I’d been thinking about the Kekulé problem off and on for a couple of years without making much progress. Then one morning after George Zweig and I had had one of our ten hour lunches I came down in the morning with the wastebasket from my bedroom and as I was emptying it into the kitchen trash I suddenly knew the answer. Or I knew that I knew the answer. It took me a minute or so to put it together. I reflected that while George and I had spent the first couple of hours at cognition and neuroscience we had not talked about Kekulé and the problem. But something in our conversation might very well have triggered our reflections—mine and those of the Night Shift—on this issue. The answer of course is simple once you know it. The unconscious is just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so. Habits of two million years duration are hard to break. When later I told George what I’d come up with he mulled it over for a minute or so and then nodded and said: “That sounds about right.” Which pleased me a good deal because George is very smart.

    The unconscious seems to know a great deal. What does it know about itself? Does it know that it’s going to die? What does it think about that? It appears to represent a gathering of talents rather than just one. It seems unlikely that the itch department is also in charge of math. Can it work on a number of problems at once? Does it only know what we tell it? Or—more plausibly—has it direct access to the outer world? Some of the dreams which it is at pains to assemble for us are no doubt deeply reflective and yet some are quite frivolous. And the fact that it appears to be less than insistent upon our remembering every dream suggests that sometimes it may be working on itself. And is it really so good at solving problems or is it just that it keeps its own counsel about the failures? How does it have this understanding which we might well envy? How might we make inquiries of it? Are you sure?


That was a great article.

    I’ve pointed out to some of my mathematical friends that the unconscious appears to be better at math than they are.

A colleague of mine once shared his secret problem solving technique: taking a leisurely dump. Set aside whatever it is that's causing you grief - including any politics and personalities in the office/workplace - and just let your mind wander while clearing out your system. I prefer a walk or meditation, but the point is you can often solve problems by learning to allow your subconscious/unconscious to work on it, you really need to learn to be attentive to the answers though. Sometimes they come as images or ideas or even vague feelings. I've learned to trust my "internal" answers and to develop my intuition, even when they might seem crazy or difficult or in the opposite direction your facing. You need to discriminate though, to be critical because there's usually some interpretation involved, it's rarely a literal answer. Kekulé’ had to interpret his answer - plenty of people would have simple dismissed or ignored the snake eating its own tail.

    George Zweig and I had had one of our ten hour lunches

Damn now I want to go off to the mountains or the sea or rural France for a month.

posted by demure: 753 days ago