Monday, 10 February 2014

The Problem with Thinking

This is a bit of an 'and another thing' to my post from a couple of weeks ago about PhDs. The skill-set and training that come from spending four (actually, at this point it's already four and a half) years as an academic are useful, but they don't half have some drawbacks.

I think I've blogged before, though I can't remember where, about the psychological concept of flow and its relationship to happiness and creativity. The basic idea is that the key to creativity is a kind of immersion in the work, where so much of your brain's total working capacity is taken up with one thing that there isn't enough left over to notice all the stresses and petty worries of ordinary life.

This is a hard state of mind to achieve at the best of times, but perhaps particularly for someone trained to academic standards and expectations. Academics are expected to be detached, clinical, impersonal. It doesn't always work like that - Sayre's Law exists for a reason, after all - but that's what they train us for.

And the training is useful in a whole range of circumstances. It means being able, quite often, to put aside one's own perspective and see that of others, which makes it easier to communicate with them, easier to accept and deal with any hurt they may have caused you, easier to rise above misfortune and so on. It makes maintaining the scepticism that everything on the internet requires very easy indeed.

But it does make flow difficult. The essence of flow as a mental state is not being detached. Writers talk a lot about how you should write your first draft with the 'inner editor' turned off, because this is the only way to achieve flow in writing. Analytic training, however, is all about keeping the inner editor working at all times. I tend to produce first drafts pretty slowly (NaNoWriMo notwithstanding), but with very few spelling and grammar errors.

Analytic training also makes one rather easier to distract. If you're not deeply immersed, then the threshold that something else has to reach in order to catch your attention is lower. When I'm writing this mainly takes the form of checking a dictionary or some world-building detail on Wikipedia, though if I'm honest, the neurotic worry of 'has someone tried to facebook me about anything?' is also a major factor. It also means that I'm not as isolated from the cares of life while I'm writing as I'd like to be. If I'm fretting over my budget or my job for some reason, it's hard to set that aside.

Worse than the effect on my writing, though, is the effect all this has on trying to socialise. Actually, the mere fact that I end up thinking about it as 'trying to socialise' rather than some less awkward, clinical expression (and I can't even, off the top of my head, think what the expression would be 0.0) is probably a bad sign. Conversation, and particularly the kind of deep, personal, involved conversation that marks strong social bonds (again, this sounds horribly clinical in my head), requires immersion. It requires making the person or people you're talking to the focus of your attention, rather than fretting, as I'm prone to, about whether I'm picking exactly the right words, or talking about the right things, or being boring. There are too many other questions for my mind to spider off into, too much thinking to be done about the way I'm thinking.

Overthinking isn't a problem just for people with PhDs, of course. We all do it from time to time, and if you have any kind of anxiety problem it'll be entirely too familiar a phenomenon. I just want to point out another way in which I think PhDs are overrated, a way in which having one isn't the be-all-and-end-all of intelligence that some people have seemed to me to be making it out to be. Having a PhD means having a brain that's wired a certain way, but it's a certain way that comes with some big weaknesses to balance out its strengths.

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