The mind, software to our brain, follows a spectrum of highs and lows through the day. Recent findings suggest conventional wisdom may have been wrong on when it's best to do creative work versus analytical work.
Some Artificial Intelligence researchers believe the key to building true AI is to further understand how the greatest existing Intelligence works - the human mind. It turns out we have very little understanding of how our mind works. Ironically, the "we" is our collective minds. These researchers, combining computer science and neuroscience, are learning more each year and some of it may be useful for us regular folks to apply in our daily lives.
David Gelernter, a well known computer scientist at Yale, considered to be a "rock star" in his field, believes the mind is not a static, rational machine. It goes through a spectrum that swings from rational or pure thinking to one of being and feeling. He writes in a WSJ essay, how we move through this spectrum each day:
"At the spectrum’s top, we concentrate readily, focus on external reality, solve problems. Memory is docile. It supplies facts, figures and methods without distracting us with fascinating recollections. Emotion lies low. Early mornings are rarely the time for dramatic arguments or histrionic scenes.
As we move down-spectrum, we lose concentration and reasoning power and come gradually to rely more on remembering than on reasoning—on the “wisdom of experience”—to solve problems. Lower still, the mind starts to wander. We daydream: Our memories, fantasies, ideas are growing vivid and distracting as the mind’s focus moves from outside the self to inside.
Finally, we grow sleepy and find ourselves free-associating—memory now controls the mental agenda—and we pass through the strange state of “sleep onset thought” on the way to sleep and dreaming. (Sleep onset thought is usually a series of vivid, static, memories, some or all of them hallucinations—like dreams themselves."
This spectrum goes from a high to a temporary low, usually miday around 1 pm to 3 pm, then back up a little higher followed by a trend to the low before we fall asleep. This spectrum is not exactly the same for everyone, other than the general shape of the line through a day but, essentially, mornings would be the top third of the spectrum where we are thinking, the middle is where we have a mix of thinking although less focused with more emotions and free association happening and the bottom third where we are fully controlled by memory and feeling.
In the upper third of the spectrum we tend to be like Mr. Spock from Star Trek. We are objective, logical, and analytical. We keep emotions in check and we use memory rather than it using us. Our mind is fully focused on the work at hand and we proceed with rules from one step to the the next. We tend to reject anything quickly that isn't already a part of our directly recalled memory. We use abstraction to reduce a problem's complexity and increase our efficiency in getting to the result. This works well for number crunching, analysis, and any process that tends to follow a series of logical steps.
According to Gelernter, as we move down spectrum to the middle third, the subjective part of our mind begins to awake. Emotion and feeling begin to wander into our minds. I see this as our Captain Kirk moment. Our minds wander and we become more distracted and more inward looking. Memory seems to come to us, rather than us going to it like in the Reasoning portion of the spectrum. Emotion, it turns out, are like markers in our mind that allow us to indirectly recall memories. We start to make associations that don't necessary follow logical rules. At the surface this seems to be a bad thing but deeper it may turn out to be why we humans rule our world.
Logically, we may believe doing all our work in the upper third of the spectrum, perhaps from 8 am to 1 pm or so, makes the most sense. Not exactly. As it turns out, being fully focused or logical may not be what's best for creativity. A big part of creativity is to build analogies. Many new ideas and inventions start out as analogies. This is restructuring the problem, seeing a connection that may not come in ordinary thought. It is recalling a memory and then reflecting on it to come up with a new way of thinking of it, but we may not even realize we are doing this as it happens to us rather rather than us directly controlling it. In some cases, we may just credit serendipity for our new thought.
Our mind is using summarization to aid in the recall process. Rather than recalling a specific memory or event, it's easier to use a summarization of these events and memories. Emotion turns out to be a great summarization for the mind. So independent of the actual events of the memory, the mind can catalog it as happy, sad, pleasant, etc., awaiting recall when the same emotion may be experienced again.
Here's an example I encountered in my personal life.
One weekend, my younger daughter, almost nine, was playing Wii Golf while I was sitting and watching. She had been playing for a while and all of a sudden she drops the Wii remote and starts to run upstairs, yelling, "Mommie, I know exactly what to get Lenna for her birthday". Later, I asked her what she came up with and why she figured it out when she was playing Wii Golf. Her idea for a gift had nothing to do with Wii or Golf. In fact, she doesn't know anything about Golf. She said she was just waving her hands up and down to play and not thinking about it- and suddenly the thought of the present came to her mind. She said the ball looked like a pearl, which brought her a memory of a store where she had seen a necklace. Then the memory of seeing something else that would be the perfect present for her friend. Now, she didn't know how this chain of events happened and it happend to her rather than her actively remembering. Perhaps, it was the feeling she experienced when she was in the store that linked it all together.
The human mind is the most mysterious, amazing, beautiful, and important element in the world, but even these adjectives may be understatment. What we do know, is that our mind, flows through a daily spectrum, that shapes ourselves and the world around us. It moves from making sense of the world through logic and language to making sense of it through stories and images. It moves from a focus on doing to a focus on being - from acting to feeling. It flows from a focus on the outer world to the inner world - from the present now to past memories - from reality to dreams.
It turns out all of this is essential for each of us in our daily lives at home, school, work and in the world. Just like the world of Star Trek, where worlds get saved because of the teamwork from both Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk, we need the objective reasoning and subjective emotional parts of our mind. For AI researchers, human intelligence is both logic and emotion - how they build both into AI is their ultimate challenge. Reasoning give us the ability to understand our present world but creativity lets us create the future world.
So let your mind lead you - do the logical, analytical work that follows a set of known steps before mid afternoon and save the more creative activites for the last 3 or 4 hours of your work day. Let the wandering mind, emotions and memories help you get to the creative goal you seek.