I enjoyed it very much indeed. But today’s educational trends, which focus on specific metrics of accountability, represent a fundamental change in mind-set that demands some pretty astounding creativity on the teacher’s part.
I’ve been interested in what makes people creative ever since I started writing forty years ago. My first discovery was that I would frequently go to bed with a problem unsolved, and then find in the morning not only that the solution had mysteriously arrived, but that I couldn’t quite remember what the problem had been in the first place. Very strange.
Then I came across research done at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s by Donald W. MacKinnon. He had examined what made people creative, and he found that the professionals rated “most creative” by their colleagues displayed two characteristics: They had a greater facility for play, meaning they would contemplate and play with a problem out of real curiosity, not because they had to, and they were prepared to ponder the problem for much longer before resolving it. The more creative professionals had a “childish capacity” for play — childish in the sense of the total, timeless absorption that children achieve when they’re intrigued.
This is fascinating, but it’s completely countercultural….
We often don’t know where we get our ideas from, but it certainly isn’t from our laptops. They just pop into our heads somehow, from out of the blue. They’re not the result of fast, purposeful, logical thinking.
We all understand that the slower kind of thinking regularly works for us. Yet, for some reason, we don’t quite trust it.
Cleese continues to tell of his delight in discovering Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind.
He speculates on why the hare brain dominates and why the tortoise brain has been neglected. “… the hare brain is articulate. It can explain its thoughts and solutions because it’s consciously aware of its own activity. As the math teacher says, you can show your figuring as you go along. The hare brain can always justify itself.”
The tortoise mind finds expression over time and often in new and unexpected ways
Trusting the tortoise mind and connecting the conversation to the hare brain seems the way to go. After all, even though the hare was faster but lost its way speed, efficiency, critical thinking and analysis are useful. The tortoise was slower but stuck to it and won in the end. Giving ideas time to marinate and allowing them room to find expression is also invaluable. Get the flow going. Working together perhaps hare and tortoise could have come up with something better to do that compete just for the sake of it.
Cleese concludes with this promise:
When we’re stuck, when we see we’re just digging the same hole deeper, that’s when we need to use our tortoise mind. … it will always produce new ideas.