Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Undermind

I was on the point of continuing a conversation with Audrey about my last post, when I realised I had a bit more to say than a comment.
I reckon I'm fairly creative person. I like to make things. Amongst the things I make are: harmonies with Rough at the Edges, blog posts, movies, web sites, rabbit hutches, furniture, pots, pictures, meals, images, resources for students and (in deference to the long-suffering person I live with) a mess. The problem with my earning a living as a creative person is that, whilst I'm good at lots of things,  I'm brilliant at none.
I trained as a teacher in the 1970s when the watchword was creativity. No-one tried to say what that meant, how to teach it or why - but it was A Good Thing and hooray for that. Throughout the 1990s the curriculum in the UK was closing down on creativity, though by 1998 cracks were starting to appear spearheaded by (the now internationally famous) Ken Robinson with the publication of  All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture, and Education (The Robinson Report). 
I was at a personal turning point in 2002 when I blagged myself a funded place at the first Futurelab conference in Bristol. It was here I first encountered the work of the cognitive scientist Professor Guy Claxton. I don't remember what he said - not much I guess, since he was chairing a panel - but whatever it was, it made a deep impression and I went away and devoured 'Hare Brain and Tortoise Mind' and 'Wise Up: Learning to Live the Learning Life.'
I'm probably doing him a disservice to summarize his concept of the "undermind" but I'll give it a go. Our brains are working when we are unaware of it. You can suddenly 'come to' on a journey you take regularly and wonder 'how did I get here'. But if the brake lights in front come on unexpectedly, we are completely alert and taking action almost before we know it. Many creative ideas appear as if by magic but our brain has been wrestling with the ideas unbeknown to our conscious mind. I've posted about this phenomenon before. Sometimes it happens in an extraordinarily magical way after a night's sleep, sometimes after a protracted period and sometimes relatively quickly like the Monster Montages of my last post. It depends on how complicated the problem is and also to a lesser degree how urgent it is. It always delights me how a tip-of-the-tongue word you've forgotten will usually bob up into consciousness a few minutes later like a submerged beach ball. 
Since most cognitive scientists seem to think that the brain can be developed rather having a fixed capacity, there should be ways of improving one's use of the undermind. My own 'hot' tip is simply to actively rely on it more. It helps to do some hard thinking first just to signal the importance of the information that needs sorting or action that needs taking. But then consciously decide to let the unconscious do the work - the soft thinking - and forget all about it...
Or, in the words of the late, lamented Lowell George. 

A couple of Claxton essays online
Creativity: A Guide for the Advanced Learner (and Teacher)
Cultivating Creative Mentalities: A Framework for Education