Chance favours the connected mind

As a flipside to the article on deep solitary thinking yesterday, we have the “ideas having sex” idea. When ideas are connected and exposed to each other, it’s more likely that better ideas get created. Steven Johnson gave a TED talk on how good ideas come about.

You will notice that Steven’s example of tracking Sputnik eventually leading to the use of GPS was an iteration process. Ideas came up, then were acted upon to test them, which led to further ideas bubbling up.

Maybe I’m wrong, and the ability to hold on to a thought or idea long enough to contemplate it is no longer needed. Or maybe it’s a cycle, where you do deep thinking, share your ideas, get feedback, then reflect on the new ideas. Or maybe in the future, we do our thinking in tiny chunks. Everyone just blurts out their first reactions, no one person actually consolidates it, but eventually, a solution forms somewhere down the road. Every problem becomes open-sourced.

Will we have a SETI@Home-like project where every human being volunteers a bit of their time to do “first reaction thinking”? Will we be reduced to machines, interchangeable for the capacity to think in short spurts?

We share ideas because that’s how they get better. We also need someone who can sit down long enough to think through the bettered ideas into something useful and act upon them.

Fear of your own thoughts

Do you think? I mean like sit there quietly and think. Maybe it’s to solve a maths problem. Maybe it’s to come up with a few points to a PowerPoint presentation. Maybe it’s to reflect on a painting you saw in a museum last week.

Have you ever had a fear that you’re not doing anything productive while you’re thinking? Because you don’t seem to be doing anything. Because you’re not scribbling something, reading something, researching on the Internet, writing an article, or hammering a nail (hey I’ve got engineers reading my blog, maybe there are home builders too…).

Are you afraid of being alone with your own thoughts? Or even simply being alone?

The other day, there was a scheduled power cut at my apartment block. Since I couldn’t do any work (no power means no computer and no Internet), I thought I’d go to the library instead. As I got ready to leave, the power cut at exactly 9am, as scheduled. I know, because the fish tank in the living room turned silent. The pumps and filters that kept the fish tank aerated and clean stopped working. I remembered it clearly, because the silence was almost deafening. I don’t remember my house being that quiet.

Have you ever tried meditation? For our purposes, let’s say it involves sitting in a quiet place, and to not think of anything or to think of only one thing. And let me tell you, thinking of nothing or only one thing is harder than you imagine. The easiest method is to just focus on your breathing. You’re not supposed to worry (or even register in your mind) about the laundry not being done, the itch on your back, the wind blowing through the window, or the minute hairs moving on your hand.

Why is it hard? Because your brain, given little external stimuli, will start feeding you with something, anything. Under those circumstances, your brain can only feed you thoughts.

I bring up meditation because deep thinking resembles it. I remember asking my university professor something (can’t remember the question though), and he sat in his chair, leaned forward, placed his elbows on his knees, and just stayed there. Motionless. After maybe 10 or 15 seconds, he looked up and answered me.

Sometimes, I stay motionless when I was programming. I could be staring into the screen or off into the empty space for up to half an hour. Maybe designing a user interface, maybe pondering a piece of code, maybe just figuring out the best method to solve a problem. I had to remember to swivel in my chair or drum my fingers or something, so my colleagues know I’m alive (or still working).

The whole point is, can you do sustained thinking? 15 minutes? Half an hour? I believe this is important. Our problems are getting more complex. Attention spans seem to be getting shorter. The amount of information we’re allowing ourselves to consume is growing exponentially. Thinking is hard, so we allow others to think for us. I doubt the time needed to think can be as short as that needed to type out a Tweet… oh look, squirrel!