• The psychological basis of inspiration

    09/16/2023 at 18:18 0 comments

    Elliot's recent article and the comments about inspiration had a lot of um... information and I thought I'd post some of the more concrete scientific findings.

    If you're interested in being creative, if you're stuck on a problem and are looking for inspiration, the following background information and specific advice might help.

    Your brain has a filter

    Our lives are awash in sensory input, but only the valuable parts are presented to our conscious mind. If something is not relevant to one of our goals, the brain filters it out and considers it irrelevant.

    Most people don't realize how powerful this filter is. If you haven't already done so, check out the monkey business illusion. Pause reading this post, check out the video, and continue below:

    The illusion works because your brain is given a goal. While you are focused on the goal, your brain filters everything that doesn't apply to that goal.

    Your brain is a goal seeking mechanism

    Your brain is essentially a goal seeking mechanism. We're born with a few innate goals, but we also get to set new goals over the course of our life.

    You set your goals by explicitly identifying them. The best way to do this (people have found) is to write them out longhand. Doing this activates several sensory pathways in the brain at the same time: while writing you are simultaneously controlling your hand to make the letters, reading the letters, sounding them out in your mind, and thinking about the concepts.

    Inspiration advice #1: Set a clear goal

    The biggest reason people don't get inspiration is that they don't set clear goals. If you want to start a new project using Neopixels on a costume for an upcoming convention - that's fairly explicit and your goal setting mechanism can latch onto it pretty easily. There are clear design pathways and choices to make, a time limit, and physical and probably budget limitations. The brain works well with specific goals.

    On the other hand, if you're just casting about for something new to do, you'll have tremendous difficulty. Your brain doesn't know what to do and you'll wander around in a fog. You might even try a few things, but you'll find it very difficult to follow through with the process: without a clear goal at the start, your brain will eventually give up saying effectively "why bother"?

    So if you want inspiration, the first thing you want to do is to set a goal that has value to you.

    Inspiration advice #2: Enter the open mode

    Having set a goal, for actual inspiration, you need to turn your brain's filter completely off. You need to get into the open mode.

    The best introduction to the open mode I've found is this video by John Cleese. It's fairly long (40 minutes) and you can watch it at your leisure, but to summarize: you get into the open mode by avoiding external stimulation for longer than 30 minutes.

    The best way to do this that I've found is to go for a walk where there are no people. Find a nice path in the woods, or a back residential street with no pedestrians and no traffic, or the track around the football field when no one else is there.

    For this to work you need to have no distractions. Turn off your phone, don't listen to podcasts or music, and don't go where you're constantly passing people or being interrupted by traffic. Just a nice, leisurely walk for about an hour.

    Your brain is constantly being primed by interruptions in your environment, and each priming sets off a little subroutine that makes your brain focus on the primed subject for a short while. You need time for these subjects to die down so that your brain isn't primed. This becomes the open mode that John Cleese talks about.

    Radio Shack

    The original article talks about Radio Shack providing inspiration for hackers, but I don't think this is quite the whole story.

    I think what really happened is that people set some goals and had project requirements, then went to Radio Shack, and found components that fit the requirements.

    ... Read more »

  • How to be creative

    05/28/2022 at 14:55 0 comments

    (A response to Elliot's article about creativity.)

    How to be creative

    There is no single recipe for creativity, but they all seem to follow roughly the same technique.

    The best intro to creativity I’ve found is this video by John Cleese. Being John Cleese it’s a fun video, but what he talks about is completely accurate and based on how our brain works and is backed by research:

    For an in-depth look at creativity, check out the book “deep work” by Cal Newport. Among other points, he talks about how artistic and highly productive people have managed to set themselves up for productive output throughout history. For another viewpoint look up Brian Tracy’s lectures on “the superconscious mind”. Many other sources say pretty-much the same thing.

    To summarize, at any one time your brain runs lots of competing little subroutines that are primed by what you encounter in the environment (see “priming” on Wikipedia) used to predict the immediate future, called “nexting”.

    When you set yourself in an environment with no distractions, these subroutines run their course and eventually die down, leaving your mind clear to think deeply about something with no distractions. During this time, if you have set up a problem for your brain to think about, it will do exactly that… and eventually give insight into the problem.

    The effect is real, and not something people usually experience or even know about. The experience is also highly pleasurable.

    It takes about 1/2 hour of uninterrupted time to *begin* this state if you are practiced at it. The first time might take a person 60 minutes and the first time they might not even be able to do it at all. It takes a few sessions to get the feel of it and know what to expect and where to put your mind.

    Anything that distracts you from the state will stop it completely, and it will take another 1/2 hour to get back into the mode. A phone call will do it, someone stopping by your office will do it, and checking twitter on your phone will do it. Any distraction will activate more subroutines in your head, and it takes time for these to die down again.

    There’s a brain neurochemistry explanation for this which I won’t go into (it’s in Cal Newport’s book, IIRC).

    Lots of famously productive people practice this technique, it’s the root of their creativity.

    Difference from flow

    Flow is a slightly different state. The flow state is where you are hyper focused and lose track of the sense of time, but it’s not specifically tied to creativity. If you are an expert in something you can get into flow and be highly productive by using your existing skills, but not necessarily creative.

    Creativity is described as being in the “open” or “closed” state, online it’s called “systemic mode” and “heuristic mode” (cf. wikipedia).

    A good distinction between flow and creativity is the target: if you have a task to complete (writing, coding, sewing, circuit design) you can get into flow and complete the task quickly and efficiently. At any point you always know what the next task is.

    Being creative is the opposite: it’s where you *don’t* know what the next step is, you don’t have a ready-made solution, and you have to mull over possibilities.

    If you can quiet your mind, and think through the issues, your brain will eventually pop up a creative solution seemingly at random.

    It’s weird – you’re thinking through a problem with no obvious solution, and suddenly the answer pops into your head with no obvious prior reasoning.

    That’s the open mode. It’s closely related to flow.

    (Flow also has a neurochemistry explanation.)

  • Bootstrapping your life

    10/26/2021 at 17:28 2 comments

    Jenny's recent article about purchasing a green vehicle prompted this comment and my reply:

    Some people can barely live within their means despite working two grueling jobs
    a day, and saving for an EV is not a priority over putting food on the table or paying
    off medical or educational debt.
    Do you have any advice about bootstraps?


    How many books have you read about success? How many about whichever field your jobs are in? Do you have a goal of switching to a single job? Have you written down exactly what your ideal job would be?

    How often do you go looking for a new job? Do you scan the papers every day, check out Craigslist, and ask around? Do you study up and learn how to interview, how to make a resume, how to do well in your job? Are you willing to move to get a better job? Have you compared the expenses of moving with the extra money?

    The US is having a shortage of workers right now. I’ve read this in the news, and I pass a *ton* of “help wanted” signs in my area. I have no reason to believe it’s not true today.

    Lots of people have been in your situation, and you can find out what those people have done and what works and what doesn’t. Much of this information is available for free on the internet and in libraries.

    Your first step will be to do everything you can to get more spare time. That probably means cutting down to a single job, and one that will pay more than both of your existing jobs.

    Once you have spare time you can use it to bootstrap a better life.

    There are 3 psychological aspects that determine success in life: intelligence, conscientiousness(1), and luck. Each is responsible for about 30% of the variation in life success.

    Conscientiousness is the ability to work hard, to do a good job, and to make sure all the bases are covered. You can pump up your conscientiousness by building good work ethic habits. In other words, don’t approach work as something to be avoided, approach it as something that you must excel at.

    Static intelligence is how much you know, and fluid intelligence is how easily you learn something. Fluid intelligence can’t be changed, but there’s an out: if you keep learning as an adult, you can amass more knowledge than a smarter person who stops learning, and most people simply stop learning as adults.

    Most people don’t read even a single book a year – if you can read 10 books a year you will be far ahead of the average person. Choose books that will help your life success. Audio books count, are easier than reading, and you can listen to them while doing other things (such as driving, or doing manual labor).

    Finally: you can’t do much about luck, but you can give luck a better chance to happen. Move to a city, or a different area of the city, or hang out in a different area of the city. Go to meetups and group meetings for your areas of interest. Generally put yourself in whichever environment you think will give you the best chances of achieving your goals.

    There are many examples of people who sat down, wrote out their situation, and attacked the problem logically. Those people are now successful.

    Go thou and do likewise.

    (1) Conscientiousness is personality trait that can be measured numerically, similar to IQ. It's one of the "Big 5 personality" traits, and you can find tests to measure it online.