Our thinking about thinking is probably wrong.
The idea that our thoughts are ours – that they arise out of our own brains – is relatively new.
For a long time, in many civilisations, it was believed that your thoughts emerged from an interplay with your environment.
It’s probably hard for us to imagine what that reality was like, but we live in a very thoughty age. Imagine if the only thing you had to do today, and every day for the next 3 months, was plough this field.
You probably wouldn’t have had the constant chatter that modern humans have to put up with. You’d probably just drop into a thoughtless space, because thoughts just weren’t that necessary.
(I’ve had tastes of spaces like this. Such bliss!)
And so when a thought came, it would have been reasonably remarkable. You would have noted it. And you would have been aware of what set it off.
Perhaps it was watching the movement of birds – which is what augury is all about. ‘Doesn’t augur well’ means, ‘I don’t think the birds like that idea.’
I don’t think it was until we had the concept of machines that we fully owned our thoughts. It wasn’t until we could witness machines that got set in motion and just carried out their tasks, that we could develop the modern notion of the brain.
In that paradigm, the brain, effectively, is a machine that generates thoughts. You can use it consciously to think about specific things. But it’s kind of hard to turn off, so left to it’s own devices, it just goes on pumping out thoughts, like a magic pot pumping out salt at the bottom of the ocean.
That’s kind of how we think about the brain.
But go back a couple of thousand years, and that idea would have been difficult to grasp. If you had said to ancient peasants, there’s a fleshy machine in your head creating thoughts, they just wouldn’t have understood what you were on about.
It would have been much easier to imagine that thoughts were external – more environmental. You just ‘tuned in’ to the thoughts that were available to you at the time.
I’m not sure that either is right. A purely environmental view doesn’t allow any room for the personalised experience of thought that we have now, or the capacity to consciously engage and ‘train’ our thoughts that we’ve developed.
But a purely mechanical view doesn’t have any capacity to understand inspiration – flashes of insight that seem to come from nowhere.
And in that way it denies the role for ‘the muse’ – your gateway to and messenger from a more magical, more connected reality.
So I don’t know where we end up. I think we find ourselves at another stage in human history – where we have a workable and useful paradigm, but one that will probably be replaced by something more sophisticated and more accurate down the track.
It works for now, but it’s probably wrong.
And so for me, I find myself wanting to allow for mystery in my understanding of the brain. I don’t want to lock it down, because historically, every time we’ve said “I know how this works”, we’ve been wrong.
And there’s a power here I want to be open to. This idea that if I can find a quiet place with my mind, then there will be flashes of insight more creative, more inspired, more wise and more useful than anything I could come up with on my own.
I don’t think we want to be closed to that.
So set your mechanical brain to ‘open’.