Monday, October 25, 2010

Controlling Ideas

In a short essay, Paul Graham talks about what he calls an ambient thought or "the top idea in your mind." As he observes, everyone who has "worked on difficult problems is probably familiar with the phenomenon of working hard to figure something out, failing, and then suddenly seeing the answer a bit later while doing something else. There's a kind of thinking you do without trying to. I'm increasingly convinced this type of thinking is not merely helpful in solving hard problems, but necessary. The tricky part is, you can only control it indirectly."

I think he is right on both counts:
  • there is a "kind of thinking you do without trying to" and
  • "you can only control it indirectly"
I have posted about this before in Planning for Unexpected Discoveries, for instance. But it appears to me that for those of us who (must) spend time thinking and writing, there is nothing better than regular writing sessions to enforce control over what is the top idea in our minds. See also The Rule of 200 and Writing Advice. This is how you can indirectly control your ideas and their flow. But see also Sleeping and Making Connections.

1 comment:

Joachim Zischke said...

My concept resulting in sparkling new ideas either for problem solving or composing books is threefold: I. gathering adequate information about the subject, II. defining a question describing what's all about, and III. going for a walk (preferably in nature).

The movement of our legs seems somehow to correspond with the cycle of the brain, thus stimulating the connection of idea nodes.

An excellent example for this is the poet William Wordsworth' pace on his terrace.