Wednesday, February 1, 2017

How we think

One of the features that sold me on the house my wife and I purchased in 1977 was the large, unfurnished attic. It struck me as a place that would hold my growing library, as well as all the other stuff that naturally migrates into attics, things like winter coats and Christmas decorations. Home libraries suggest wood paneling, as well as shelves, but I knew I could barely afford the shelves, let alone the paneling. How was I going to turn this attic into a library besides by just adding books?

I have no gift for home decorating, yet one day a vision came to me in a flash. I could picture in my mind how to create passable paneling using cheap particle board and do most of the work myself. Forty years later, despite all the clutter that has accumulated in that time, my library still looks pleasing to the eye, at least to my eye.

With that major exception, I normally think in words, not pictures. I may be a lousy conversationalist, yet I have conversations in my mind all the time. It is one way I process information and ideas.

Martin Gardner
Lately I seem to be coming across references, in my reading, to how some of us think in words. Martin Gardner says this in his introduction to one of his essays collected in The Night Is Large: "It has been said that the best way to learn about a difficult, complex subject is to write a book about it." That essay is about relativity, something I probably still wouldn't understand even if I tried to write a book about it. Yet I find that writing does help clarify my own thinking. As I've said before, I often don't feel I really know what a book is about until I start to write about it.

In the novel The Sherlockian by Graham Moore, we find this line about Arthur Conan Doyle: "Things made sense when Arthur wrote them down." Things made sense both to Doyle himself and to his readers. So it's not just a matter of understanding things better by writing them down. It is also a matter of being better able to explain these things to others by writing them down. It's a shame people don't write love letters, or any kind of letters, like they once did. Some things, at least for some people, are just easier to express in writing.

Others, of course, are useless when they attempt to express themselves in writing, but can do very well in conversation. That is, real conversation, not the fantasy kind I mentioned above. Others need both kinds of expression. David Brooks writes in his book The Road to Character about the author George Eliot. As a young woman still calling herself Mary Anne Evans, she was highly intelligent but knew nobody else of equal intelligence she could talk with. Writes Brooks, "She received information but could not digest it through conversation." I like his use of the word digest. Each of us receives information all day long. But how do we digest it? How do we process it? How do we make sense of it? How do we turn it into our own ideas about how we view the world?

I seem to do some of my best "digestion" in the shower. That's where, this morning, this particular blog post took shape. Sleep somehow can stimulate our thinking. Some people do their best thinking while driving, doing routine chores or exercising. Novelist Charles Dickens was famous for his very long nightly walks through the streets of London. I suspect the reason for these walks had less to do with physical fitness than with using the time to plot his stories and decide what to do with his various characters. He also liked to walk though the areas where his stories took place to remind himself of what was where.

We all have our own tricks for helping us think. Then there are those who find tricks for avoiding thinking altogether.

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