In this post, I want to present another example of the associative workings of the unconscious mind. Years of strenuous psychotherapy and much “soul searching” have made me sensitive to the meaningful little clues and useful responses the unconscious scatters through our lives. We all have these experiences, but many of us, not understanding their potential value just shrug them off. I recorded this simple incident in one of my notebooks. To set the scene, I should mention that I was living the hermit’s life in a forest shack on the edge of the Canadian wilderness at the time.
The human mind has two aspects, one of which can be a nag and the other a source of great wisdom. (Image: Gutenberg)
Creative people are famously unstable, both emotionally and in their thinking; the artistic temperament is moody, and creators openly tolerate polarities in ideas and viewpoints that others reject, and then try to bury. Oscillations between two distinctly different modes of thinking may account for a lot of this instability and openness. Creators are more skilled in the combined use of two kinds of thought processes: linear thinking, which is verbal, logical, sequential, and analytic; and non-linear thinking, which is associative, more image oriented, non-sequential, and non-logical (but not irrational).
Janusian thinking is the combined use of logical and associative thinking. It can make a creative person appear unstable.
One of the most commonly talked about aspects of the creative process is the phenomenon of having sudden key insights after one has carefully considered the facts and, unable to find a solution, turned to other things – the famous “eureka” experience. There are many entertaining anecdotes revealing how famous creators experienced a sudden flash of insight, often while doing something quite ordinary. Because of three particularly well-known stories, one might call this the bed, bath, and bus scenario.
Rene Descartes had one of his greatest eureka moments while lying in bed idly watching a fly hover in the air. (Image: public domain.)
It all began in Greece. Archimedes supposedly had his eureka moment while relaxing in the public baths and ran home naked shouting “eureka” (I found it) thereby giving the experience its name. The bit about running au naturel through the streets is probably Roman hokum, but it does vividly capture the sense of intense excitement that accompanies the unexpected breakthrough. Henri Poincaré had his seminal insight into non-Euclidean geometry just as he boarded a bus. The idea seemed to come out of nowhere. The French mathematician attributed his insight to “unconscious work” and claimed an ability to ruminate on math problems while engaged in unrelated activities like chatting with a friend on a bus. Descartes suddenly envisioned his Cartesian co-ordinate system while lying in bed idly watching a fly hovering in the air. In all three cases, the insight followed considerable foundation-laying work that had as yet borne no fruit.
In earlier posts, I have written about synergistic thinking, the deliberate combining of logical (linear) and associative (non-linear) thinking. Logic is a product of the conscious mind and as such it is a thinking tool we all, with varying degrees of skill, deliberately employ. Associative thinking is how the unconscious works and can be both hard to understand and elusive in its actual – often powerful – workings. As a result, in the last few decades, a great deal of confusing superstition has gathered around the unconscious. Here is a gem from page 39 of Susan Shaughnessy’s excellent book about writing, Walking on Alligators: “The only thing we know for sure about the unconscious is that it isn’t like us. It is different from the conscious mind. It looks through our eyes, but it sees differently. It uses other rules to organize what it sees. And then it passes along its conclusions in a tantalizingly inexplicit way.”
The unconscious mind produces an associative running commentary on our thoughts and surroundings. (Image: public domain.)
I have written elsewhere that the most creative among us possess the power to combine linear conceptual thinking with non-linear associative thinking. This ability to unite the two thinking modes works the creative magic that sets these people apart. A person who heavily favours one mode of thought over the other will inevitably lack outstanding creative powers.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that a “great mind must be androgynous.” (Image: Wikimedia)
Creative thinking requires the skilful blending of linear and non-linear thinking. In more commonly used language, this means we must combine logical thinking with associative thinking. Before we go on, let us be clear that associative thinking is not the same as intuition. Associative thinking brings related ideas and events together in imagination or memory in ways that are not necessarily logical. Association may link a red barn with a red car (because they are both red) even though there is no logical reason to connect them. The associative connection may not be rigorously logical, but it is definite and understandable. Intuition is more emotional, more vague, a mere feeling or inarticulate hunch.
Synergistic thinking makes a synthesis of linear and non-linear thinking. In other words, it blends logic and association. (Image: public domain)