Ideas, ‘rising in crowds’

The brain needs time to be focused and time to be wandering, and it needs it when it needs it. If we get too attached to forcing kids to be creative when we think it’s a good time to be creative and to be otherwise when we think it’s a good time to be otherwise, we risk discouraging the creative process, or shutting it down entirely.

I spoke with a parent yesterday about how her daughter seems to go for long periods of time generating a lot of creative work (output, we were calling it – things like drawing and writing and building) and then for long periods primarily focused on input (reading, listening, watching).  The aggravating thing about the human brain is that it doesn’t tend to take well to forced input and output scheduling.  Social realities (like living with other people) make it tricky to fully allow for natural, individual creative cycles.  We’re not likely to stop living with other people, but we could do lots better than we do just by realizing that much of the time, the brain wants the freedom to lean into things on its own schedule.  Each brain has an entire life of its own, and it’s a challenge to get it to do its best work when it’s always being told to comply with outside forces.  I’m not saying we should try to stop interrupting it with outside forces.  Outside forces are inevitable (though of course we do have some say in which ones we impose or augment). It’s just that instead of imagining that our creative power is at the mercy of those forces, we can take on the challenge of optimizing creative intellectual potential.

Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation tells the story of how French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré writes of struggling and struggling with a concept and then ultimately reaching the insight he needed not while he was in the throes of heavy thinking and study, but when we was out for a walk.  “Whenever [Poincaré] actually sits down at his desk, the innovations seem to grind to a halt.  But on foot, his ideas ‘rose in crowds.'” Johnson goes on to explain that brains seem to need periods of “phase-lock,” in which the brain is doing planned focused work, and periods of chaos, in which it’s assimilating new information.  The chaos mode, as its name would suggest, can be quite messy, but it’s also what makes connections possible.  Johnson quotes William James, from the 1880s:

Instead of thoughts of concrete things patiently following one another, we have the most abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea to another, the most rarefied abstractions and discriminations, the most unheard-of combinations of elements… a seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity, where partnerships can be joined or loosened in an instant, treadmill routine is unknown, and the unexpected seems the only law.

Ultimately, innovative thinking and growth take both – attention to established plan or habit and the chaos of the wandering brain.  I’m reminded of another young child I know, who happens to have a particular affinity for mathematics. Sometimes, he studies carefully and with tremendous focus, very still in front of a book. But his mother describes a different kind of behavior when he’s thinking, really thinking about something new: “He has to be moving,” she told me.  “He’s off the chair, he’s back up, his face is cycling through a range of expressions…  There’s a lot going on.” It can be fascinating to watch what the brain asks for, how it directs the body to support it, how it interacts with what’s going on around it.

When we make room for this kind of wandering, of exploration, of unexpectedness and uniqueness, we make room for young people to become their fullest thinking selves.  We don’t have to do anything in particular about it other than be interested enough to notice.