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Medical Thinking without trying

  1. Jul 15, 2006 #1
    Ive noticed something about myself when i try to solve a problem consciously i can't do it i'd be stuck there for hours and then i'd give up and like a nagging song the problem would surface again and my mind would solve the problem effortlessly and everything starts to 'fit' like a jigsaw puzzle...or i get a starting point given to me by my head and i just carry on along the line and end up with the answer....once i was staring on a maths question and i tried it consiously and i knew it was one of those questions that i could get stuck on for hours so i stopped literaly emptied my mind completly and sat there then in bout a min equations popped into my head and i ended up on the right track and done. that was quite a strange feeling, i was like in a different frame of mind. i was thinking if i could somehow control that kind of thinking it would be brilliant (effortless thinking), any tips, ideas as to why this happens? anyone else have similar happenings.
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  3. Jul 15, 2006 #2
    Something similar can happen when ur sleeping. It turns out that while ur asleep the brain reorganises information and u end up with a better memory the next day.

    Maybe focussing ur attention on something takes resources away from something else. Like a computer that multitasks and performs these tasks slower and slower the more tasks are happening at the same time. Or it could be the way u in which think, in words or images (or something else). Either could be better suited for different situations.

    Still odd that a still mind would be more intelligent than a thinking mind.
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2006
  4. Jul 15, 2006 #3


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    Many people who think deeply as a profession report this phenomena. The great mathematician Poincare had a famous story about his discovery that "Fuchsian functions" were described by non-Euclidean geometry. He had been working hard to understand the functions, thinking about them hours a day in his office in Paris, but with no success. Then he took a hiking and camping vacation in the country and didn't think about them consciously at all. Just as he was stepping on the bus to return to town, the whole solution flashed into his mind.
  5. Jul 15, 2006 #4
    Something that I noticed last year while studying for history is that memories seem to become engraved and solid when you wake up. For example, I sometimes studied for 8 hours straight before going to bed. So much information was going through that before going to sleep, I couldn't really remember if something happened here or there, etc. Then when I woke up, everything was in place.... Same with the time I memorized some digits of pi (like 110) before going to sleep quickly, and I was stumbling around not knowing exactly the sequence of numbers a few times. However, when I woke up I had it down perfectly.... Cool stuff.

    It's also cool how if you're trying to remember a certain (usually quite common) word, but can't seem to get it, if you forget about trying to remember it and move on, at a random time BAM you remember it...
  6. Jul 15, 2006 #5
    This is the only way I could get through school.

    Many times I would have an insatiable desire to inquire deeply into a subject studied in class. I had the feeling that I wasn't being told the whole story, that something was kept from me as a student, that it was being dumbed down, and I found that unsettling and patronizing. I would want to know things that a teacher would say are good questions but currently unimportant to the lesson and perhaps we would start to cover them in later chapters or courses. But I didn't want to wait, and that would cause much anxiety. I would try to explore further on my own, but there is simply not enough time in the day to do deeper explorations in all your courses, and eventually grades suffered.

    Instead of thinking so much about the problem, then, I would not think. Quieting the mind of these questions, correct answers were easy to maintain. I went from being a below average student to having the highest grade in a couple of my courses. Instead of thinking, you let yourself become a bit of a robot and obey.

    That sounds dehumanizing at first, but obedience is what the scientist and mathematician must do anyway, whether it is nature or theorems. I suppose that some amount of it removes the creative burden of dealing with so many ideas at once. You accept some ideas as "dealt with" and the mind is focused purely on fitting something into the unknown.
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2006
  7. Jul 15, 2006 #6


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    There seems to be some connection to (light) physical activity too. I mentioned Poincare's hiking. Another mathematician, the immensely creative Englishman Hardy, had for a number of years the habit of working four hours each morning on his researches, and spendign the afternoon playing cricket, in season, with an amatreur team.

    Many modern mathematicians and physicists are into camping, mountain climbing and other vigorous outdoor activities.
  8. Jul 17, 2006 #7
    Thing is im not out door type person or sporty at all (tried tennis, a while ago, was useless at it but enjoyed it). I noticed it's when im relaxed I get these answers, the maths prob i solved by lying down, once i was in the shower, in bed. I guess some people find sports relaxing, hmm. As a kid i always had this feeling that if i wanted to i could achieve anything, not in a big headed way, i don't know where i got this idea from I didn't really have any support or encouragement that i was clever from anyone. so i didnt try, i ended up having low grades, then in year 10 i buckled down and my grades shot up (in science especially), still i was hardly trying, i was just more aware of the importance of grades. In 6th form i had a great teacher i gained a real boost in confidence and when questions were asked in the classroom or anything i noticed, i would just shout it out, again without actually thinking answers would pop into my head. Most people thought all of a sudden i got intelligent, lol, because im generally a 'shy' quiet person, only because im exactly a social bumblebee, not good at making conversation and i get embaressed easily.
    I have a feeling maybe i used to think in pictures(i think everyone did, since verbal communication is an environmental thing) and maybe thats why I can't remember anything solid before year 10 just random snapshots, I can't remember any sentence/conversation, anything verbal. Is that normal?
    Last edited: Jul 17, 2006
  9. Jul 17, 2006 #8


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    I think the important thing is to be distracted, so your conscious mind doesn't even slightly think about the problem. And if in addition to conscious distraction you can work in at least one sleep cycle, so much the better.

    Relaxed and distracted works. By outdoors I didn't mean competetive sports; if you just can't help being competitive that could impede relaxing. I was thinking more of day hikes or fishing, something quiet.
  10. Jul 17, 2006 #9


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    If I am right, I believe Schrodinger did the same kind of thing.
  11. Jul 18, 2006 #10


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    This is an interesting phenomenon. I don't know if there is any research looking into it, but would welcome anyone to share it if they do know of something. It certainly does seem pretty common that people report they get their best ideas while in the shower, or when they take a walk, or are doing some mindless chore like folding laundry, etc.

    So, since we collectively don't seem to have any answers forthcoming yet, why don't we explore the questions that we'd need to ask if one were to pursue this as a scientific inquiry. I've phrased the questions, essentially, in the form of hypothesis or alternative hypothesis.

    First, IS it a phenomenon? This could simply be an observer bias, since the only observer is the person with the experience. The following questions are in no particular order:
    - If you had continued to work on the problem another half hour instead of taking a half hour long walk, would you have eventually gotten to the solution either way?
    - Have you really stopped thinking about the problem, or have you just changed the environment in which you're thinking about it?
    - Does walking away from a problem reliably result in identifying the correct solution, or do you just as often, or more often, come to no solution, or wrong solutions?

    These are some initial questions that I think would need to be addressed. It could simply be that we just notice it when we get a good idea at an unexpected time, and forget about all the crazy, wild-goose chase type ideas we also thought about and dismissed. We also may not notice how many of our good ideas come to us when we are directly thinking about a problem, because it's not something as out of the ordinary.

    IF it turns out that, yes, people do arrive at better or more creative solutions when doing an activity other than directly focusing on a particular problem, what might be some explanations? This time, instead of asking questions as either/or style, my list is a set of alternative hypotheses, any of which might explain the phenomenon, or several in combination might, or they may all miss the real explanation. Again, in no particular order:
    - When focused on a single problem for a long time, do we lock ourselves into a single pattern of thought that we need to distract ourselves from in order to set aside false or misleading assumptions?
    - Does changing activities relieve some form of stress that is inhibiting our cognitive abilities?
    - Does light exercise stimulate our cognitive abilities when attempting to solve complex problems?

    These are just some possible explanations I can think up off the top of my head. This is pretty much the initial inquiry one would need to make (this may have already been done and be available in the literature; I have not looked). First, determine if the phenomenon really exists, or if it is just an observer bias, and second, determine what type of situations or activities or events lead to the experience of this phenomenon (if it exists). Only then could one begin to delve into the questions addressing the mechanism of action. Of course, for practical application, most people would likely just want to know the answers to the second level of questioning, and it wouldn't matter much why it happens, as long as they knew what they needed to do to make it happen.
  12. Jul 18, 2006 #11
    thanks moonbear

    1"- If you had continued to work on the problem another half hour instead of taking a half hour long walk, would you have eventually gotten to the solution either way?"

    i think whether or not getting the solution is dependant on my knowledge and intelligence, but the how fast i can solve it is dependant on this relaxed mood, because i think eventually i could solve a problem if i spend enough time on it given that i have the knowledge to solve it. when my frame of mind is changed i see answers quicker.

    2" Have you really stopped thinking about the problem, or have you just changed the environment in which you're thinking about it?"

    environment hasn't changed if im in the same place, like in my bedroom.

    3"Does walking away from a problem reliably result in identifying the correct solution, or do you just as often, or more often, come to no solution, or wrong solutions?"

    again i think, like 1.

    a) "When focused on a single problem for a long time, do we lock ourselves into a single pattern of thought that we need to distract ourselves from in order to set aside false or misleading assumptions?"

    I would agree with that, it ends up getting stressful when you seem to be getting no where with a problem, and it does seem everything gets clouded and your missing something, and you start to focus on this missing thing instead of the original problem, and i physically feel a change in my frame of mind when i see the solution.

    b) "- Does changing activities relieve some form of stress that is inhibiting our cognitive abilities?"

    i think this is possible too. my mind feels refreshed/ less 'heavy' when i solve problems without trying

    c) "Does light exercise stimulate our cognitive abilities when attempting to solve complex problems?"

    Don't know about this one. I guess this would be a good experiment to conduct under controlled conditions.
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2006
  13. Jul 18, 2006 #12


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    Argument against this (anecdotal but could inspire a statistical study): every time the subject is brought up by anybody (such as this thread), several others chime in with "That happened to me too". Constrast this with some iffy internal state like a mystical union. Practitioners may say it's available to everybody but the "me too" effect is notably weak.

    This looks to me like a counterfactual, or "conclusion of the witness", and so untestable.

    If by this you mean "internal mental environment", this is the 64 million dollar question. If you mean external environment, no way. You really have to get so distracted that the problem doesn't rise to consciousness.

    I have a recurrent test of this, in that I apply the method to difficult crossword puzzles that I do. And when I'm stuck I follow the walk away strategy, often for days. And I nearly always get some help when I come back (I'm talking about cryptic puzzle definitions like the ones Gokul does on GD). It's often an insight, of a stronger presence than the usual solving experience. I do believe that if a suitable sample population this could be demonstrated with a careful experimental technique.
  14. Jul 19, 2006 #13
    I thought this was already very well-known among scientists. It's written about often in popular science literature. James Burke mentions it every now and then, saying that these momentary flashes of insight are what separates the innovators "from the rest of us slobs." But, then, I suppose it's a tribute to the challenge of psychology that there is little solid scientific study about the phenomenon itself.

    Anyway, I believe that it is related to the simple idea that nervousness and creativity are inversely related, or that...

    Smart People Choke Under Pressure

    Most of the people on this site probably have higher than average working-memory. You know that you can work on a task for a long period of time, but when you eventually hit a snag, it irritates you a bit. That irritation takes up short-term memory and could make it even more irritating. So you take a break and do something to shake it off.

    However, if you do something that you are well-accustomed to, something that doesn't take much of your working memory, like taking a shower, then your memory will be free again and you will naturally continue the problem, despite your apparent action on something else. What appears like a wonderful insight, when viewed from another angle, could have been the normal conclusion, now long overdue, you would have found had you not snagged. (what makes people snag is another interesting question, huh?)

    I have had my memory tested a couple times by academic psychologists and results were mixed. However, most recently, I was tested commercially by the Rockport Institute, which did not take a unilateral view towards working memory. Instead, they divided working memory into three categories.

    Number Memory - A list of random 10-digit numbers.

    Design Memory - A random "connect the dots" assortment of line segments.

    Associative Memory - A list of nonsense words paired with English words.

    As you can tell, each is useful for different tasks. Number memory for things like accounting, design memory for art, and associative memory for foreign languages. Note also that number memory does not measure anything about one's ability to perform calculations with numbers, just the ability to keep them in one's mind short term. The Rockport Institute uses these measures among others to test for what careers would suit you.

    My results were the following percentile figures:

    Number memory - 17
    Design memory - 91
    Associative memory - 99

    I have very high working memory for design and association, but very low for number.

    So, to put it all together. According to the article, and assuming these measures are applicable to their view of working memory, in theory, I should noticeably crack under pressure when asked to work with designs and languages, but do just as well under pressure when asked to work with numbers. However, in a low pressure environment, these other levels would rise significantly.

    Those of us with low working memory in one area might perform the same as others with those who are otherwise gifted. But we would seemingly not have the same likelihood of having a flash of insight in that area while in a low pressure environment, ceteris paribus.
    Last edited: Jul 19, 2006
  15. Sep 27, 2006 #14
    At a neurological level, when we try to learn and understand too many relatively complex theories in an instant during our consciousness, retroactive interference occurs. You see, all this information is stored in our hippocampus, which learns very quickly but has a small storage space, hence "interference" occurs.

    During our offline states (e.g. NREM sleep), memory consolidation occurs i.e. the memories and encoded by the hippocampus and stored in the neocortex, which is good at picking out structures. So I suspect that's why when you wake up, you're able to solve the problem which you learnt previously better.
  16. Sep 28, 2006 #15
    It's not a matter of controversy that the hippocampus is crucial to memory, but I think the specific characteristics you're ascribing to it here, and in the rest of your post, are not as definitely mapped and known as you make them out to be. I imagine you've read things that actually are more tentatively stated like "Studied indicate that..." or "Researchers believe the neocortex may..."
  17. Sep 28, 2006 #16


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    This is a common technique among artists.

    I'm rather surprised that everyone is talking about this as if there's so little study done on it.

    While I believe that the left-brain / right brain model has been somewhat discredited, the work done on localized task delegation is still valid isn't it? Parts of the mind are better at vocal, talking, analyzing, word-based tasks, while other parts are better at visual, creative, holistic picture-based tasks.

    When you're stuck on a problem, it's because your dominant analytical mind is fully active and overrides the more passive, less communicative holistic mind. Unfortunately, the analytical mind also quite linear, and won't choose the path less taken.

    By talking a break, or distracting yourself, your analytical mind moves on to something else. This is gives your more passive, creative, but less communicative mind a chance to tackle the problem. It has no problem taking illogical paths, which is often what needs to happen when you're at a logical dead-end.
  18. Sep 29, 2006 #17


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    I'd thought this was a well established fact for most of my life, as it explains some personal experiences that would be difficult to explain otherwise. Only here, with talk of scientific evidence, did it occur to question this. I've tried and haven't found a lot of reliable material, but I'm not good at looking for this.

    Here are some
    'There is in fact experimental evidence that both defocused attention (Dewing & Battye 1971; Dykes & McGhie 1976; Mendelsohn 1976), and high sensitivity (Martindale & Armstrong 1974; Martindale 1977), including sensitivity to subliminal impressions (Smith & Van de Meer 1994) are associated with creativity.' http://cogprints.org/2105/00/inklings.htm

    Martindale (1999) identified a cluster of attributes associated with high creativity. One is defocused attention: the tendency not to focus exclusively on the relevant aspects of a situation, but notice also seemingly irrelevant aspects (Dewing & Battye, 1971; Dykes & McGhie, 1976; Mendelsohn, 1976). A related attribute is high sensitivity (Martindale, 1977, 1999; Martindale & Armstrong, 1974), including sensitivity to subliminal impressions; stimuli that are perceived but of which one has no memory (Smith & Van de Meer, 1994).http://cogprints.org/3417/01/cf.htm

    So we did that study, and what we found from the debriefing was indeed that they were thinking at a very free-floating way that's kind of analogous to what is characterised as free association in psychoanalytic thinking. And what we observed during 'rest' was that the parts of the brain that are active during rest are the parts that we call the association cortex. The association cortex has no specific function; it's part of the brain and you know we have about four association cortices in our brains spotted around in different locations. They're the parts of the brain that make connections with other parts of the brain. So my theory is that during the creative process which derives from these kind of unconscious states that we go into when we free-associate or when our brain 'rests' – during that, ideas are floating around, colliding, making connections, sometimes the connections are not very important or trivial but sometimes they're original. And people who have especially well developed association cortices are likely to be more creative. That's the working theory, and I'm just embarking on a study right now of highly creative people using functional imaging and using tasks or conditions where I can study the way their association cortex works. I mean I'm giving them tasks that will stimulate their creativity and then see if indeed that draws on their association cortex. It's actually one of the more fun studies I've done.
  19. Sep 29, 2006 #18


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    I firmly believe that this cluster of abilities is under strong genetic control. My wife and her father were both possessors of them to a high degree, and my daughter has inherited them. My daughter also believes that creativity can be taught, which is just evidence that she finds it "natural". Trained as an engineer, she is now paid a lot more as an internal creative consultant to the engineers. I, alas, am prescriptive, meanng that I have geat problems perceiveing anything I don't already have a model for in my head.
  20. Sep 29, 2006 #19
    How do any models get into your head to begin with, then?
  21. Sep 29, 2006 #20


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    With great difficulty, obviously.:tongue2:
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