I’ve been reading a fascinating book called The Net and the Butterfly by Cabane and Pollack that introduces the reader to two remarkable capacities that rest in two different areas of the brain. One area of our brains (executive network) has the capacity to focus our thoughts, bringing logic to each idea like a subway that carefully picks its way through the city toward a specific destination. Another area of our brains (default network) has the capacity to run around like a 2 year old in a toy store picking up one toy and then another. What you say? You knew that? Actually I hope you did. I certainly thought I did. What I didn’t know was the way they work together and why that process is essential for discovering new ideas. The authors call them breakthroughs.
Moving between the two networks is essential
As they talk about these networks and how they work together, you begin to see that flipping between these two networks is essential. We all have challenges during the day. We all have objectives we are trying to figure out how to achieve. We love to focus on problems because it makes us feel useful and productive. However, when the executive network of the brain is active, the default network is quiet. If the executive network runs the show all the time (including playing that game on your phone to fill in while waiting in line), the default network is drained of energy. On the other hand, if the executive network becomes clear on the problem, it can tell the default network what to work on, or perhaps it would be better said to play on. Then the executive needs to quiet itself so that the default network can have priority access to the energy it needs to do its playing around. Then it tells the executive what has come up.
This is the first time I have begun to more fully understand why ideas come at the times when I least expect them, that is to say, when I’m not focusing at all on the problem. Of course, I have observed this in myself for years, but now I can begin to put language around it that makes practical sense.
Time management books tend to recommend that you set aside large blocks of time to focus on a project. I’m beginning to see that blocks of time should be set aside for daydreaming so the default network can do its remarkable explorations. Here’s what others have done or said about what happens when the brain does a little tuning out.
Looking at tuning out
George Shultz, Secretary of State to Ronald Reagan, used to carve out one hour each week for quiet reflection.
John Lennon wrote “Nowhere Man” after working five hours trying to craft a song with nothing to show. Then words and music came to him as he “lay down.”
Oscar Wilde said, “A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”
Psychologist Amos Tversky said, “The secret of doing good research is always to be a little underemployed…You can waste years by not being able to waste hours.”
When Manoush Zomorodi, managing editor, New Tech City, had to spend time walking her colicky baby. Unable to even play a game on her phone as she walked her baby, she had to resort to daydreaming about her future. In the end, she defined her future – which she now enjoys.
In Dov Frohman’s book Leadership the Hard Way, he says (among other things) that leaders, must value imagination as much as hard skills and that daydreaming is the secret to success.
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Jonathan Smallwood said, “In a very deep way there’s a close link between originality, novelty, and creativity and these sort of spontaneous thoughts that we generate when our minds are idle.”
Great teachers design workshops and seminars to include an overnight, because they know that students need to sleep on new content. (Sleep is that wonderful time when you let your brain do all the playing it wants.)
Sitting in Silence
The four practices I recommend to those who wish to enhance their resilience begin with sitting in silence for five minutes. I said that only when you quiet things down a bit, reduce the amount of interruptions, will that small voice of your subconscious be able to be heard. Now, with this new language, I can say that this is one of the ways to let the executive network be still so that the default network can get going. I’ve often said that I come up with most of my ideas during those five-minute periods of silence I spend at the beginning and end of each day.
If five minutes is so productive, I wondered if there might be value in longer periods, but how does one keep the executive sufficiently occupied during longer periods? Then I began to think about what most of us call mindless tasks – washing dishes, taking a walk, peeling potatoes, filling out your weekly time sheet, standing in the shower, sorting laundry, or pulling weeds in the garden. These so called mindless tasks require just enough executive energy to keep the well-rehearsed activity moving forward, and not so much that there isn’t plenty of energy left over for the default network to rise and shine – doing very mindful things like thinking up new ideas.
When Albert Einstein did his mind experiments that led to his theory of relativity, he was daydreaming. He called it Gedankenexperimente. And he valued this capability when he said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift; the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
Set aside time today to think of a challenge you are dealing with. Imagine going to the default network and asking it to play around with the challenge, and then start some favorite mindless task. Let your faithful servant do something wonderful for the sacred gift and anticipate a surprise from your Gedankenexperimente
Next time, I’ll be talking about how to prime the default network, that sacred gift, so that it has as many toys as possible to play with when the next challenge comes through.
Cabane, O.F., & Pollack, J. (2017) The Net and The Butterful. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.