Consciousness and Problem-Solving: Some Interesting Quotes

I’m reading an article entitled “Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes” (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), and there is a section about reports on problem-solving processes that I thought might interest my creatively disposed readers…

“There is a striking uniformity in the way creative people–artists, writers, mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers–speak about the process of production and problem solving. Ghiselin (1952) has collected into one volume a number of essays on the creative process by a variety of creative workers from Poincaré to Picasso. As Ghiselin accurately described the general conclusion of these workers, ‘Production by a process of purely conscious calculation seems never to occur’ (p. 15). Instead, creative workers describe themselves almost universally as bystanders, differing from other observers only in that they are the first to witness the fruits of a problem-solving process that is almost completely hidden from conscious view. The reports of these workers are characterized by an insistence that (a) the influential stimuli are usually completely obscure–the individual has no idea what factors prompted the solution; and (b) even the fact that the process is taking place is sometimes unknown to the individual prior to the point that a solution appears in consciousness.

Some quotations from Ghiselin’s (1952) collection will serve to illustrate both these points. The mathematician Jacques Hadamard reports that ‘on being very abruptly awakened by an external noise, a solution long searched for appeared to me at once without the slightest instant of reflection on my part…and in a quite different direction from any of those which I previously tried to follow’ (p. 15). Poincaré records that ‘the changes of travel made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry’ (p. 37). Whitehead writes of ‘the state of imaginative muddled suspense which precedes successful inductive generalization’ (Ghiselin, 1952, p. 15), and Stephen Spender describes ‘a dim
cloud of an idea which I feel must be condensed into a shower of words’ (p. 15). Henry James speaks of his deliberate consignment of an idea to the realm of the unconscious where it can be worked upon and realized: ‘I was charmed with my idea, which would take, however, much working out; and because it had so much to give, I think, must I have dropped it for the time into the deep well of unconscious cerebration: not without the hope, doubtless, that it might eventually emerge from that reservoir, as one had already known the buried treasure to come to light, with a firm iridescent surface and a notable increase of weight’ (p. 26).” (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977, p. 240)

Can anyone relate to these experiences?

Nisbett, R. E. & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84(3), 231-259.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. fotdmike
    Sep 19, 2010 @ 16:04:01

    Absolutely! Rarely do I approach the task of problem-solving with extended conscious effort. My customary approach is to think about the problem for a little while (essentially familiarising myself with its various aspects) and then dismiss it completely, trusting that at some point a solution will pop into my mind unbidden. Which it usually does, frequently days afterward.

    And, I have to confess, I’ve never really thought about the process itself overmuch, just taking it for granted and assuming that my unconscious is far more capable of problem-solving than anything I can consciously attempt.

    But your post is now prompting me to think about this, and I’m currently trying to remember whether the unconscious is “time aware”; i.e., if a particular problem has been “time critical” then has the technique I use (if that’s not too grand a word for what is basically a very casual act) always (or usually) managed to deliver a solution in a timely manner?

    Hmm… the only conclusion I’ve come to so far is that I don’t much like forcing myself to think!


  2. psychofwriting
    Sep 20, 2010 @ 18:09:43

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

    In terms of whether the unconscious is “time aware” or not, I have two initial reactions…
    (1) If a particular problem is “time critical,” it is likely important and will be at the forefront of consciousness; a deliberate effort to solve this problem is more likely than the employment of the type of strategy you describe, where you dismiss the problem and let your unconscious do the work. So, essentially, in this scenario it doesn’t matter if the unconscious is “time aware,” because you wouldn’t leave the problem to your unconscious in the first place.
    (2) If the “time critical” problem is not particularly important, and you DO use the strategy you described, my hypothesis would be that your unconscious mind isn’t “aware” of the deadline and isn’t operating on any specific timeline. Rather, I would think that you would periodically be consciously reminded of the problem, and the fact that you haven’t found a solution yet, and that this conscious prompting/direction of attention would increase the likelihood that more of your unconscious resources are devoted to the problem in question once it does fade from conscious awareness.
    (3) Memory is biased–and if a problem isn’t all that important that you just “let it go” and figure that you’ll work out a solution in a few days, you are more likely to later remember your successes with this strategy than you are your failures (because with your failures you might have forgotten about the initial problem completely!).

    Either way, there is definitely problem-solving and ‘insight’ research that shows that taking a break from a problem and going back to it later (see my related post about “sleeping on it”) can be beneficial. A similar “leave it alone” strategy applies for tip-of-the-tongue states–if you have that frustrating “blocked” sensation while trying to think of a name or some other item in memory, let it go for a little while and it will likely ‘come to you’ later.


  3. psychofwriting
    Sep 20, 2010 @ 18:10:41

    apparently I had three initial reactions, haha 😛


    • fotdmike
      Sep 20, 2010 @ 18:35:42

      Heh heh 🙂

      Re your (1) it occurs to me that if, as part of the initial conscious awareness of the problem there’s also an awareness of a time element then this too would be an element of the whole that’s consigned to the unconscious. So in that sense maybe the unconscious would have some sort of cognisance of “criticality”?
      I take your point about not leaving a time-critical problem to the unconscious but, or certainly in my case, that tends to be dependent upon the actual timescale involved.
      If for example I need to sort something within the next 12 hours or so then you’re absolutely right… I’d consciously tussle with it. If however the necessity for a solution was time-related but not urgent so to speak (i.e., sometime within the next week say) then I still have this habit of simply not thinking about it. “Oh, that can wait” I say to myself, and promptly relegate it to the nether realms.
      What I’m having difficulty now remembering though is whether, when the time for a solution arrives, it’s there unbidden in my mind or that I then have to start thinking the whole thing through again. My inclination is that the former is likely true… but I’m not certain.

      Re your (3), oh, that is so totally right, and applicable to so many things!

      As for those tip-of-the-tongue states, yes, I’m so familiar with those. But how difficult it is sometimes to “let it go” 😦


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