Tag Archives: mind-wandering

Life of the mind in a bubble

About four years ago I wrote about living in bubbles and rarely coming into contact with people outside of our bubble [see ‘You’re all weird‘ on February 8th, 2017]. This was in the context of our experience of the media and our surprise when electorates make apparently irrational decisions. Since early this year we have been encouraged to live in more literal bubbles in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19; so, for example, we have created bubbles of researchers using our research labs in shifts to avoid a total shutdown of research when someone tests positive for coronavirus.  For many people, the pandemic has isolated them in a bubble of one that has created concerns about the well-being and happiness of individuals living and working alone.  When asked about the place he is happiest, the artist Ai Weiwei responded ‘Every place is equal for me.  Even in detention I could still find joyful moments’.  He finds ways to connect to other people and their emotions by reflecting on who he is, which leads to moments of joy.  He believes that success in life is about finding yourself in way that ‘doesn’t need ambition or talent. It just needs a functioning mind, emotion and simple judgment.’  During lockdowns induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that it has become more important to maintain the life of mind through reading and discovering new ideas. As Jarvis Cocker said in a recent interview: ‘I don’t want to spend the rest of my life thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same things, rechewing the same thing. I find that really boring.’  I hope that these posts have brought you new ideas and ways of thinking during 2020; writing them has certainly kept my mind active and stimulated.  So, I plan to continue in 2021 and hope that you will continue to read them.  Best wishes for a happy New Year!


Inventory: Ai Weiwei, Artist interviewed by Lilah Raptopoulos in the FT Magazine, October 31/November 1, 2020.

Evolve or fade away, Jarvis Cocker interviewed by Ludovic Hunter-Tilney in the FT Weekend, 14 November/15 November 2020.

Thinking in straight lines is unproductive

I suspect that none of us think in straight lines.  We have random ideas that we progressively arrange into some sort of order, or forget them.  The Nobel Laureate, Herbert Simon thought that three characteristics defined creative thinking: first, the willingness to accept vaguely defined problems and gradually structure them; second, a preoccupation with problems over a considerable period of time; and, third, extensive background knowledge. The first two characteristics seem strongly connected because you need to think about an ill-defined problem over a significant period of time in order to gradually provide a structure that will allow you to create possible solutions.    We need to have random thoughts in order to generate new structures and possible solutions that might work better than those we have already tried out; so, thinking in straight lines is unlikely to be productive and instead we need intentional mind-wandering [see ‘Ideas from a balanced mind‘ on August 24th, 2016].   More complex problems will require the assembling of more components in the structure and, hence are likely to require a larger number of neurons to assemble and to take longer, i.e. to require longer and deeper thought with many random excursions [see ‘Slow deep thoughts from planet-sized brain‘ on March 25th, 2020] .

In a university curriculum it is relatively easy to deliver extensive background knowledge and perhaps we can demonstrate techniques to students, such as sketching simple diagrams [see ‘Meta-knowledge: knowledge about knowledge‘ on June 19th, 2019], so that they can gradually define vaguely posed problems; however, it is difficult to persuade students to become preoccupied with a problem since many of them are impatient for answers.  I have always found it challenging to teach creative problem-solving to undergraduate students; and, the prospect of continuing limitations on face-to-face teaching has converted this challenge into a problem requiring a creative solution in its own right.


Simon HA, Discovery, invention, and development: human creative thinking, Proc. National Academy of Sciences, USA (Physical Sciences), 80:4569-71, 1983.

New horizons

Along with many people, I have been working from home since mid-March and it seems likely that I will be doing so for the foreseeable future.  Even if a vaccine is discovered for COVID-19, it will take many months to vaccinate the population.  For the first few months of lockdown, I worked on an old workbench in the basement of our house; however, now I have an office set up in the attic and the picture above is the view from my desk.  It certainly has eye-stretching potential but it is also frustrating because I can see the roof of the building in which my university office is located.  However, the lockdown in the UK has been relaxed and so we are going on holiday to Cornwall where we will be walking sections of the South West Coastal Path and reading a pile of books.  If you want experience the walking with us then I recommend reading ‘The Salt Path‘ by Raynor Winn [see ‘The Salt Path‘ on August 14th, 2019]. Although I will be indulging in a digital detox [see ‘Digital detox with a deep vacation‘ on August 10th, 2016] combined with some horizon therapy [see ‘Horizon therapy‘ on May 4th, 2016], the flow of posts to this blog will be uninterrupted because lock-down has allowed me write sufficient pieces in advance to maintain the publishing schedule.

I noticed that both of the posts cited above about the importance of relaxing were published in 2016, along with Steadiness and Placidity on July 171th, 2016.  2016 must have been a stressful year!

Dyschronometria induced by coronavirus lockdown

I must be losing my sense of time as result of spending most of everyday communicating  with colleagues via my laptop because I published today’s post yesterday [see ‘Professor soars through the landscape‘ on April 27th, 2020].  Even when a helpful reader pointed out that the accompanying video had not been published, I simply thought that I had failed to synchronise the post and video properly – see my comment on yesterday’s post.  It was not until my editor asked me why I had published a post on Tuesday that I realised my error. Perhaps I am suffering from dyschronometria brought on by the COVID-19 lock-down in force in the UK.