Beware Excessive Conceptualization

Conceptualization is a skill. The process involves working out an idea or explanation and formulating it mentally. Everyone can and does conceptualize, but like all skills, some people are better at it than others. Speed matters for many of those who consider themselves intelligent. They demonstrate their erudition and big IQ numbers – and impress others – with their ability to come up with swift conceptualizations of just about anything that crosses their path. Or so they think. In reality, we are all familiar with the person who can snap out ideas and explanations that sound plausible at the time, but which soon prove incomplete, inadequate, or just plain wrong.

Old fashioned alarm clock with a question mark on its face.

Solid conceptualization (putting the pieces together) needs time and all of the mind’s resources. The language portion of thinking must be supplemented by association, intuition, etc. (image: pixabay.com)

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Intuitive Insights Can Be Slow In Coming

The common perception of intuition is that it is blindingly fast, an almost instantaneous comprehension of some problem, question, or situation. In fact, definitions of intuition often describe it in precisely this way. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary says, “… the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.” In reality, when solving complex problems, intuition can be extremely slow. Sometimes, years may pass before the needed insight suddenly emerges into conscious awareness.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1900

While it might end in a sudden epiphany, the lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke saw intuition as a years-long process. (Image: Wikipedia)

Rilke’s Advice to a Young Poet

In 1903, the great lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote ten letters to a student seeking guidance. In the course of giving advice, Rilke reveals an attitude of patience towards garnering insights that would remain with him throughout his life. He reiterated this idea near the end of his days when, living in his lonely stone house in the Swiss countryside, he was finally able to complete his masterpiece, “The Duino Elegies,” which had been a decade in the making.

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The Creative Eureka Experience

Portrait of René Descartes by Jan Baptist Weenix

Rene Descartes had one of his greatest eureka moments while lying in bed idly watching a fly hover in the air. (Image: public domain.)

One of the most commonly talked about aspects of the creative process is the phenomenon of having sudden key insights after one has carefully considered the facts and, unable to find a solution, turned to other things – the famous “eureka” experience. There are many entertaining anecdotes revealing how famous creators experienced a sudden flash of insight, often while doing something quite ordinary. Because of three particularly well-known stories, one might call this the bed, bath, and bus scenario.

It all began in Greece. Archimedes supposedly had his eureka moment while relaxing in the public baths and ran home naked shouting “eureka” (I found it) thereby giving the experience its name. The bit about running au naturel through the streets is probably Roman hokum, but it does vividly capture the sense of intense excitement that accompanies the unexpected breakthrough. Henri Poincaré had his seminal insight into non-Euclidean geometry just as he boarded a bus. The idea seemed to come out of nowhere. The French mathematician attributed his insight to “unconscious work” and claimed an ability to ruminate on math problems while engaged in unrelated activities like chatting with a friend on a bus. Descartes suddenly envisioned his Cartesian co-ordinate system while lying in bed idly watching a fly hovering in the air. In all three cases, the insight followed considerable foundation-laying work that had as yet borne no fruit.

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Remembering a Falling Leaf

Tree by Varadi Zsolt

On a still autumn evening I could hear withered leaves slithering to the ground. My unconscious mind began making associations…
(Image: public domain.)

I have kept a diary on and off for over twenty years. The other day, while glancing through some pages, I came across an unusual entry from November 16, 1997. At that time, Carl Jung’s ideas about the unconscious mind had taken over as my primary interest. His notions of archetypes, the anima / animus, and the collective unconscious intrigued me. I had begun to notice the little clues the unconscious always leaves for those who are paying attention.

Some Christians believe that to be close to the unconscious is to be close to God. I am not religious, but I do understand why they might feel that way. In 1997, I was living in the country on a heavily wooded five-acre hillside lot. Young cottonwood trees surrounded the house. Deer grazed clover at my back door. Cougars, following the deer herd, left huge paw prints on the driveway’s soft sandy edges. In that wilderness setting, one remarkably calm autumn evening in November, I experienced a particularly charming example of unconscious magic.

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