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.