Sleeping on It

Friday, February 26, 2010

File this one under, "small, but interesting, victories."

I have, at least a couple of times here, mentioned that it often pays for me to allow my subconscious mind to percolate over a problem. I first noticed that I could sometimes stack the deck in favor of this when I was in college, and so I did: Much of my classwork as a math major, I would often joke, I performed in bed.

There is nothing special about doing this in and of itself: That is, after all, part of why we have the idiom, "Sleep on it." There is also quite a bit of scientific research concerning this very phenomenon. The idea is old hat, but it's always fun to experience such "bolts from the blue" for oneself.

Yesterday, I had one such moment of inspiration. All week, I'd been having trouble getting an experiment to run, and had finally nailed down why by the end of the day the day before yesterday. The problem was due to the eventual failure of a quick fix someone else had made to a crucial piece of equipment. I could simply re-do the same fix or I could find a more permanent solution to the problem. Quick fixes have a nasty way of backfiring on me at just the wrong moment, so I decided to tinker around at the end of the day. I wanted to either solve the problem once and for all, or find a better quick fix.

I got nowhere and I was tired. I threw my hands up and decided to look at it again after a night's sleep. (No, I wasn't thinking about college.) Perhaps, though, I had stumbled on exactly the strategy I needed:

The study by Sara Mednick, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego and the VA San Diego Healthcare System, and first author Denise Cai, graduate student in the UC San Diego Department of Psychology, shows that REM directly enhances creative processing more than any other sleep or wake state. Their findings will be published in the June 8th [2009] online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Of course, it could have simply been that I was just too tired to think straight, but I'm not so sure. In any event, solving the problem in time to run another experiment the next morning would have been easy had I tubing of exactly the right size on hand to connect the two parts of my experimental apparatus. Obviously, that was not the case (or so it seemed), and ordering wouldn't help me that day.

I puttered around a bit, and then, on a sort of non-verbal level, wondered whether a piece of special, expensive tubing not normally used for the purpose I had in mind would work. I tried it, and it fit like a glove. (I had removed the tubing from another piece of equipment because it could have been worn out and, as a result, caused or exacerbated the very problem I was having. (It could be unfit for its old purpose and still suited for this new purpose or, if it leaked, I could have just used a newer one.)

The tubing was in exactly the same place the previous day, so why hadn't I come up with this "obvious" solution then? I suspect that as I was looking for objects to use as connectors, my brain was grouping the expensive tubing either as trash or according to its usual purpose -- but ignoring it as a potential connector. Using it simply as a connector would normally be a waste of money, too. So I had to both ignore several preexisting mental associations for that piece of tubing and form new ones.

Of course, the tubing might not have fit at all, but it still required a couple of new mental steps even to think of trying it out. My solution has worked beautifully for an entire day now and, since the package the tubing arrived in was stamped with its dimensions, we now know what to order in the future for a permanent fix.

Who knew something I was about to toss into the trash would save my day and provide such an interesting, first-hand look at how the mind operates?

-- CAV


Brian Phillips said...

One thing that I have discovered is that the more explicit the instructions I can give my subconscious, the better and quicker the results. Vague instructions get vague results, or "garbage in, garbage out".

Gus Van Horn said...

That could certainly help, but I didn't do that here. Perhaps, thinking a lot about a given problem helps as well.

Realist Theorist said...

"Minds Best Work", by Perkins, is a good book on creative thinking.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the recommendation.