Monday, February 17, 2014

A New Day (With Poincare)

As soon as I finished writing my grousing and grumbling little blog post yesterday and hit "publish," I began to feel better.  I started to remember all of the people out there who are enduring far worse weather--and circumstances--than my own.

And oddly enough, my day became productive.  I did a whole bunch of reading that I needed to do, that I hadn't been able to motivate myself to do for days on end.

Perhaps more importantly, I woke up this morning muttering to myself and composing the sentences and short paragraphs I needed for my various ongoing writing projects.

When that happens, I just get up as quickly as possible, feed the cats, make the coffee and power up the computer.  I remind myself not to get distracted: the writing needs to be done in those moments--it can't wait.

Two hours later, it was done.

In "The Foundations of Science" (1908), the French mathematician Henri Poincare wrote about the psychology of creative activity.  Poincare argued that, contrary to popular belief, work in the sciences, typically thought of as entirely dependent on deductive reasoning, was in fact inductive as well.

You had to imagine connections you couldn't necessarily see.  To stand as valid science, of course, they had to be proveable, but that didn't mean that you could always discover them simply by deducing them from the available evidence.

You had to believe it to see it.  And when you saw it, you had to prove it.

Poincare analyzed the way his own mind worked when formulating mathematical theorems: it required both conscious and unconscious activity--sometimes one first, then the other, sometimes the other way around.

He described how he sat and sat at his desk for days, puzzling over a theorem he couldn't formulate, a connection he couldn't make.  Then one night, he drank black coffee, couldn't fall asleep and came up with all kinds of ideas and connections.

The next day, all he had to do was write them down.  And they worked.  He solved what he couldn't figure out, simply by not focusing on it.

In other cases, he didn't have time to think about an idea or to write it down.  Often, while traveling, an idea would come to him that hadn't arisen when he was at home, working.  In those instances, he simply didn't have time to write it up, so it had to wait.

But when he went home, he was able to write it up and flesh it out.

The British novelist Virginia Woolf used to talk about the need for days of "wool-gathering."  Frustrated with her inability to write, she would repeatedly remind herself that sometimes, the land needs to lie fallow, the ideas have to percolate, and the mechanics of creativity have to wait.

The danger of this, of course, is that the writer enjoys this process so much that s/he never writes.  Ideas can seem interesting and swirl around in limbo, but the actual work of formulating them requires conscious effort and decision-making.  It won't always be airy and pretty and full of potential.  In order to put the pieces together, you have to commit to actually sitting down and putting the pieces together--a process that is sometimes rife with frustration.

Poincare argued that we need the focus and discipline of the conscious mind to bring the creative insights of the unconscious mind to fruition, and the inspiration of the unconscious mind to fuel the pragmatic labor of conscious thought.

I would argue that, in many cases, there are mental blocks to doing this, obstacles that we aren't even aware of (frustrations, annoyances and fears).  Unless we confront those and clear them out of the way, they'll continue to block the reciprocal exchanges between the conscious and unconscious mind that can lead to solid insights and good work.

And we may not even realize that this is in fact why we can't move forward and get the work done.


  1. Thanks for a thoughtful, readable post on unfocused mental space and creative consciousness. (And thanks also for the background color and look of your blog page, which is itself suitable for wool-gathering.)

  2. Thank you so much! No one has ever complimented me on the (admittedly idiosyncratic) look of my blog. :) I really like your February post, "Nightscapes I"--there's a lot of food for thought and suggested reading there, and many ideas I'd like to explore further... the psychology of creativity is fascinating to me.

  3. Well thank you for your compliment. Artistic consciousness fascinates me also. And to add a bit about the clean, peaceful look of your blog page, I just realized why it strikes me that way: it’s that pale greenish-aqua color, it’s so light that it lets you forego white-backround windows for text and images. Elements are less bracketed, everything just floats on that lovely green.

  4. I love green. And yes, I played around a bit with the background and link colors to get something that was still readable and kept the focus on the text. Some of the templates out there are just too distracting and "busy" for my tastes.


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."