Monday, July 28, 2008

The Mystery of Our Bright Ideas

What can we reason but from what we know? Alexander Pope

The brain. The final frontier. While we go about our daily lives, there are teams of neuroscientists trying to learn how the brain does what it does. It is comforting to know that these people are out there toiling on our behalf.

A recent dispatch from that front came from Jonah Lehrer who has an excellent article about inspiration in a recent New Yorker called “The Eureka Hunt” (not online). It starts with an anecdote about fire jumpers in 1949 Montana. Fourteen men parachute into a gulch to put out a lightening fire. Winds shift, and they are trapped by “a wall of flame fifty feet tall and three hundred feet deep.” Their leader, a man named Wag Dodge, orders his men to retreat, and the only way out is to try to run up a steep canyon wall.

At some point Dodge turns around, and KNOWS that he can’t outrun the fire. In a moment of inspiration, he stops running and lights a match, burning the brush immediately in front of him. He pours water from his canteen onto a handkerchief, puts it around his mouth and nose, and lays down in the middle of his burnt-out brush. The fire wall passes over him, leaving him untouched and killing his thirteen running comrades.

The article discusses the work various scientists are doing to understand how the brain finds answers to impossible puzzles of all sorts, from the trivial to the life-threatening.

One interesting point it makes about inspiration is that there first must be an impasse. You may solve problems with analytic reasoning, but that is simply the left brain functioning in the conscious state.

Inspiration describes what happens when the left brain goes as far as it can with its accessible knowledge. Then the whole brain starts searching for bits and pieces of facts and knowledge, which, if brought together correctly, will tell you something that your conscious mind did not know.

And orchestrating random facts into the brilliance of inspiration is the work of the prefrontal cortex. As Lehrer writes, “It remains unclear how simple cells recognize what the conscious mind cannot, or how they are able to filter through the chaos of bad ideas to produce the epiphany.”

Another defining element of inspiration is certainty. When the right idea pops into your head after an impasse, you experience a feeling of certainty that doesn’t accompany general conscious problem-solving.

In a very micro example, I experience this type of inspiration when I do the NY Time crossword puzzles online. First, I go through and fill in all the answers that I “know.” Then I need to put it down. When I go back to it—a day or two later—I go through from top to bottom, and there are certain clues that my hands start typing the letters to nanoseconds before my consciousness knows what I’m typing. It’s a wild experience to feel my consciousness catch up to what my hands already know.

The article and supporting research argues for letting the mind wander when you need to solve a difficult problem, that trying to force your mind to solve something will backfire.

It’s tantalizing to think about all the stuff rattling around in our minds. Poets have thought about it in the most exotic ways for centuries, and now the scientists are catching up. It's about time.

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Wallace Stevens, 1954

(Images from Brain Paint, an interesting biofeedback company.)


dorki said...

Isn't the brain such an interesting thing? Reading about the efforts to understand the process of thought is a challenging but a very fulfilling thing to do. Some of the best current sources are:

1. Musicophilia:
Tales of Music and the Brain
by Oliver Sacks (or any other book by him)

2. Born On A Blue Day:
Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant
by Daniel Tammet

3. I Am a Strange Loop:
by Douglas R. Hofstadter

A little "light summer reading" :)

M.A.Peel said...

Thanks for the brain-book list dorki. I've been meaning to read something by Oliver Sacks.