While thoughts help define us as humans, says Eric Harrison, we become creative when we take a break from the hard work of thinking.
Most spiritual traditions worldwide regard humans as quintessentially different from animals. While religion has now largely lost its authority, this arrogant attitude towards animals stubbornly lingers on. Even non-believers tend to assume that humans have some kind of immortal soul, while animals don't. We regard, and certainly treat, animals, as if they were automatons who feel very little. It seems "natural" to believe that every human being deserves care and respect, even the unborn and the insane, while it is quite acceptable to treat animals as commodities.
As each year goes by, it becomes harder to regard humans as fundamentally superior to animals. We share 98 per cent of our genes with the mouse, let alone the great apes. Many animals have bigger brains that ours, both in real terms and in proportion to their body size. Nor can we boast about the three billion units in our DNA, the code that makes each one of us proud, freethinking individuals. The humble lily has a hundred times as many.
Animals also share the same basic emotions as we do. This may seem obvious to many of us, but scientists are now proving it. Higher animals love, grieve, hate and empathise, they feel shame and pride. They can be imaginative, playful and absurdly happy, just as we can. They are certainly nothing like automatons. They may well feel emotion more acutely than we do, with our distracted, wordy minds.
We can't even claim to be morally superior to animals. They may wantonly kill other creatures for the fun of it, but they are shrinking violets in comparison to us. Years ago, I saw battery chickens in a factory farm. Thereafter, I felt guilty about eating a chicken, when I knew the animal had spent its entire short life in agony. Now I never eat chicken. Worldwide, billions of farm animals are tortured - there is no other word for it - every day for our pleasure. Animals are not angels, but as a species, we human beings are rapacious predators with an insatiable greed, and a remarkable ability to feel proud about how much we can consume.
Yet in one critical respect, human beings do seem to be superior to animals. We can talk and we can think. Animals communicate skilfully, and can obviously think to some degree, but even the smartest animal can't come within coo-ey of us. The most highly trained chimpanzees can understand and use 500 words of English over a lifetime, but they don't seem to enjoy the process very much, no matter how much we reward them. The human infant, on the other hand, will avidly drink in language, grammar, syntax and all, from its first days on terra firma.
Sensory perception and non-verbal memory are very limited as a basis for thought. Language gives us the ability to operate within the infinite world of concepts. Our ability to play with words and ideas is the basis of human civilisation. Language is essential for religion, empires, commerce, science, philosophy, art and modern warfare. None of it would be possible if our communication and thought remained at the level of animal noises and sense perception.
So it is hardly surprising that "Reason", our ability to talk and to think, is so often regarded as a divine or transcendental attribute that is uniquely human. Unfortunately, thinking does take effort, and we rarely do it perfectly. Philosophers, religious leaders and scientists have all dreamt of making it pure, clean and objective. They usually hope to do so by divorcing thought from its sensual foundations in the body. The argument goes that if reason makes us so creative, then "pure" reason, uncontaminated by our gross, animal passions, would surely be even better.
But does it actually work this way? Creative people everywhere recognise when their thoughts become unaccountably brilliant. Even you and I will have times when our thoughts seem especially clear and convincing. Is this Pure Reason in action, or something more mysterious?
It seems that thought becomes most productive if we occasionally stop thinking - for quite a while; to do something else or do nothing. This irrational, non-verbal, mentally vacant state seems almost essential for productive thought. This period of "incubation" may occur while in reverie or meditation, or while doing mechanical tasks, but it is most common in sleep. As you may know, when you sleep on a problem, the answer is often blindingly obvious the next morning.
A popular model, going back a century, maps out four stages typical of creative insight. The first is "preparation" or prolonged conscious thought, the work of Reason. No great inspiration is likely to happen without substantial thought beforehand. The second stage is "incubation" as described above, which doesn't seem reasonable at all. The third is the unexpected illumination, which frequently arrives with a great sense of rightness. The fourth stage, "verification" is about checking to see whether the insight is accurate and workable, or not.
Something remarkable is happening during the "incubation" stage, but what is it? When we are asleep, we are still thinking, even though we are unconscious of the process. If you wake someone who is asleep, they can usually tell you exactly what they were thinking about. While their thinking may be somewhat odd, it is not that far removed in quality and purpose from our waking thoughts. Freud had a view of the Unconscious as a seething pit of repressed lust and anger. I don't seem to get that when I sleep. In fact, the sleep processes for most of us are more ordinary and more useful.
One of the functions of sleep is to sift through the events of the previous day, and consolidate our memories into a compact, useful form. We can see how this works by observing what happens in our ordinary waking life. If we had an argument with someone in the morning, it is likely to "pop up" in our minds several times during the day. Each time we reflect on the event, we subtly transform it. We reframe our memory to highlight what is important, and to eliminate the trivia. In other words, we mould it into a useable story.
If we get the chance to talk over the event with different friends in succession, our account would adopt a more mature, elegant, story-like shape each time. A chaotic half hour event gets stripped down to a punchy, two minute drama that is worth remembering. In fact, it needs to be simple and condensed if the mind is to remember it at all.
This process of constructing simple stories out of complex events also happens when we sleep, but with an added twist. To extract more meaning and value from our experiences, we associate them with our memories of similar events from the past. We bed them down in their proper company, in their right location in the brain, so they are available when we need them in the future.
During this process, we also solve problems. We don't forget our frustrations when we sleep. Instead, their lingering emotional energy makes us focus particularly on them. Rats when they sleep will mentally retrace their steps through a new maze they learnt the day before. Musicians when they sleep will think/dream about a recent exercise, giving particular attention to the parts they performed badly while they were awake. Volunteers trained to do a certain kind of puzzle become so much smarter at it the following day, having unconsciously learnt the hidden rules.
While we sleep we continue to think, but with a different spin. Conscious thought is linear, but unconscious thought is associative. Conscious, sustained, focused thought - the ability to analyse and speculate about something for days and weeks - is essential for true understanding of anything. This kind of thought, though, gives us depth at the expense of breadth. It is strong because it screens out distractions, but in doing so it limits the possibility of fruitful associations arising.
But this censorship is released when we fall asleep. Once the daytime thoughts are consolidated in memory, they can then free-associate with related mental information. In sleep and dream, the mind has a powerful associative imagination. Most insights in fact come from pattern recognition: we see how this is related to that. The great chemist Kekule discovered the structure of benzene - a ring of six carbon atoms - when he "saw" a snake biting its tail. We typically find the answer to our problem unconsciously, and recognise it when we wake up.
But is it actually the correct answer? Kekule still had to test his inspiration in the laboratory and convince his peers. Because intuitions feel so magical and free of the hesitations of ordinary thought, people will cling to them with a passion. This is the childish belief that an intuition or apparent memory must be true because it feels true. This is the fallacy behind the horrors of recovered memory and regression therapies.
Intuition may seem quite different from conscious thought, but each gains strength from the other. Our brains need our bellies to tell us what goes where and what is important. To think clearly at all, we need to hear the signals from our bodies.
Conversely, intuition alone is often delusionary. Intuition still needs to be framed and checked by reason for it to have any validity. The final stage of the creative process as described above is to verify if the intuition is accurate or workable. We know that people who ignore the awkward facts, and rely instead on inspiration, revelation and faith, often damage themselves and others.
I'll leave the last words to the great psychologist Hans Eysenck: "To link intuition with exactitude, correctness, precision or truth would be a mistake; intuition can be as wrong, treacherous, mistaken and erroneous as logical thinking. The adjective 'intuitive' refers to the method of arriving at a conclusion: it is no guarantee of truth. Intuition is the basis of the 'Aha!' experience, but how many 'ahas' have had to be retracted?"
Eric Harrison has been running the Perth Meditation Centre since 1987 www.perthmeditationcentre.com.au