The Big Read: The power of zero thinking

Darrel Bristow-Bovey | 2017-04-21 07:27:27.0

I never have good ideas in the shower. Wait, that sounds sinister, as though I'm frequently having bad ideas in the shower, as though my shower is a tapeworm or a barking dog, giving me instructions to go forth and murder like Dimitri Tsafendas or the Son of Sam.

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This is not true. I never have any kind of idea in the shower - it's generally just me and the water and the suds and the ongoing question of whether I should wash my own hair for once or just wait for my haircut next month, a question that is easily answered by remembering that I have not owned shampoo since probably 2005.

I think the reason I never strike upon insight in the shower is I've heard too many people say that's where they have their best ideas, so I've started thinking of it as a kind of brain booth, an incubator for inspiration.

I start running the hot water with the hope of having a thought, which defeats the point of having your best ideas in the shower.

I was delighted last week to read about a German pensioner named Thomas Royen, a former statistician of no great repute who spends his golden years practising piano, taking walks in the umber Teuton woods and idly trying to improve the statistical formulae that he used in his working life to make sense of drug-trial data.

One summer's morning while brushing his teeth, the solution to the Gaussian Correlation Inequality came to him. If you are not woke to the Gaussian Correlation Inequality, let me condescendingly tell you that it's a famous conjecture straddling the nexus of the disciplines of statistics, probability theory and geometry that people have been trying to prove for 40 years and more, and that it's a statement about convex symmetrical shapes, and that I have read it maybe 30 times for the purposes of this column and each time it gets more Gaussian, or perhaps more Inequal.

There is much in Royen's story to delight us: a crusty old duffer pondering something completely different somehow comes up with an elegant solution to a great intellectual mystery; he doesn't even own the standard software used by mathematicians and must type out his proof in MS Word (the name of the standard software used by mathematicians is LaTeX); he publishes his solution in a little-known un-peer-reviewed journal and the snooty academic world utterly ignores him until someone else rewrites his paper to make it more orthodox. What I like about it is that it reminds us of how human beings have our best ideas.

In Focus Daniel Goleman tells how the French mathematician Henri Poincaré worked on a single problem for months then gave up in disgust and went on holiday. On the second day, strolling on a clifftop, he suddenly realised that the arithmetical transformations of indeterminate ternary quadratic forms were identical with those of non-Euclidian geometry. Well, obviously, but what's interesting is that it came to him suddenly, unexpectedly, almost like remembering something.

The history of thought is filled with these moments of apparent magic: Archimedes shouting "Eureka" in his bathtub, F Scott Fitzgerald scribbling the endings to short stories on gin-soaked cocktail napkins, the composer John Luther Adams hearing a snatch of birdsong and realising it solved the melodic problem in his second movement.

We have two centres of thought: the top and the bottom. The top - the neocortex, if you want to be fancy - is our rational deciding brain, the slow and logical part that focuses and is applied and that hurts when you use it to try to understand what ANC Youth League president Collen Maine is saying. The lower subcortical machinery is stronger, silent, and never sleeps. It operates below the level of awareness, and presents its solutions to us as gifts, flashes of what the ancients and the Romantics called inspiration. It needs to be primed with experience and practice, but then it works through connections and intuitions and with fearful beauty, and it does for us what we cannot otherwise do.

We have always sort of known this - that's why we sleep on difficult dilemmas, and why when we're stumped for a column topic we know it's wise to stop thinking about it and take a walk instead - but maybe we've forgotten that the subcortical brain needs idleness in which to present us with the fruits of its labours, that the conscious brain silences the voice of the lower brain.

I worry that we work too hard staring at screens, and that when we aren't doing that we occupy ourselves with other screens, and that in time it will only be old duffers brushing their teeth or weirdos disconnected from the internet who still have access to the gifts of the most powerful habit of all - doing absolutely nothing.

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