Because I can’t be working on Lord Casriel’s happily ever after with Lady Canmore every waking hour, I’m also reading a nice little book, The Net and the Butterfly, by a couple of clever people whose topic is, “The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking.” This is related to my last reading project–Iconoclast–which had to do with thinking new thoughts and solving old problems with new solutions.
The breakthrough thought is also usually a solution to a problem, or an insight about the way forward. I need a lifetime supply of these if I am to write interesting fiction, but such thoughts also come in handy when trying to decide whether to sell the house or which car I should get when my 10-year-old Prius dies.
The book explains that we have two ways of attacking our mental goals. One is through the executive network. This is the conscious pondering, parsing, studying, debating, and information gathering…. all the stuff you do when you’re faced with a decision or given a challenge. This is “using your smarts.” The other resource we have is the “default network,” which hums along quietly in the background.
The two networks cannot both be in high gear simultaneously. If we’re deploying all of our firepower on executive tasks, the default network, which operates below the level of conscious thought, has to stand down. The default network swings into action when the executive network has downed tools. That happens while we load the dishwasher, fold clothes, go for a walk, drop off to sleep, or stand around waiting for the guy to find our dry cleaning.
When an idea “pops into your head” as you squeeze the shampoo into your palm or water the plants, your default network has been given enough time and resources to produce a solution for your executive network to implement.
What I got from that little description of cognitive functioning was two insights: First, it’s important to build “idle tasks” into my day if I’m trying to puzzle out a plot, develop a convincing character arc, or make a big career decision. In fact, workers carrying a heavy cognitive or creative load are most productive when they do have frequent breaks or their assignments throughout the day vary between the brainiac and mundane.
Second, there is such a thing as thinking too hard about a problem. The default network excels at finding patterns the executive will never spot, at seeing similarities and metaphors the hyperfocused executive could never connect. If I’m to come up with the best stories, over and over, it’s imperative that I build in that most critical period for any successful mind: RECESS.
Have you ever gotten a “bolt from the blue” insight? Ever wrestled with a big problem only to have the solution drop into your head while you were vacuuming? How does your day include recess, or how could it? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed Advanced Reader Copy of My Own and Only Duke.