Idle minds solve problems

Cognitive psychologist Malia Mason, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, has published research that backs up my earlier post on how to solve problems using your subconscious mind. I know I’m right, but it’s comforting to know that the science backs it up. [Thank you Deus|Diabolus for bringing it to my attention.]

Using an MRI machine, Dr. Mason showed that when we engage in familiar activities that do not tax our minds, our minds go to work on problems we’ve accumulated but have not yet solved.

I’ve found that this type of subconscious “thinking,” which usually happens to me when I go for a run or a long drive, is far more creative than trying to force a solution using conscious thought.


7 responses to “Idle minds solve problems

  1. The odd thing about this discussion is the idea that when we’re consciously thinking about some problem, it is the conscious thinking which solves the problem. In fact, even when consciously thinking about the problem, the real “heavy lifting” is happening unconsciously; consciousness is a kind of haphazard window or commentary on that unconscious activity. Sometimes problems get solved when we’re sleeping, or otherwise unattending to the problem, because the mind is just doing its thing; indeed it might be doing so more effectively because conscious thought is not interfering. Consciousness is like some idiot manager who has been imported into an organisation in some domain the manager doesn’t really know anything about, and who tries to direct people who know much better than he does what needs to be done. However the lesson of all this if we want to think more effectively is not to just “sleep on it”, i.e., not consciously think about it at all. Sometimes we’re lucky and we find that our unconscious minds comes up with a solution, but often it doesn’t, and just hoping for a good outcome is hardly an effective problem solving technique. (People who talk up the wonders of “sleeping on it” etc. tend to be committing the classic fallacy of noting hits and ignoring misses.) The way to think more effectively is to deliberately (not; not “consciously”) harness the great power of our unconscious thinking to external structured representations and procedures. I’ve written about this in two blog entries here:

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  3. Tim,

    I agree with you, but we have different agendas. Mine is finding ways to cope with email overload. Yours is problem-solving.

    The A.D.D.-like behavior that many email-addicts exhibit is very destructive, and I’m trying to convince people that switching off is a good idea. My post attempts to demonstrate the potential benefits of slowing down and resting our minds, because we might even benefit from it.

    I have to thank you as well, because you supply an even more compelling reason to let the mind rest when you say that deliberate, conscious thought actually interferes with problem solving.

    Now regarding problem-solving on-demand, that’s your area of specialization…

  4. Hey there,

    I agree that personal experience leads me to believe that problems are often resolved when you’re not conscously thinking about them, rather than when you’re trying to force the answer. However, I have two questions/objections regarding this post:

    1) The study, as far as I could tell, only indicated that your brain returns to its “default” mind-wandering mode when working on a familiar problem, and does not in any way seem to support (or negate) the idea that this “default” mode is actually productive or helps solve problems. Though there was a reference to it being involved in the production of spontaneous thought, I didn’t see any reference to productive problem solving.

    2) Some writers have claimed that the productive value of “sleeping on” a problem or otherwise not consciously concentrating on it has been overestimated. They point out that in the most famous examples of people having tremendous insights during their sleep or when not concentrating on a task (from Archimedes to Einstein), this only happened when the person had been spending enormous conscious energy trying to solve the problem, which is why it still persisted to occupy their minds when they were sleeping (or bathing or whatever). This would lead to the idea that its not necessarily the case that unconscious thought leads to better insights than rtconscious effort, but that a combination of conscious effort and periodic rest can bring about insights in either state.

    Personally, I wish I could trust the fact that doing yoga or lying on my bed leads to great insights, but I think if I’m honest with myself, some conscious effort is required. Dang it.

  5. Hi there
    There’s some interesting stuff out there relating to the sub-conscious, referred to as the “super-conscious” in some circles.

    Through a process of actively and consciously thinking about a problem, you are “seeding” the sub-conscious (as opined in essence by curiousgirl). Then if you ‘walk away’ from the problem and start doing something else, especially something that is not overly-taxing mentally, the “seeded” sub-conscious continues to mull over the original problem. However, the sub-conscious has the advantages of not being bound by common sence, reality, rationality, political correctness and the realms of possibility and impossibility. The sub-conscious now has the freedom to move laterally and multi-dimensionally, giving new perspectives, new possibilities and new opportunities.

    I’ve used this approach with great success in some creative consultancy work I do for a marketing consultancy. When faced with the search for the Unique Selling Proposition for a new company, brand or product, the solution is often not the result of intensive brain-storming itself, but rather the result of intensively brain-storming the problem AND then doing something totally unrelated, totally mundane and totally unpressurized – an environment which seem to activate the sub-conscious into super-concious mode. But in doing so, I have learned to keep pen and paper close at hand to immediately capture these flighty bursts of intuition.

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  7. I have ascribed to this theory most of my life…I even have a phrase for it, “I put it in my crock-pot.” An initial perusal of the subject matter, then put it to rest in the subconscious. When I call it back up and out of the crock-pot (subconscious), many of the details are worked out and I feel like I have an opinion, an idea, a solution – whetever it was I was looking for as an outcome. I’ve been operating this way and calling my subconscious mind the crock pot since I was in my teens.

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