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Where You Can Hear Yourself Think

Theatrical improvisation epitomizes creativity: on a stage in front of an audience with no knowledge of one’s lines or blocking, on the razor’s edge of performance, and one must act, now. Any hesitation, calculation, or pretense signals to the audience the failure of the improvisation. Only the unflinching embrace of immediate impulse can ensure success. In daily life, the mind is divided to varying extents between calculating mechanisms and impulse. While successfully improvising, the artist’s mind is entirely undivided, with no allowance whatsoever for calculation.


In a previous blog post, I referred to these subdivisions of the human mind as the applied and the passive: the former representing the part of her brain the actress turns off when improvising, the latter being the part which dominates the brain’s activity should the improvisation succeed.


The applied mind is similar to what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “slow” thinking: systematic, orderly, and rational. Distractions limit and counteract the functioning of the applied mind, which requires a precisely articulated goal and more-or-less accurate anticipation of the steps to achieve it. The maximization of the applied mind’s potential depends upon steps being taken one at a time in a thoughtfully established sequence.


On the other hand, the passive mind is roughly equivalent to “fast” thinking, insofar as it operates for the most part unconsciously and traffics in ineffably complex information. The passive mind is the realm of creative thought, where the unknown is handled according to its own demands, in immediacy, unfiltered, unintegrated. The maximization of the passive mind’s potential depends on freedom. Novelty requires room to grow, and is actively choked out by the overzealous grasp of the applied mind, just as improvisation falls flat the moment the actress pauses to think.


While improvisation fails in the presence of the applied mind’s stuffy pretense, other pursuits are torn apart in the presence of the passive mind’s freewheeling immediacy. Graphing a complicated function or composing a sensitive email enjoy no benefit from other imperatives butting in.


But on the other hand, have you ever successfully recalled a name that was on the tip of your tongue by focusing on it? Each mode of thought, active and passive, represents a tool, and different tools are suited for different tasks.


Per my blog post from last week, I find that our world has progressively increased the demands placed on the applied mind, and that the consequences have become increasingly personal. As a justification for eating junk, I’ve heard it argued that one doesn’t have time to learn the ins and outs of nutrition. To defend errant spending (and the obvious tradeoff, retirement investment), I’ve been told that shopping “makes me happy” from a person who hates her job. I hypothesize that self sabotage of this variety is but one symptom of the oversized role we have conferred upon our applied mind. For the poor folks whose justifications I’ve just recited, I believe that life has entered a sufficiently complex domain to render their rational capacity insufficient for tasks fundamental to life: what and when to eat, how to manage one’s finances, whether or not one’s decisions facilitate one’s goals.


Theoretically, this is a tenuous conjecture. Practically, it is rock solid. I say so from personal experience. In the last six months, I have been living a subtractive lifestyle experiment akin to those with which anyone who’s heard the trendy term “minimalist” should be familiar. I don’t own or watch a TV. I have replaced alcohol with breathing meditation. I don’t use any social media. I have entirely replaced news publications and online articles with nonfiction books. I walk to work, and am currently budgeting for a bicycle so that I can sell my truck (I am fortunate that my loved ones live within a relatively tight radius.) More and more I find I’ve unknowingly left my smartphone behind, as I have less and less use for it.


This exercise has gone hand-in-hand with a thoughtful reallocation of my applied mind’s capacity. To put it simply, without removing the online articles, there wouldn’t be mental resources for the books. Without pulling the TV and social media, there wouldn’t be the mental breathing room to thoughtfully assess whether items such as my smartphone or truck pose benefits that justify their drawbacks (for me, they don’t.)


I hypothesize that anyone would benefit from conducting the same subtractive experiment. What is unnecessary is revealed in its absence. Further, I hypothesize that if everyone conducted this experiment, the growth of complexity in our world would slow, and perhaps even shrink, returning to levels that individual human brains can cognize. Perhaps the connections between debt, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and their consequences would be restored to the popular consciousness.


This is to say nothing of the benefits of correctly allocating responsibility to the passive mind, on which, another blog post a week from next.


In the meantime, to you anonymous reader I issue an invitation: come join me where you can hear yourself think.