Why Thinking Is Overrated

Rodin's Thinker

Image by Brian Hillegas

Imagine you have no head.

I’m serious. Imagine you have no head. Right this instant.

You can feel your arms, legs, hands, feet, stomach, chest and back. But your bodily sensations stop at the neck. There’s nothing there.

At this moment, you can feel, touch, see and hear – but you can’t think.

(Don’t worry about how you can see or hear without eyes and ears – worrying requires a head, and right now you haven’t got one. 😉 )

Allow your centre of consciousness to sink from where your head used to be, down into your chest or stomach. Notice what it’s like to have your awareness located at your centre of gravity.

Stay in this state for at least a minute, before reading the rest of this article.


The Benefits of Losing Your Head

How do you feel now?

I first encountered this provocative Zen exercise on a seminar run by my friend and long-time collaborator John Eaton. When John suggested it, at first I thought the idea was very funny. As he talked us through the exercise, I felt curious, disoriented, fascinated – and finally relieved. It was as though I had let go of a heavy weight. My body felt lighter, freer, poised and energised.

Walking home after the seminar, I realised what a beautiful summer day it was. The tube train was delayed, but I wasn’t annoyed in the least. It was a pleasure to stand on the platform in the early evening sunshine, marvelling at the golden colours of the brickwork on the opposite wall, listening to the birdsong bubbling up from somewhere nearby.

From time to time, I’d ‘come to’ and realise I’d forgotten about the experiment, and had got lost in my thoughts. Whereupon I reminded myself that I didn’t have a head, and went back into the state of intense present awareness. Each time I did this, it felt like escaping from a dusty room into fresh air and sunlight.

All the way home, I felt an unusual sense of stillness and peace. There was no need to think over the day’s events or the things I had learned on the seminar. I had a calm confidence I would know how to use the knowledge when the time came.

This experience reminded me how my most valuable insights, and the solutions to the biggest problems I face, usually don’t come while thinking hard about the issue in hand. Typically there is a moment of realisation – the answer ‘just comes to me’ – in the middle of doing something else, or nothing in particular.

The sensation is more like recognition than reaching a conclusion. It’s as though someone else has presented me with the answer, holding it up in front of me, and all I have to do is nod my assent. And unlike some of the decisions I’ve reached by thinking things through logically, I’ve never found such insights to be ‘wrong’; whenever I’ve acted on the insight, it’s always had a positive effect on the situation.

I’m not alone in this – the literature on creativity is full of accounts of sudden insight or inspiration, often happening shortly after someone has given up trying to solve a problem through reasoning. Like the famous account by the French mathematician Henri Poincare:

Then I turned my attention to the study of some arithmetical questions apparently without much success and without a suspicion of any connection with any preceding researches. Disgusted with my failure, I went to spend a few days at the seaside, and thought of something else. One morning, walking on the bluff, the idea came to me, with… the characteristics of brevity, suddenness and immediate certainty, that the arithmetic transformations of indeterminate ternary quadratic forms were identical with those of non-Euclidic geometry.

Joseph LeDoux, a Professor of Neural Science at New York University, points out that most of our cognitive processes are unconscious, so that this kind of problem-solving, though experienced as mysterious, is no more than we should expect:

Just because your brain can do something does not mean that “you” know how it did it. If it seems odd that the brain can unconsciously solve geometric problems, imagine the kinds of automatic calculations that go on in the brain when we turn the steering wheel to navigate a curve at 60 mph

(Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain)

What we think of as ‘thinking’ is really only the tip of the iceberg. A tiny pinprick of conscious attention, like a single star in the vastness of the night sky.

We’ve previously looked at the research involving brain scanners and EEG sensors to monitor neural activity in people engaged in solving problems. According to the experimenters, logical analysis – a.k.a. hard thinking – is a poor second-best to daydreaming:

These sudden insights, they found, are the culmination of an intense and complex series of brain states that require more neural resources than methodical reasoning. People who solve problems through insight generate different patterns of brain waves than those who solve problems analytically. “Your brain is really working quite hard before this moment of insight,” says psychologist Mark Wheeler at the University of Pittsburgh. “There is a lot going on behind the scenes.

In fact, our brain may be most actively engaged when our mind is wandering and we’ve actually lost track of our thoughts, a new brain-scanning study suggests. “Solving a problem with insight is fundamentally different from solving a problem analytically,” Dr. Kounios says. “There really are different brain mechanisms involved.”

By most measures, we spend about a third of our time daydreaming, yet our brain is unusually active during these seemingly idle moments. Left to its own devices, our brain activates several areas associated with complex problem solving, which researchers had previously assumed were dormant during daydreams. Moreover, it appears to be the only time these areas work in unison.

Robert Lee Hotz, ‘A Wandering Mind Heads Straight Toward Insight’

An Irrational Love of Reason

So the neuroscientists and daydreaming poets are in agreement: if you’re serious about solving problems and creating new things, stop thinking so hard and let your mind wander more freely.

But it’s not exactly a popular message, at least in modern Western society.

We take enormous pride in our intellectual accomplishments, and venerate those who are reputed to be ‘great thinkers’. Children are taught to ‘study hard’ – furrowed brows are praised and rewarded, while daydreamers are rebuked for staring out the window.

When applying ourselves to the pressing problems of business, science, education, politics and the environment, the unspoken assumption is that we need more thinking – not less.

If we consider someone’s point of view or behaviour unacceptable, we say they are ‘irrational’ or ‘unreasonable’.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a thinker by nature. I love thinking. As a writer and creative entrepreneur, it’s essential to my work. And I’ve done the academic thing – dissertations and degrees – and got a lot out of it.

But the more I see of life, the less impressed I am by thinking per se. I’m not suggesting we should stop it altogether (although I’ve tried that). But you can have too much of a good thing. I’ve come to value other abilities at least as highly – things like intuition (gut feeling), improvisation, play and emotional intelligence – a.k.a. listening to the promptings of the heart.

Whenever I’m aware of spending too much time in my head, I recall the words of W.B. Yeats:

God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone;

(W.B. Yeats ‘A Prayer for Old Age’)

What Do You (Ahem) Think?

Do you agree that thinking is overrated?

Have you ever tried thinking less? What were the results?

What techniques do you use to get ‘out of your mind’ and allow insight to emerge?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. My best thoughts, my most creative ideas, my soundest arguments, have come when I’m not thinking at all. Usually in the worst moments, too – taking a shower or driving down the highway, where there’s no keyboard to be had.

    I keep pen and paper in several places to jot down notes, though, so when I do tune out, forget about thinking for a while and get a sudden idea, I can grab it before it gets away.

    Well, some of the time…

  2. Right on. Getting ‘out of my head’ requires 1) meditation, 2) free-writing first thing in the morning. But both activities must be engaged in with no thought of result, i.e. done for their own sake. Meditating for the purpose of clearing your head is not meditation. So – it’s tricky.

  3. Years ago, I began practicing “emptying my mind.” Much later, I still can’t do it. I cannot (yet) silence my thoughts. I am good at distracting my brain, and work hard to be present in the moment.

    @James, several months ago, I wrote a post about where the best ideas usually occur–it was the shower for me.

    Thanks for a great post, and a timely reminder. With Christmas chaos all around, forgetting I have a head will be a good thing.

    • Juli Alexander says:

      We developed left brain functions for a reason through evolution. Personally, to me, the way to deal with this is the mindfulness approach; watch the left brain do its’ thing but don’t buy into it. Eventually it gives up and meditation can occur. I also find when I laugh at my thoughts they disappear faster than when I buy into them, so one of my life slogans is,”Don’t believe everything you think” (along with “All’s well, all things considered”.)

  4. Great article. Since learning to get ‘out of my head’ during Meisner classes ( a form of acting training) i’ve felt freer, lighter and always trusted my instinct, which hasn’t ever let me down. When you start learning these techniques you realise they are all the same, religion, meditation, self help books, they all guide us towards being truly happy within and the world without immediately looks brighter and sharper. I was always taught to study, and i love to learn, but i was never taught to give myself time to let things really permeate and sit in me. I find taking the time out to do this re-ernergises me and allows me to come up with new angles on old problems. Life is fuller, i have better relationships beacuse i’m truly seeing the people in front of me and when im emotionally truthful with people, they’re truthful back! I was always scared of it but it saves a hell of a lot of time!!! And i dont’t have to be in my head worrying! I just am.

  5. Great article Mark,

    I agree that overthinking can often take you away from solutions; very easy to become stuck in analysis.

    I find thought reduction and incubating problems, sometimes overnight, sometimes longer, allows your mind time to seek out new ideas and answers.

    Thought reduction is relatively simple although we have been so accustomed to thinking all the time, all our lives, initially it seems impossible, even to the point of dismissing it and not trying.

    I created a Free 85 Page E-Book to share ideas on how to reduce thinking – readers can download it here:

    http://www.mindmapinspiration.com/stop-thinking-free-85-page-e-book-paul-foreman/

    It covers tips for reducing thoughts and how to meditate – techniques to free the mind to allow new thinking.

    Hope it helps 🙂

  6. I find this interesting. I have never considered what you write about not to be thinking. In my life (mind) I spend time collecting and analyzing data. Breaking it down through processes I have developed over decades. Then I spend a great deal of time with “unstructured thought” where I let the thoughts take me where they go. I am not looking to resolve or conclude anything in particular, but it happens.

    I found this works best when there is no agenda. Agendas are emotional. Aren’t we really freeing ourselves from our feelings and not our thoughts?

  7. Can I crack a joke?

    This post made me think 😉

    -kay, maybe not funny. the zen excercise was… unexplainable though. it felt freeing in a good sort of way.

  8. Acting training helped me a lot in getting out of my head. I didn’t do much Meisner (though I’d like to try more, Steph), but I did a ton of physical work (Butoh, Grotowski based training, mask work, and other dance & movement training, as well as Chekhovian physical gesture).

    The idea of getting ‘out of your head’ is a bit of a misnomer – you need to instead get into something else – like your body.

  9. This was a wonderful article. I thank my parents for leaving me hours and hours for exploring and imagination… whether building with lego or erector sets, or just wondering through the woods behind our house. I still do my best thinking on walks.

    In fact, I was just thinking (or imagining?) today how I’ve always tested as an INFP on personality tests. But I’ve always felt the need to hide it so I wouldn’t be one of those “touchy-feely” types. So I projected an INTP personality. I’ve just begun allowing myself to explore this intuitive feeling side publically on a new blog and find it very hard to open my inner self, especially in writing. And it’s because of thinking. I’m going to start using this head-less exercise before I write to try and get over that stigma.

    Thanks, Mark!

  10. Yes! I’ve spent the last 5 years relying on my gut feeling and since doing this my life has flowed seamlessly. As soon as I revert back to over-analysis everything goes pear-shaped, and I feel stressed! Meditation really helps too. I like the ‘no head’ exercise – will try that one. Great article thanks

  11. I used to carry my head under my arm, but that’s because it fell off with alarming frequency. Not quite the same as the Zen exercise.

    I’ve gotten better at knowing when to stop thinking and trust my gut. But part of that – no, a lot of that – is due to experience. It took time to get acquainted with those instinctual cues, and enough trial and error (heavy emphasis on “error”) to realize I could trust them.

    I sometimes tell people thinking through an idea or problem is like making soup – put in all the ingredients, then have enough sense to let it sit and simmer. Or go stand in the shower, like James and Dava. I get insights there, too.

    Clearly, someone needs to invent a waterproof voice recorder.

  12. I’ve been a Reiki practitioner for 20 years. In that time, while doing Reiki on myself or others I’ve often found myself connected to an intelligence which seems both internal and external at once.

    In that state I’ve encountered an awareness of thoughts which come from outside my personal experience. In some instances through this awareness I feel guided or directed to a certain understanding which helps me in some manner.

    I’ve come to think of these events as insights from the collective unconscious. I’ve talked to others who refer to such happenings as angelic interventions.

    It’s my belief that every human experience is entrapped within the reality of our existence, not unlike a huge encyclopedia. Those experiences are then cross indexed and referenced against the consciousness which originates with the source of all creation.

    When we stop thinking allow ourselves to be fully open to the experience all that is available in one form or another, downloaded directly from our own inter-dimensional internet.

  13. I’ve explored the – forgive me – idea of intuition, actually the practice, since 1966, when I first began with yoga meditation. I eventually got a job as an assistant editor at Runner’s World, where I found the order of the day was a highly rational, male, scientific approach to training. As if to say – we aren’t legitimate until we’re “scientific.” Which, to digress, is why magazines begin as reader-written adventures in exploring their subject, full of life and enthusiasm, and evolve into dull, pedantic plodding fact-factories written by PhD’s.

    Anyway – intuition is highly common in sports training – it is the basis of what’s more acceptably known as “feeling-based training,” as preached and practiced by the great New Zealand coach, Arthur Lydiard and countless others (e.g., Bob Kennedy, one of just three Americans who’ve run 5000 meters in under 13 minutes).

    So – yes, I do “believe” in intuition – but that’s too weak a word. I practice it daily. It guides every minute of my training. In yoga tradition, intuition, is associated with calm, dispassionate feeling in the heart. For anyone who’s interested, I wrote a book called Fitness Intuition – it’s posted in its entirety on my website, http://www.fitnessintuition.com.

  14. Leonardo and Poincare advocated the same notion: Get away from a problem and stop thinking about it if you’re deadlocked.

  15. Thanks for this post. I think way too much, and to balance my brain and body, practice yoga and doodling. Both help me drop down out of my mind.

    Extra thanks for the resources mentioned; they come at a perfect time.

  16. This is great!

    I want to thank you, Mark, for providing the missing question I needed to formulate a thought that has been gnawing at me for a while.

    Like Chuck, I, consider the wandering mind to be in a different mode of thinking – a much more productive one.

    The analytic mind uses words and numbers and formulas to create questions – that are not yes/no – in need of answers or solutions.

    The question may sometimes be unasked, but it has to arise.

    If left to the devices of the analytic brain, providing a solution may be extremely difficult, energy consuming and frustrating.

    However – if we allow it – the question engages the intuitive brain, which works ever so more quickly and efficiently. I say – if we allow it – because it requires that we free the energy that would be taken up by the arduous analytic brain for the intuitive brain to do its thing.

    Thus, using pictures/images, patterns and feelings – in non-linear fashion, the intuitive brain works feverishly, below consciousness, until it connects previously unassociated, and unbeknown to the “thinker”, relevant bits of information. Thus is created the aha moment of creativity.

    But this is not enough, because the intuitive brain is incapable of communication the new-found understanding and sharing it as a contribution to the collective body of human knowledge. This requires the verbal (lingual ) capabilities of the analytic.

    So, what I would like to call “effective thinking” is a leisurely duet of the analytic and intuitive minds, working in concert, and most important – getting out of each others way when it’s appropriate.
    ______________

    So what was the question you provided?
    “How can I justify my own wandering mind?”

  17. I am being a bit cantankerous tonight (LOL). Responded to other blog posts with ‘my’ view. You offered an awesome topic. I hope you will return to this topic on occasion. Other comments are excellent.

    They are astounding thoughtful ideas on where we should be going as a society.

    I do feel that you made references to a limited source of origins of getting out of the ‘traditional mindset’. Too often I am seeing references to Zen (which I will not understand) or other sources that we in North America are not accustomed to. That is why I hope you will revisit this topic in the future.

    As to thinking. Well. A common phrase is: You gotta think outside the box. I don’t know how to do that & I finally figured out why. All my life I have “lived outside that box”. I just discovered that trait in my 61st year on earth. I see inventions and creative works and new thought from a perspective that few have and I can express my interest about that.

    I just watched a video in which I was exhorted to let go of worries and fear by thinking only in the minute. Yet, one line in this video belayed his whole theme. It pertained to how you get to your goals. Goals are future. In the minute type of dealing with fear usually won’t succeed because the fear pertains to the future goal. So…

    I live outside the box. I see potential futures where goals lie. I think, in each moment, I have now fear of what the future brings. What is there is governed by how I operate in the now. How I operate in the now is based on getting to some sort of future. NO FEAR. The future will come and I have done a little thing now in preparation of getting there.

    Just a response to a good topic.

  18. As one whose mother often said “you think too much” I may surprise some by saying I totally agree with you. I’ve been through enough shifts to learn to rely on other instincts than simply thinking.

    I love how you start this post. I often say to my clients: “Take your head off and put it over there on the table.”

    My father, an engineer and inventor, often did his best “thinking” while dozing in front of the TV. He’d pop up all of a sudden with a solution to a design problem.

    I get my inspiration when I am moving – walking/driving – something that makes scenery move past me.

    Csikzentmihalyi, in his books on flow, points out that flow occurs when we are able to let our minds wander while doing ordinary things like showering, washing dishes and gardening. These are moments when the muse strikes.

    I like to call it peripheral thinking…

    Thanks again for a great post!

  19. Thanks Mark. As always, your blog posts are insightful and inspirational. And tweet worthy! @TweetRightBrain

  20. I love the ideas presented in this post. It’s true that to fully engage creativity, it’s helpful (perhaps even essential) to disengage from linear thinking.

    However, I don’t see Western culture as stuck on critical thinking, logic, or reason. In fact, I think these skills are sorely lacking in our society. Here in the U.S., science and philosophy have absolutely no place in mainstream culture, and that’s a big problem when your country is supposed to be a democratic republic whose citizens are educated thinkers.

    I would say there are appropriate times and places for using your mind in different ways. Again, I love this post. I’m only mentioning this other perspective because the lack of critical thinking and the widespread apathy on the part of everyday people gives me great concern on the social and political stages as well as in the artistic arena.

  21. Western cultures are not alone in the absence of so called critical thinking. Historically cultures everywhere are built on certain commonly held beliefs or ideals. Free thinkers are commonly discouraged if they threaten those generally accepted beliefs. Around the world today we see this in the existence of various religious fundamentalists and extremists.

    There is a certain comfort that comes from being part of a group. So called group think is what drives most of those things which form the basis of society as we know it. Most of us learn from a very early age that to get along one must go along. We follow the rules and obey the laws in order to avoid unpleasantness or the social stigma of being different.

    Those who stand out are often singled out for special treatment. This tends to discourage critical thinking and encourage individuals to stay within the fold.

    When you get out of your head and into your heart it becomes obvious what the limitations of critical thinking really are. Group think takes on an entirely new dimension when you connect with the concept of oneness. This is the ultimate radical view which goes well beyond anything which is contained in any finite belief system.

  22. My best ‘thinking’ comes when I am running. It’s like by physically exercising my body, my brain goes into ‘screensaver’ mode and only functions undercover. I have my most brilliant ideas then, or solutions to problems I was struggling with suddenly pop up.

    I think it has to do with hand-brain coordination. When you occupy your hands (or any other bodily limb) there is less room for clutter in your brain, or it allows it to take unexpected turns.

    Thanks for this article. I enjoyed that.

  23. Thanks everyone, I’m glad it’s not just me. 😉

    @ Kevin – “Meditating for the purpose of clearing your head is not meditation. So – it’s tricky.” It is indeed! I trod a bit of a tightrope a while back when I wrote about meditation and its effect on productivity:

    @ dava – I know how you feel. Sometimes it feels like my mind is incredibly vacant, yet as soon as I try to empty it on purpose, it feels very full. 😉

    @ Steph @ Cory – I’d not heard of Meisner classes before, did some Googling and it looks interesting. I’ve tried Impro according to Keith Johnstone’s approach and found it an amazing experience (esp. mask work), might be interesting to compare it with Meisner.

    @ Chuck – Well, maybe I’d go along with ‘unstructured thought’ if you mean something other than the ‘hard’ thinking and reasoning that gets trumpeted so much.

    “Aren’t we really freeing ourselves from our feelings and not our thoughts?” – I’d suggest not. Given the choice, I’d go with an emotion rather than a thought anytime – emotions are from an older and in some ways wiser part of our brain. If I ignore a thought, I may not be missing much. If I ignore an emotion, I’m probably in trouble.

    @ Philip – I used to test INFJ on Myers-Briggs, but after hanging around with John Eaton for a few years, I recently tested INFJ.

    @ Abby – “As soon as I revert back to over-analysis everything goes pear-shaped.” Amen to that!

    @ Stacey – “I used to carry my head under my arm”. Looks like you anticipated (or suggested) my Green Knight post! 🙂

    @ George – What you call intuition, John Eaton calls Bodymind:

    Bodymind is the intelligence of the body, working through the Brain, the Nervous System, the Glands, the cells and the Immune system. It’s primary function is to ensure the safety of the individual and to maximise health and happiness.

    From John’s website http://www.reversetherapy.com

    @ Jack – “So, what I would like to call “effective thinking” is a leisurely duet of the analytic and intuitive minds, working in concert, and most important – getting out of each others way when it’s appropriate.” – That’s an excellent summary of the creative process.

    @ Glen – If Zen doesn’t hit the spot for you, have you tried Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game books? I see you coach golf – he wrote a book called The Inner Game of Golf where he talks about Self 1 and Self 2, which roughly correspond to the analytical an intuitive aspects of human beings. His basic coaching philosophy is that Self 1 (analytic) needs to get out of the way for sports players to perform at their best.

    @ Kathy – Recovering heavy thinker here too. 😉

    @ Melissa – I didn’t say Westerners were particularly good at critical thinking, just very impressed by it! 😉

    @ Marvin – “Group think takes on an entirely new dimension when you connect with the concept of oneness.” Agreed. That sounds more like group feeling than group think to me.

  24. Hi Mark,

    I have couple things I do related to this article. Firstly, I do yoga specifically in order to feel what it’s like not to think. I find, that having to focus on breathing, movement, and muscles does not leave room for the thought-chatter that’s usually going on inside our heads.

    The other thing, with different impact, is that I take 20 minute naps almost every day, and during that time I deliberately stop actively thinking about anything, but instead let the thoughts flow freely. It’s similar to sitting in a movie theatre and wathing a film, without taking any control or stand on the things I see.

    //sami

  25. Maybe there´s another way of thinking. I mean, those moments when you think differently then using only analytical though. Maybe, we limit our boundaries when focusing our minds through some methodical way of solving problems. If that´s real, it looks like it´s time to perceive a new way of thinking, where a bunch mechanisms works together, not only the brain, but vision, audition, voice, gestures, the whole body experiences a creative moment of living. Maybe?

  26. Andra Phillips says:

    I love this post. I can relate entirely with what you are saying. So many great ideas and solutions come to me when I am relaxed and able to “get my mind out of the way”. I am not ashamed to say that I believe in The Supreme Being and I know when we are quiet, thoughts of guidance come. Thanks for sharing.

  27. ‘My best thoughts, my most creative ideas, my soundest arguments, have come when I’m not thinking at all. Usually in the worst moments, too – taking a shower or driving down the highway, where there’s no keyboard to be had.”

    It’s the same way for me… most of my best thinking is in the car.