Tuesday 16 April 2013

Sleep, creativity and complexity


Over the past decades, people have supposed that the rapid expansion of the mass media, and the vast informational availability made possible by the internet, would lead to increased complexity of human thinking: there was an idea that the human mind was being constrained by the availability of information.

Yet - so far as we can see - the opposite has happened, and human discourse has become greatly simplified over the past several decades.


I concluded a few years ago that it is primarily when our brains are 'offline', including asleep, that complexity is generated - in other words complexity of ideas does not come from the environment but from inside.

This is not quite right, of course, since such relationships are reciprocal - but the usual idea is that human ideas 'come into the brain' from the environment, and complex thoughts from a complex environment.

However, as a first approximation, it makes more sense to see complexity as coming from within, and this complexity being typically constrained by the environment.


So when a person is immersed in a highly information-rich environment, the response is to simplify, not to complexify.

A clear example would be mass media journalism. When smart people work in journalism (which must be the most information-dense environment in human history) their evaluation processes become greatly simplified, down to a level of gross stereotypy. With experience, no matter how much information of whatever type is deluged onto such people, they can effortlessly weight and filter it. The more complexity of input, the simpler is the output. It is only when the information flow slows or stops, and they are thrown back onto their own resources, that they are at a loss.

Extraversion is a similar phenomenon - when social interactions are continuous and diverse and absorbing, thought is simplified.


This also fits with creativity. As a generalization, primary creativity comes from sleep and sleep-like states of consciousness such as trances or daydreams.

Pure creativity is a psychosis-like phenomenon, inner, subjective - and typically of little interest or relevance to others (except as an object of study).

But uncreative discourse (i.e. the mass media outputs, and the outputs of bureaucracy) is likewise of little intrinsic interest - and the vast output of uncreative discourse must be made sensational (that is, must grab attention via 'sensory' means - by being a direct bribe, threat, or appealing to visceral emotions - rather than by its being of intrinsic interest).


The creativity that interests other people is a balance between the complexity of inner generated creativity and the simplicity imposed by the environment - but the root of creativity is inner and personal - thus individual; and substantially happens during off-line states when the human mind attenuates or shuts-down the overwhelming flood of sensory impressions from outside (informational and social); and builds ideational complexity according to their internal logic; these complex ideas later being tested and simplified - not complexified - in environmental interactions.


Build soil. Turn the farm in upon itself 
Until it can contain itself no more, 
But sweating-full, drips wine and oil a little. 
I will go to my run-out social mind 
And be as unsocial with it as I can. 
The thought I have, and my first impulse is 
To take to market— I will turn it under. 
The thought from that thought—I will turn it under 
And so on to the limit of my nature. 
We are too much out, and if we won't draw in 
We shall be driven in...
From Build Soil by Robert Frost



Adam G. said...


I wonder if there's a connection between your insights and religious "habits" like praying at fixed times, saying fixed prayers, engaging in fixed rituals where you say fixed things, and daily reading scripture until you reach the end--then starting over.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AG - I think that habits can be very valuable - they are for me - but like everything they are also potenitally hazardous in terms of becoming superficial routines.

I think Mormons tend *not* to use set forms of words in everyday prayer - is that correct?

Whereas traditional Church of England worship was mostly in the form of set formal (and very beautiful) prayers - some daily, and others in an annual/ weekly cycle; and at particular times (morning prayer and evening prayer service daily - ideally at church but more often in the home - plus communion services).

Perhaps something of both would be ideal - but there is no such option!

George Goerlich said...

I attended a traditional latin mass for the first time last week and found it very beautiful. During service there were long periods of silence where one could meditate/pray and try to consider the real presence of God. Because I'm not Catholic I did not get to participate in the rite, but nevertheless at the end of service I felt rested and my thoughts had more clarity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GG - That sounds wonderful. My own experience was of an SSPX Tridentine Mass in which the Latin was delivered at machine-gun speed and almost inaudibly; and the whole thing certainly was not conducive to meditation or personal prayer!

George Goerlich said...

I also attended one of the society's chapels. I wonder if perhaps the difference might be completely dependent on the priest (and maybe how his day went?).

I hate to admit to "shopping around", but I also attended a Mormon church and did not feel moved/inspired, though the people and lessons were great. However, if I had been at a temple instead, or perhaps heard the music sung by the tabernacle choir it would likely have been a different experience. Though I am not fond of protestant music, but love gregorian chants.

stephen c said...

I have attended about a hundred Latin Tridentine masses. At normal speaking speed, there is about twenty-five minutes worth of Latin words which are the same at every mass; these are usually found in large print in a bilingual missal that should have been provided. Of these twenty-five minutes of words, about eighteen minutes are said inaudibly by the priest, but everyone at the mass can follow (either by reading or by memory, because almost all the inaudible words are the same each week and are accompanied by the same "signpost" gestures in the same order- (for example, approaching the altar, raising a chalice, making the sign of the cross over bread, and about twenty other gestures)). There are about four minutes worth of words, some read out loud, each Sunday, which are called the propers, consisting of prayers appropriate to the particular feast or celebration (Eastertide, Pentecost, etc.) After attending several masses of this kind it is easy to choose which prayers to reflect on, or to choose to just adore the Lord or to just follow along. There are also the Bible readings, and the music. Nothing should be said at a "machine gun" rate. The Latin vocabulary and grammar is very good, dating from the time when Latin was a living language and later, and it seems to me to be equal in piety and love to the English of the Book of Common Prayer. The words are, of course, secondary to the sacrament of the Eucharist and to the solemn and joyful worship of the Lord. It is supposed to be the worship called for in the Bible as well as a pre-taste of heaven.

Bruce Charlton said...

@sc - thanks for that. I was only relating a single anecdote, not making a generalization. And in terms of rapid fire deliver, nothing compares to the Orthodox service when 'Lord have Mercy' was said (I think) forty times straight off!

An actual focus on the specific words is a rather specifically traditional Anglican thing - it is wonderful with the traditional words (BCP, AV Bible), but when applied to some of the banal and ludicrous modern liturgical translations it often comes across as dull and silly (and wrong!).