On Art Share this week (www.art-share.org) we were talking about how we work, and the importance of switching off the more conscious part of the mind in order to better get on with things. Tom definitely draws more comfortably if there’s music on, or I’m playing, or reading to him. It frees up his hands.
Rather a long time ago, I minored in psychology at university, and one of the things I ran into was the idea of the pre-conscious mind, which does quite a lot of the work. It’s this bit that will pop up the answer to a missing name three hours after the relevant conversation. Somewhere beneath the surface, you were working on that all along. This is just labels, as far as I know there are no actual brain structures to go with them.
Rather a lot of our thinking happens at a level we aren’t aware of. All the technical stuff around running the body. Anything we know well. These days I tend to say I play the violin by sense of smell, because I have no conscious idea of what I’m doing any more. It just happens. Hours and hours of work have resulted in the violin being so much a part of my body that I do it the same way I breathe. And as with breathing, if I have to think about it, things get complicated. This, I gather, is true of people who are good at pretty much anything, and if you make a person deconstruct what they’re doing to explain it, their ability to do it actually reduces for a while.
Last night my brain woke me in the early hours of the morning because it had processed a large quantity of raw data and it wanted me to look over the findings and make some decisions about how to act. Why that seemed so important that I had to do it at 3am, I have no idea, but I did the thinking, went back to sleep and woke up feeling like I’d made some good choices.
So what is going on at the back end of my mind, in the bits I can’t see? I think the answer is habit and training. My mind can run unconsciously round any loop I have built and maintained. That’s true of the violin playing, and it is also true of anxiety. I have a capacity to learn and analyse unconsciously, but only because I’ve put so much time into learning and analysis. Tom draws amazing art when he’s not thinking about it too much, but only because he’s spent decades thinking about it a great deal.
It can look a bit like magic. We might be tempted to see the hand of deity in the mix, or some other supernatural agent, and to miss out the important detail that we built the space in which this happens. We made the tools, fine-tuned the hardware, wrote the software, if you like.
I only have myself to blame for what my mind gets up to in the middle of the night.
The flip side of that is knowing that I can deliberately reconstruct my thinking, with time, establishing better habits of thought, and putting my energy into the right things. I don’t believe that we make our own realities, but we absolutely do make the brains that perceive and engage with whatever else is out there, and we have a startling amount of power to change that, albeit slowly.