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.
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!
Last week I met with research collaborators in Italy where they have been restricted to their homes for the past four weeks and need written permission to move more than 200 yards from the house; in Urbana-Champaign, IL, USA where they closed down the campus two weeks ago on about the same timescale as here in Liverpool; and in Taiwan where they are able to work on campus wearing masks but they are not delivering undergraduate lectures. Of course, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, all of these meetings happened electronically via a variety of virtual conferencing tools. At the weekend, I climbed the Welsh hill, Moel Famau, that we can see from the upper windows of our house. We climb it most weekends, but last weekend was different because I did it virtually by repeatedly climbing the stairs in our house so that I could abide by the Government’s directions to not visit the countryside. I had talked about it during our first weekend in lock-down and calculated how many repeats were equivalent to the climb from Cilcain to the summit. A report of a virtual ascent of Everest inspired me to go ahead with my own virtual expedition from the basement to the attic thirty-five times. The first stage was like the lower slopes of well-used mountain trail where rangers have installed wooden steps to protect the hillside because we have recently installed a new oak staircase to the basement. The middle stage was a gentler winding ascent with views of hills while the final stage was steep with awkward steps leading to a hidden summit. To my surprise, I got some of the same feelings of mental well-being and renewal induced by walking in real hills [see: ‘Gone walking‘ on April 19th, 2014 & ‘Take a walk on the wild side‘ on August 26th, 2015]. As I write this post, a Government minister is saying on the radio that we might not be allowed our daily hour outside for exercise, so my virtual expedition will likely be repeated next weekend.
I overheard a clip on the radio last week in which someone was parodying the quote from Marvin, the Paranoid Android in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘Here I am with a brain the size of a planet and they ask me to pick up a piece of paper. Call that job satisfaction? I don’t.’ It set me thinking about something that I read a few months ago in Max Tegmark’s book: ‘Life 3.0 – being human in the age of artificial intelligence‘ [see ‘Four requirements for consciousness‘ on January 22nd, 2020]. Tegmark speculates that since consciousness seems to require different parts of a system to communicate with one another and form networks or neuronal assemblies [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016], then the thoughts of large systems will be slower by necessity. Hence, the process of forming thoughts in a planet-sized brain will take much longer than in a normal-sized human brain. However, the more complex assemblies that are achievable with a planet-sized brain might imply that the thoughts and experiences would be much more sophisticated, if few and far between. Tegmark suggests that a cosmic mind with physical dimensions of a billion light-years would only have time for about ten thoughts before dark energy fragmented it into disconnected parts; however, these thoughts and associated experiences would be quite deep.
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Penguin Random House, 2007.