Encountering Fresh Thought Patterns
On November 18, 1861, Julia Ward Howe created the most inspiring song of the Union armies in the Civil War, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The soldiers sang it in their camps each night, and many regarded the morale boost from that song to be a
critical factor in their winning the war. She didn’t labor over the song, however. It formed itself in her half-conscious mind one night, as she describes in her journal:
I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight, and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, “I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.” So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen, which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.
“Discovery consists of seeing what everyone else is seeing, but thinking what no one else has thought.”
— Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, 1937 Nobel Prize winner in physiology for discovery of vitamin C and its uses
How often have you enjoyed aha experiences like that? It can happen in simple ways like imagining a new way to arrange the furniture or more complex ways like restructuring your finances or taking important new steps in your career or family life. But perhaps you find yourself stuck dealing with thought patterns that are just not good enough, with no breakthroughs on the horizon. In this section we are going to explore promising ways to refresh the mind and to bring forth new thought patterns of possibility. Before you go on, you might want to jot down a few of the thought patterns you would like to shift. Perhaps one of these strategies can help you achieve a breakthrough or two.
Rewiring Thought Patterns: Revisit Old Problems from a New Angle
Many scientific breakthroughs arise when a researcher devises a new study that challenges the focus or the conclusions of older studies. You can do this too. Notice the thought patterns in your life that feel stuck and unworkable and then challenge them. Here are a few scientific challenges to show you how it’s done.
“To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”
— Albert Einstein
Too much close work, like reading and computer screens, is causing increased nearsightedness in children, right? Or perhaps it is just hereditary. Maybe not. Both assumptions were challenged by researchers in two key studies. In 2007, Ohio State University researchers tracked American children with two nearsighted parents and found another variable that split the group in half. Those who spent at least two hours a day outdoors were four times less likely to become nearsighted than those who spent less than one hour a day outside The following year, other researchers compared two populations of children of Chinese ethnicity: a group living in Singapore who spent only three hours per week outdoors and a group living in Sydney, Australia, who spent nearly fourteen hours a week outside. Both groups of parents had similar levels of nearsightedness, but their children varied dramatically, depending on their time in the sun. The children in Sydney were nine times less likely to develop nearsightedness. The takeaway suggestion is to look for a new variable that could change your undesirable thought pattern.
After decades of searching for ways to destroy cancer cells, a new question arose: who’s helping these cancer cells thrive? Why have some neighboring cells become such facilitators, and can that environment be made less inviting? This new research path became much more promising in 2003, a year after a large federal study pointed to the increased risk of breast cancer from taking a combined estrogen and progestin compound called Prempro. Breast cancer had been inching upward annually since 1945, but suddenly, in 2003, it dropped by 15 percent and has held steady. The only change that could explain this was that millions of menopausal women had heeded the warning to stop taking Prempro. Its presence in their systems had apparently been weakening the boundaries surrounding the small deposits of naturally occurring cancer cells in their breasts. This had made it much more likely that these cells could burst out of their local neighborhoods and cause damage. Its elimination allowed those boundaries to build back up. Now many researchers are searching for additional ways to reverse cancer by altering its cellular environment. The takeaway suggestion is to notice what surrounds your undesirable thought pattern, not just the problem itself.
working with the five tolerances develops unlimited thinking patterns. photo: danist soh
Are we looking at a problem with the faucet or the drain? That answer could strongly influence the direction of Alzheimer’s research. All brains manufacture beta amyloid, but with Alzheimer’s patients, it is known to build up and create clumps that interfere with key regions of the brain. The research focus has been on reducing the level of beta amyloid in the brain and on trying to stop its production. But amyloid has important functions, so that might not work. For example, it serves as a nerve-cell tranquilizer of sorts. When nerve cells begin firing too intensely, they release amyloid to lower their signals back to normal. A seven-year research effort that began in 2003 has recently proven that the production of beta amyloid in Alzheimer’s patients is normal, and the problem is with the drainage. They are much slower at draining it back out of the system. This finding has opened a whole new line of research, looking for ways to improve the drainage, for states of mind that don’t call for as much amyloid in the first place, and for other ways to calm nerve cells so they call for less amyloid. The takeaway suggestion is to look at what might drain off its intensity instead of focusing on what is causing your undesirable thought pattern to build up.
Interrupt Your Brain’s Logic and Limiting Thought Patterns
When we reason, we organize our thinking in step-by-step sequences so we can justify our conclusions. This leaves little room for new possibilities to sneak in. To invite your brain to think in new ways, it can help to scramble that order. Deliberately read or listen to ideas that seem unrelated to the thought pattern you are working on. When I was in graduate school, I would often look over the books on the reshelving cart in the library. It held a mixture of books I would never have chosen ordinarily, books that didn’t seem to relate to my current research question at all. I would pick three or four of them to skim through before starting the day’s research, and I would often get breakthrough ideas from stepping outside my field in this way.
Even if your challenges are less academic and more down-to-earth, you can try the same harvesting technique by reading magazines or journals about fields you have never explored or talking to people whose situations are unrelated to yours. Once you discover how they think and what thought patterns they have discovered, see if you can apply them to your challenges.
Borrow a Brain
Sometimes the best strategy is simply to borrow someone else’s brain. You can try an experiment similar to one that my classes really enjoyed. They would break into two groups, and each group talked about the questions they seemed stuck on. Once each group settled on one question that would interest all of their members, the groups traded questions. Their task was to reflect on the other group’s question for a week or two. Then we set aside time in class for the reflectors to sit in an inner circle to discuss their thoughts while the group who was stuck on the question sat in an outer circle listening quietly. The following week it was the other group’s turn to hear their question reflected back to them.
If you try this, it helps to have at least four people join the activity. One of you can ask the other three to reflect on your question. If they answer right away, they can only give their immediate thoughts and opinions, and that is rarely satisfying. However, when they take a few days to reflect on your question, to dream over it, and to think more deeply, they will bring a much richer offering to the table. When they come together, it is extremely important for you, as the questioner, to listen without comment while they talk among themselves about what their minds did with your question. They must not talk to you directly, just to one another. By staying out of the limelight, you can almost feel your mind becoming unstuck and thought patterns shifting as you eavesdrop on their conversation.
Learn to Invite Emergent Thought Patterns
We have been exploring patterns that are just hidden from us. But some thought patterns simply weren’t there when we last looked. Local products can go viral on the Web and become major trends, social uprisings can lead to new political realities, and small initiatives can spread throughout a population for the common good. When Wangari Maathai gathered a group of women together and led them to plant trees in her native Kenya, she empowered them to take back the land from a corrupt leadership and reclaim the growing desert at the same time. Her foundation ended up planting thirty million trees, but she could not have foreseen that it would inspire the United Nations to take this idea worldwide, eventually planting another eleven billion trees. Nor could she even dream that she would be chosen as the 2004 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her work. Some emergent patterns are impossible to see without the aid of massive computer systems that can process such huge amounts of information that they have earned the nickname of big data. The US government has established a Big Data Research and Development Initiative, connecting the powerful supercomputers in its own laboratories with research centers in universities around the country. Some of this big-data research has become controversial since it is seen as invading privacy, while other research is proving to be quite helpful. One beneficial project arose in response to the Human Genome Project. That project had found that less than 2 percent of the roughly one million DNA pairs were involved in shaping genetic inheritance. Nearly 97 percent of the remaining DNA bits seemed to have no purpose and were dismissed as DNA junk. In 2003 the Encode project was launched to study this junk, leading to a nine-year collaboration among 440 scientists in thirty-two labs from around the world. Their findings are finally being released, and all contribute to the same startling discovery! Most of this junk DNA consists of switches that regulate the behavior of nearby genes. In a recent New York Times article, one project researcher, Michael Snyder of Stanford University, is quoted as saying, “Most of the changes that affect disease don’t lie in the genes themselves, they lie in the switches.” The implications for medical research are staggering and hold the promise of great benefit.
But the most enjoyable prospects for emergent patterns exist in our own minds. We don’t always have to wait for them to happen either. We can actually learn to invite them by tapping into the back burners of our mind and developing new thought patterns.
I live in the country, and a farmer’s ditch runs through my back pasture. It’s part of a large network of irrigation channels serving the area, but it hasn’t always been there. One day I visited with Frank, the ditch rider who had been overseeing my ditch for thirty-nine years, and it turned out he was the one who organized the water conservancy district among the farmers. Farmers are notoriously independent, so I asked him how he did it. His response puzzled me at first. “I had the time,” he said, but he meant much more than I thought. He explained that he visited each of the farmers in the region to explain the proposed project, but then he would shift the conversation and visit about other things for a while. Sometimes this tangent would last half an hour or more, but as he said, “I had the time.” At some point each farmer would shift back to the idea of the project, saying he’d been thinking about it and had decided he’d go along with it. This thinking had been happening on the back burner while Frank deliberately visited about other topics. He was quite certain that demanding an answer right after explaining the proposal would have yielded a lot more no votes than yes ones. He instinctively knew how to work those back burners!
Sometimes you may not even realize your back burner is operating. One morning during graduate school, I awoke with my head feeling stuffed with ideas from all the courses I was taking. I longed to wash all those thoughts from my head for a while. So I went to the library, chose a small table near the wall that had a very thick book on it, and sat down. The book happened to be the titles of all the paperback books in print, and I thought it would do nicely since I had absolutely no interest in that. I sat there for nearly eight hours, rhythmically reading titles, authors, dates, publishers, cities, and states with no other competing thoughts. When I left that day, my mind was refreshingly empty—or so I thought. But about three days later, I began to get a sense for what was not being published! There was no way I could have created that awareness with my conscious mind. It had to bubble up from the back burner!
While that thought pattern emerged in three days, some thought patterns can take much longer. Perhaps you have held questions for weeks or even years, only to stumble on the answer seemingly out of the blue. You had been studying that question all along, but the bits and pieces were getting filed below your conscious mind until they were ready to surface as your own emergent thought pattern.
The next section describes an emergent pattern that was thirty years in the making! I think you’ll enjoy it.
Discovering a Five Idea: Freeing the Mind Through Inquisitive Thought Patterns
Some ideas are especially wedded to a particular number. There are “three” ideas like ground, path, and fruition or beginning, middle, and end or will, heart, and mind. The Greeks spoke of four temperaments that paired up with the four seasons. Airy spring was the sanguine. Fiery summer was the choleric. Changeable autumn was the melancholic. And watery winter was the phlegmatic. Indigenous Peoples often paid careful attention to the four directions. In modern times Carl Jung revisited the Greek pattern and developed his four styles of mind: the intuiter, the sensor, the feeler, and the thinker. And then there are “five” ideas like the Chinese five-element theory based on fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. They tend to connect to each other around a circle. What follows is a five idea.
I wish I could say it came to me all at once in a dream or from studying other five ideas, but it didn’t. It brewed and incubated and accumulated over about a thirty-year period. The underlying question that drove this growing list into its final pattern was “What are the basic qualities needed to free the mind to think well?”
I discovered the first two qualities early on. I was teaching children with learning difficulties and emotional issues back in the 1960s and ’70s. Some had such a low frustration tolerance that they couldn’t stand any confusion without giving up. But new learning is always ambiguous at first, until you understand what is being explained. Somehow I needed to cultivate their tolerance for ambiguity or they would never be able to engage in new learning. So we worked with stretching that tolerance. I would throw out a puzzling question and ask them to mull it until the next day when we would work out the answer. We would consider issues that had more than one “right” answer, depending on one’s point of view. We had a wonder board where they posted questions that had no easy answers. Why are there wars? Do fish like to play? Why do flowers come in so many shapes and colors? Gradually, their ambiguity tolerance would improve.
Those students often had a second major obstacle to learning. They couldn’t tolerate repetition, calling it boring. This meant they wouldn’t practice their skills, so they were failing in those subjects like math and foreign languages that built on prior learning. I decided to tackle that problem head-on. We actually practiced enduring boredom, extending the time they could stand to do simple math problems without starting to daydream or leave their desk. They progressed from two or three minutes to as long as fifteen minutes at a stretch. For years, those two tolerances—for ambiguity and for boredom—were what I noticed.
Then, in the early 1980s, I began teaching at the college level and quickly noticed an unusual trait among the arts students. There was an element of the unexpected about everything they did, and I realized that they had an extraordinary tolerance for novelty. I wondered, briefly, if this could be a “three” idea. Were boredom, ambiguity, and novelty akin to any of the “three” patterns I knew? It just didn’t seem to be a fit, so I kept them as just an odd list I was creating.
I noticed the next tolerance in the late 1980s and early ’90s. These years were filled with terms like “bottom line” and the conviction that everything, even chaos theory, boiled down to very simple patterns. But, to me, things just didn’t look all that simple, and I kept suggesting that things were actually incredibly complex if we looked carefully enough. This was an amazingly unpopular view until the field of mathematics brought forth the complexity theory. With their “fuzzy logic,” mathematicians were able to detect patterns from data that weren’t quickly apparent and to create a generation of intelligent machinery that could adapt to each owner’s needs. Voice-activated equipment could recognize a speaker’s accent, washing machines could learn the kinds of loads the owners tended to run, and investors had a new tool for spotting trends in the market. At about the same time, Barbara McClintock was discovering the enormous complexity of genetic material. Medical researchers studying cancers and AIDS began to grapple with the labyrinth of mutating viruses and the biochemical cascades behind so many conditions that had been incomprehensible when the search was for a simple explanation. The field of deep ecology also flourished with this new tolerance for complexity. Finally, the richly complex systems in nature could be appreciated for all their dazzling interdependencies and variables.
Surely, my list of four tolerances must be a “four” idea. I worked a long time, trying to pair up ambiguity, boredom, novelty, and complexity with the temperaments or the qualities of the four directions. But it was to no avail. It was still just an odd list. I set it aside and nearly forgot about it.
In the mid 1990s, psychology began dwelling heavily on theories of attachment, narcissism, and borderline personality. It was thought that the problem was linked in some ways to poor “boundaries.” These folks either had weak boundaries and were overly influenced by the energy fields around them or they only saw things as an extension of themselves, which meant they weren’t open enough to experience the world for itself. It was confusing, and I kept wondering how that related to the ability to sense the energy fields in the environment and the physical, emotional, and cognitive states of other people. What was a massage therapist doing when he or she gravitated to the locus of energy imbalance? What was the friend doing who commented on the mood of another before that person had said a word about it? What was the teacher doing who listened to the question of a student and tailored the response to the way that particular student’s mind worked? Were we all borderlines?
I was actively mulling my boundary question one day when a somatic psychology student came in for an appointment. “Say something about boundaries,” I said, to begin our interview. “Well,” he replied, “there’s the skin, of course.” And then I got it. The skin is a semipermeable membrane. The issue wasn’t about boundaries, really. It was about permeability! Then the diagnostic question would be whether people could regulate their permeability or not. If it were stuck open, they would be overly sensitive to the energy fields around them. If it were locked shut, they would be oblivious to others. But if they could expand and contract their permeability to fit the situation, they could be highly skilled in their work and in their lives.
I remembered my old list of four tolerances and cautiously added this fifth item to the list. Could this actually be a five idea? Did they have a special relationship to one another, each one having its own location around a circle, each one supporting or enhancing the one that followed? If one of the elements is blocked or missing, is there an interruption in the flow of energy? This actually seems to be the case! Here’s how they seem to sit around their circle.
We can follow them around the circle this way:
1. Boredom (or stillness) creates the calmness to cope with increasing complexity. Too much boredom tolerance, on the other hand, leads to incredible procrastination, and nothing can get accomplished.
2. Complexity tolerance allows the mind to stretch and feel at home in an increasingly complex world, gathering, holding, and organizing vast amounts of information easily. However, this knowledge can also harden into rigidity, closing one’s mind to change if a person fails to stay open to new ideas and the thoughts of others.
3. Permeability allows one to attune to the energy around them, registering the subtle cues, moods, needs, and connections among the people, plants, animals, and objects in the environment. However, this can become overwhelming if a person fails to close down enough to bring in proper boundaries.
4. Ambiguity depends on a fluid kind of intelligence that can stick with a situation that is unclear and persists in being quite vague for long periods of time. A more fixed mind will resist ambiguity and will miss out on any delightful encounters with the next tolerance, novelty.
5. Novelty is the most exciting state of all, but its intensity can seem overwhelming at times. If one has a high tolerance for novelty but a low tolerance for boredom, it is very easy to slip into addictive cycles instead of calming back down.
Inviting Infinite Thought Patterns: Moving Into Possibilities Thinking
By now you may be wondering about your own relationship to each tolerance. If you suspect you might be overdoing one of these tolerances, here are some suggestions to help you bring the flow back into your tolerance circle.
1. To tame excessive boredom, work on the next tolerance: complexity. When life has slowed down to almost total sameness, and you feel stuck and aren’t even thinking about change anymore, it may be time to take a fresh look at your situation. Ask friends or advisors to help you see your life in richer and more complex terms. Seek fresh ways to look at old thought patterns, to question your current life, and to breathe new energy into it. Let it become more complex, more diverse, and more interesting, and then begin to get curious again about the rich possibilities for your future when you see yourself in this new way.
2. To tame excessive complexity, work on the next tolerance: permeability. When you find yourself too caught up in your own thought patterns, isolated from others, and preoccupied with complex ideas, perhaps it is time to open up to the world a bit. Reconnect with your body—begin exercising, improve your diet, get more sleep, get a massage. Expand your social life—make new friends, enjoy old ones, do volunteer work that helps people. Create new connections with nature—find trails to hike, relate with animals, get a pet. Look for ways you can engage with other cultures—perhaps folk dancing, ethnic cooking, even traveling.
3. To tame excessive permeability, work with the next tolerance: ambiguity. When you find yourself getting lost in the energy around you, so caught up with the personalities and demands of others that you aren’t sure who you are, you may need to reduce your sensitivity to confusion. When you have a feeling of uncertainty and unpredictability, you can either call that feeling confusion or ambiguity. When you call it confusion, you can fall into feeling helpless and lose confidence. Then you are likely to lose your sense of self in a situation. However, if you learn to call the feeling ambiguity, you can relax more and realize that it is the situation that is unclear, not yourself. You can simply notice that the world is a bit blurry and still hold a clear sense of self. Practice reframing this shift, moving from feeling confused to noticing ambiguity and see how it affects your thought patterns.
4. To tame excessive ambiguity, work with next tolerance: novelty. When your comfort with ambiguity expands to where it begins to interfere with your ability to bring ideas and passions to life, it can lead to a sense of apathy and indifference. Life can begin to seem pointless and depressing. It is time, then, to explore ways to put more fire back into life, to rekindle a delight in the unexpected, and to add a buoyancy or uplifted quality to each day. Consider creating opportunities for play, humor, and spontaneous acts. Begin to cultivate initiative, respond quickly to even fleeting ideas, and quit ignoring the urge to be creative. Spend time with friends who naturally seek novelty. With practice, you can learn to be more comfortable with the vitality and energy surges that arise when your life has been touched with novelty. This will surely stimulate new thought patterns and ways of seeing yourself, your challenges and the world.
5. To tame excessive novelty, work with the next tolerance: stillness/boredom. When your life gets so driven with high energy, excitement, unexpected events, and creative surges that you can no longer calm down or feel satisfied, you are very likely to turn to addictive patterns in an effort to keep the energy going or to finally unwind. Then it is time to find healthier ways to regulate your love of novelty. What is missing is the ability to self-calm. Begin to practice relaxation strategies, do stretching exercises or yoga, start gardening, take on a new skill that calls for repetition—learn a new language or take up a musical instrument. These practices can teach you to welcome an empty mind, a calm heart, and a relaxed body and help you break free of limiting patterns that you might be entangled with.
This except on thought patterns is from Original Mind: Uncovering Your Natural Brilliance by Dee Joy Coulter, Ph.D.