I speak, therefore I think?


Detail of Portrait of René Descartes (1596 – 1650), Louvre

Is it possible to facilitate the thoughts of another?  Can we help by creating a thinking space for someone else that is safe, secure and nourishing?  The notion that many of the solutions to our problems might be locked within our own heads tempts us to pursue these goals.  By encouraging another person to explore their own thoughts more thoroughly and more effectively than they might on their own, we can perhaps help them towards relevant answers.

I recently spent a weekend in one of the most beautiful and life-enhancing places on the shores of Loch Lomond in Scotland exploring these very questions.  Working with a group of education and training consultants I was permitted to sample and help develop creative and appreciative thinking spaces.

According to Descartes, thought defines our very existence.   ‘I think, therefore I am’, he wrote.  Even if we find that hard to accept we would probably agree that our ability to think is certainly the most significant hallmark of our humanity; we are after all Homo sapiens—thinking man.  We think everyday, whether we recognise this or not, and the clarity of our thought as well as its scale undoubtedly determines our destiny.

That our thinking might be improved and expanded by facilitation is hugely attractive.  Who would not want to think better?  Thinking better translates as doing better and is a laudable aim for an individual, a group or an organisation.  But, what do we mean by facilitation?

We certainly cannot do someone else’s thinking for them, but perhaps we can create the right conditions conducive to better thought.  These conditions might include attention, appreciation, the right questions and silence.  We can think in silence, inside our heads, but perhaps our most effective thinking is done through speech.  Simply being asked what you think by someone you trust who gives you their undivided attention, who does not interrupt you and gently, when necessary, offers subtle prompts encouraging you to go deeper, can result in thoughts and recombinations of ideas that might never have occurred on their own.  Your partner in thinking may be merely a catalyst in the process.  You are doing the thinking, encouraged by a simple, but unusual, set of circumstances created by your partner.  Your partner is the custodian of the thinking space and is simultaneously irrelevant and essential to the process.

Does it work?  If we have good friends who allow us the space to speak our minds, without interruption and without fear of ridicule or censure then we already know that it works. Many individuals, however, have no experience of this and especially in the workplace have little opportunity to allow their voice to develop their thinking.

If we believe that we all have capacities to think that are untapped, and that if unleashed these may help us resolve complex problems, then it all begins to be exciting. Being allowed to explore the possibilities of our own minds in a thinking space becomes a golden opportunity for development.  We may grow through our thoughts when we are allowed to really think.

What I am describing is achieved through speech.  We are asked to articulate our thoughts with our voice and to share them with our thinking partner in spoken words.  Interestingly, by speaking aloud we also share our thoughts for the first time with ourselves.  Saying it out loud we hear ourselves thinking new thoughts that were, until the moment of speech, unrevealed.  Could this moment of self-discovery be achieved by other means?  What about writing, rather than speaking, as a way towards clearer thinking?  Or painting, or making music, or gardening, or running? Possibly, but thoughts, at least for most of us, are words and our most immediate words are those we speak.  So, perhaps, encouraging speech may be the best, or at least the simplest, way to join up our thoughts into new ideas.

As I shared my spoken thoughts with my thinking partner, I found myself going in directions I had not planned.  I developed ideas.  I made new connections. I discovered something new.  And, what was new had been within me, for during this all that my partner had contributed was her attention, and her silence.

The discovery of the self and the act of intellectual creation are much discussed in the literature.  Words such as ‘mystery’ and ‘inaccessibility’ and ‘depth’ abound, but my experiences this weekend have made me realise that there is more inside my head that I had previously thought.  Going a little deeper into my thoughts and being encouraged to speak in a carefully created space, furnished with another person who not only hears but listens, allowed me the surprise of discovery. Descartes was not wrong: I most certainly am because I think, but I had not previously understood the importance of my voice in all this. Now I understood that I speak, and therefore I think.

© Allan Gaw 2013

My books available on kindle:

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Experience rendered portable


Picture source: www.yalumba.co.uk

Mark Twain always seemed to have something worth saying about anything worth considering.  ‘Good decisions,’ he said, ‘come from experience.  Experience comes from making bad decisions.’  But, perhaps Twain should have added that this only holds if we examine those ‘bad decisions’ and learn from them.  Indeed, we might go further and insist that life is usually about getting it wrong.  Our lives are built on complex networks of ideas and beliefs that have at their core the wisdom of experience distilled from mistakes.  By making mistakes and getting it wrong we might discover something new, and we are then forced to readjust our thinking to accommodate it.  If mistakes make us think, they can also allow us to push the game forward.

The mistakes, however, do not have to be all our own work for we can benefit from the mishaps of others.  Living one life is trouble, and miracle, enough, but fortunately we can take advantage of the lives of others by sampling the essence of their experience. Indeed, when it comes to the benefit of experience, it is to others we often need to look, for our own experiences are less immediately accessible.  Being inside our own life, surrounded by the whirl of experience we enjoy and endure, means we are usually too close to it all to see any benefit in our own mistakes.  The objectivity of distance is difficult to master when it’s you who’s lying in the dirt.

However, those big, unwieldy and often painful experiences must first be refined into something more manageable to be useful.   If we are to share those experiences or benefit from the experiences of others, we need some way of distilling them down so they can be readily dabbed on our pulse points.  Then, our lives can be enriched, and perfumed, by the failures of people we have never even met.  Not, I should add, with any shade of Schadenfreude, but in the sense that out of mistakes, anyone’s mistakes, come the new ideas we need to take our lives forward.

The distillation process is, however, the key.  In time, we may acquire the necessary skills and learn this art, which is one of miniaturisation—transforming raw experience into new ideas.  This process renders those experiences portable and transferable.  Our experience fuels our thinking and our thinking becomes the creative force of our ideas.  In the form of those ideas, we carry our experience like hand luggage, lightly packed and easily stowed. We may exchange ideas with others, sharing much bulkier experiences without the necessity for excess baggage.  We give and we take and we renew ourselves in the process.  But, if ideas are miniaturised experiences, how are we to share these ideas?  Their portability is only possible through the use of language.  Our words become the currency of our ideas, just as our ideas were the currency of our experience.  And, of course the words of others express their ideas and in turn their experiences.

Language is therefore fundamental to our development as thinking beings.  Speech is a fleeting form of language, while the written word has a permanence that can outlive stone.  The stumblings of the ancients that gave birth to their ideas are only known to us through their writing.  We do not have to relive their lives to learn what their mistakes taught them.  Similarly, our children and great grandchildren can live new lives with the benefit of our falls, if we pass our ideas across the generations with our words.

The notion of the ‘idea as a means of miniaturising experience, rendering it portable’ is itself an example of this very phenomenon.  It was posited by Susan Sontag in 1974 and published in her collected papers, ‘As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980’.  This was an idea she formulated based on her experiences and, I suspect, her mistakes, and perhaps even the mistakes of others.  We can muse on this idea today because it is passed to us ready made and ribbon-wrapped.  We do not have to relive the experiences that generated it, and we can enjoy the idea because she wrote it down. Her hand stretches out across almost four decades and lays it in our laps.  In this, she does what every other writer does who gifts us their experience in the form of their ideas.

Isaac Newton said that if he saw further in science it was only because he was able to stand on the shoulders of giants.  But, perhaps, it’s not the elevation that matters but the gift of experience, an experience rendered portable. Perhaps, we are only able to move forward because we ride on the experiences of others.

© Allan Gaw 2013

My books available on kindle:

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The Invention of Discovery


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‘Who invented penicillin?’ I was asked.  ‘Alexander Fleming, but,’ I corrected, ‘he didn’t invent it, he discovered it.’  Then, I began to wonder.  The idea, of course, is that something like penicillin, or the structure of HIV or even the moons of Neptune have been there all along, and it is up to us to dig deep and ‘discover’ them.  We can only ‘invent’ something if it did not previously exist, like Edison and his light bulb.

All this is patently true, but there is also another side to this story of discovery, that of imagination.  Scientific discovery, as well as being an act of excavation, is also a highly creative act.  We forge ideas that were not previously there, so we must have invented them.  We craft new hypotheses that had no former existence, and we imagine the solution before we ever discover it.  In practice, without an imagination working at full tilt, simple disconnected facts, however painfully gathered, will never amount to much.

Such talk of creativity brings the notions of craft and even artistry to the laboratory bench, where many believe they have no place.  They prefer to believe that science is cold and objective and mechanical, but they would be wrong.

Listen to Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate in Physics, and you will hear a man led by his sense of wonder and his imagination. Listen to Harry Kroto, the Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, describe his discoveries, and again you will see that creative leaps are as important as steady slog.  And, listen to any child talk of first finding frog spawn in a pond or of first hearing the waves in a seashell, and you will be left in no doubt of the importance our imagination plays in this business of discovery.

Sometimes, it is the spark that ignites our interest, and often it is the force that drives us on, but always it is our means of creating a new reality within which new and sometimes disparate facts reside.  We make sense of it all first with our imaginations, as we create our solutions, and only later do we discover objective truths.

Perhaps then Alexander Fleming could only discover penicillin because he could first imagine it.  Just as Francis Crick and James Watson imagined a majestic, yet simple, self-replicating structure for DNA before putting all the facts together, and Frederick Banting imagined a chemical messenger that would control blood sugar before he discovered insulin.  Every discovery must first be imagined for without this creative preparation there is nowhere for a discovery to fit.  And, even if we cannot imagine the reality of the discovery itself, perhaps we can, by exclusion, imagine the space within which it will fit.  Like a jigsaw missing a single piece, we can define the exact shape of the errant piece from those surrounding it.  When we stumble upon the missing piece we can then be sure it is the right one.

How does this work in reality?  You may have an idea and you design an experiment to test it.  The results do not show what you expect.  You check, and you do the experiment again, and again.  Every time the facts, as you have gathered them, fail to support your idea.  If you trust your work, you have only one inescapable conclusion, that your idea was wrong.  But, now you have more than an incorrect idea, you also have new facts and using these you have to let your imagination get to work.  What sort of new idea would fit these data and how can you go about proving this to yourself and to others? The input from your imagination is crucial, and without it science would merely be a series of blind alleys with failure and disappointment at the end of each.  Our imaginations allow us to find a way out of these dead ends and, ultimately, to walk down well-lit streets towards an answer.

However, these escape routes can only be formulated into new ideas through a creative process—one of invention, rather than discovery.  Louis Pasteur reminded us that chance favours the mind that is well prepared.  From this we might envision seeds of discovery falling on fertile ground, but this analogy only goes so far.  If we acknowledge the importance of creativity and imagination in scientific discovery, that ground, as well as being fertile and well tilled, must also be able to imagine the flower for it to be able to grow.

Scientists must learn to dream as well as measure.  They must allow their imaginations to soar, to believe in the impossible and see the beauty in the world, while striving for new truths.  In short, they must be able to invent in order to discover.

© Allan Gaw 2013

My books available on kindle:

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