Thursday, May 22, 2008

Talking to Oneself

From Rachel Toor, “Did You Publish Today?” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 22, 2008 available at

What does it look like to do intellectual work? What does it look like to have an insight? To formulate a theory? To solve a philosophical problem? What does it take to get to the point at which you're ready to sit down and write something, ready to present something to the world?

Experience tells me that sometimes it looks like playing Spider Solitaire. Or twirling one's hair, talking to oneself, or sitting stock still and staring into space.

My friend Andrew, a psychiatrist, is an expert in the physiology of sleep. He has come up with a host of good ideas that have resulted in a fat sheaf of academic publications. He believes that sleep is the result of conditioning, ritual, and circumstance. You can't force yourself to go to sleep. What you can do, he says, is set up the conditions and rituals that will allow it to happen. You let the dog out (or put the rat back in her cage). You change into your footy pajamas. You brush your teeth. You get into bed. And then, having provided the right environment, eventually, you fall asleep.

That process, Andrew believes, is similar to what academics go through when trying to solve an intellectual problem. We shuffle off to our offices and plant ourselves in front of a computer. Or slink into the library and sink into a comfy chair. Or walk around the block 43 times.

We go through the motions that have led us, in the past, to cerebral success. We can no more force ourselves to make an intellectual breakthrough than we can will ourselves to sleep. All we can do is prepare the environment and perform the rituals associated with thinking.

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