Mental space

“Gimme some space damn it!”

This is a thought I have often around my kids and my husband.  I have been thinking about what this means.  On the surface, it means “pick up the toys, clothes, dirty dishes and detritus of daily living that clutter our shared physical space and make for constant random picking up in the effort to make space” (or at least orderly space).   This constant demand to clean is a distraction and irritant, making anything else productive difficult.  Just walking, as anyone who has stepped bare footed upon a lego can tell you, can be interrupted.  If I had several hours alone to crank the tunes and clean, that would be different.  I could organize my time, react to unexpected issues (needing to pretreat a shirt here, address the bill that was found in the Dr. Seuss book), and Get Things Done (capitals intended).  Usually though, it’s a constant barrage in which one small gain here or there gets accomplished, and the macro level of the problem remains a mystery. 

So too with mental space.  In order to be creative, I have learned I not only need to be self-disciplined (that’s where procrastination guilt occurs- when I know I could have been self-disciplined but have not), but also need “head time” to let ideas “cook”.  Head time can even come when I am Getting Things Done- because the mental is uninterrupted.   Then there is the creative need for “doing” time.   This is most pointedly putting down thoughts and ideas into the computer without interruption (writing).  It can also be creating objects, or seeking out and taking in stimuli without interruption (“feeding the head”).  All of which I rarely get, and the consequential outcome is depression and irritation. When I have time in a span of a week to create, I am a much happier and a nicer person to be around.  Husband has noticed this about himself as well.  I also believe there is a long-term additive effect.  We are also more productive people if we can create on a regular basis. These observations are also borne out in creativity research.  

I recently stumbled across Jonah Lehrer’s book “Proust was a Neuroscientist” (2007) and the accompanying book reviews.  I agree that he over-reaches a bit; with many underlying assumptions about the shared positions his readers must have to imagine where he is going with his ideas.  He also blogged about the use of Modafinil, wondering if it’s use and established ability to help concentration and focus was a deterrent to creativity.  I wrote him a response to that blog.  What I found most useful about him is he is a good example of a new breed of thinkers.  Young, smart people who are continually learning, from every experience be it academic or something as plebian as a line cook.  They are taking in what they experience and try to create a framework for understanding that works better than the overly specialized units we currently know.  They want to bridge the macro and the micro, and synthesize areas of philosophy that have been said for hundreds of years to be completely incompatible.  They do not postulate any dogma, and seem to have extremely open, mature minds- and are willing to acknowledge when they are wrong, or need to reframe something they have conjured.  I like the things I read from this new wave of thinkers, even if I don’t always agree (Steven Pinker is not one of them, his framework of reference and definition being clearly and unapologetically hierarchically organized according to scientific principles and the culture of high science). 

To do the things Lehrer and similar writers are doing requires a high degree of creativity. I hear myself shouting “ARRGGHH”, knowing I will never be free of the research subject area I started investigating a long, long time ago. The areas I was synthesizing formally as a graduate student were seen as arcane; when people were being kind, they would say rather esoteric.  But I know them as red-blooded, living ideas.  It is good to know people smarter and younger than me think so too.  When I mentioned all of this to Husband, an accomplished artist in a complex culture, he replied ” A lot of what I do requires creativity.  Not just my art.”  I nodded.  Sometimes the partnering in a marriage is to remind us of what we already know, and even have already discussed in a different time or place.

Note to Lehrer:  mental crowding can also come from too much immersion into a culture and topic.  Me? I gasped for air and got out for a while.  Now I get back in from time to time, and make much better use of the knowledge and information I find.  Virginia Woolf had it right– in order to do that, I have to shout “gimme some space damn it!”; and pick up those sharp little legos.  

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