Saturday, November 29, 2008

Working the Unconscious

Last night my family and I returned from a 5 day visit to Missouri where my Mom, Brothers and their families live. I can't remember the last time that I was there for Thanksgiving. It was a wonderful visit as I had a chance to spend time with each of my brothers and hang out with my mom quite a bit. It was rushed as you might imagine. It took us almost all of Monday to get there and all of yesterday - Friday - to get back (around 11 or 12 hours). 6 of that is time driving to and from Kansas City-Columbia and Denver-Glenwood Springs.

While I was in Missouri I kept my work instincts under wraps for the most part. I took some time to answer some email messages but didn't get into my project list. I took time to hang out with people, sleep until 8:00, shop, and eat. That's about it.

There was a time when I would be busy thinking or performing work related tasks no matter how far I was from Colorado. If I wasn't answering email, I would be working on a project in my head or on paper. Sometimes I find that working on a project from far away allows me some freedom to be relaxed and think out of the box. The relaxed part is the most important. Sometimes I feel that the distance helps me to be more creative, to look at things from a different angle. With the decreased pressure of a time line, I can loosen my grip on plowing through, step back and see the whole picture.

This vacation was different in that I chose to do nothing. But the question is, is doing "nothing" really doing nothing or are there unconscious forces at work no matter where a person is. And, do these unconscious forces continue to work even when we don't "work". I have been listening to the "Brain Science Podcast" by Ginger Campbell lately. In one of her interviews she talks with Robert Burton this phenomena. They discuss the writer's process wherein a person has an aha! experience and "discovers" the perfect ending to a story after working on a story for some time. The writer might attribute the aha! moment to some mystical experience wherein the "solution" is delivered to them. Burton and Campbell point out that there are all sorts of processes being performed on an unconscious level - some of them physiological (like regulating our heart beat) and some mental (paying attention to movement in our visual space). While we don't attribute these events to divine intervention, we have a hard time believing that there is background activity in our brain that can bring ideas together over time.

What significance does this have for me on my vacation? It means that while I am doing "nothing", yet exposing myself to new people and places, there may be unconscious connections being made. I may be working in the background without having to put a pen to paper. Obviously this doesn't mean that learning and creation can be automatic, but it does mean that there is a important role for letting go and not holding tightly onto the goal of our latest endeavor. It gives us permission to back away from our drive to produce and find new ways to stimulate our creativity.

Of course there must be a balance between work and play. What I am wondering is, what is the consequence of too much push and not enough letting go. Is there value in meditation or play for solving problems? Do these activities allow the associative aspects of our brains to make connections and find a better solution to problems.