The Feeling of Solving a Problem

I blogged earlier about those moments when plot twists emerge in the writer's mind. Lately I was prompted to rethink the nature of this process by a fascinating thought experiment in Robert Burton's On Being Certain. Burton uses the analogy of a computer that's been programmed to solve a pharmacological problem by calculating numerous solutions. The program models theoretical drugs, estimates their probable effectiveness, and displays on the computer's monitor only such solutions as are computed to have a high probability of being effective.

The monitor remains dark for months, then lights up with a formula for a new drug that's theoretically likely to work.

Burton's suggestion is that something similar is happening when a novelist abandons a novel, unable to resolve its plot, thinks about other projects for some months, then wakes up one morning with the perfect-feeling resolution rushing into consciousness. The long delay between conscious cause and conscious effect, together with the feeling of mystical certainty that can accompany revelations from our unconscious, prevents our perceiving what's happened as the slow mechanical working out of a problem: the unconscious sorting its way mechanically through endless, fruitless possibilities, and finally pushing the useful ones into awareness.

George Rabasa tells Glimmer Train, “Whenever you don't know something when you're writing, make it up. You'll be surprised how true it is when you check later.”

Burton writes, “When writing a novel, you can feel the difference between writing 'anything that comes to mind' and willful plotting where you consciously reject certain possibilities. When actively thinking, the censoring editor is in the on position; during unconscious thought it is mercifully muted. But this is only a difference of inputted information; some possibilities are consciously rejected while others are encouraged. From a neural network schema, the basic process of hidden layer processing of inputs remains the same – only the inputs have been changed by the conscious editor. Rather than opting for the dubious premise that 'unthought thoughts' represent a different 'way of thinking,' why not consider cognition as a single entity that is subdivided into various ways of being experienced?”

Note that “when you check later,” in Rabasa's phrase, you will likely do so with a strong bias towards finding what you made up is true.

6 thoughts on “The Feeling of Solving a Problem”

  1. Exactly… this is what happens on our storytime experiment on twitter. Follow us @storyexperiment and use your imagination to add to the story.

  2. Are there drugs that can speed up the workings of your unconscious mind? Would such a drug be useful to writers?

  3. Nicotine. Writers have used it for generations.
    The problem solving buzz is how physics is done. Anyone who's ever studied physics at anything but the most trivial level laments that "it's nothing but word problems" ("word problems" being the notoriously annoying problems in mathematics, especially related rates and max-min problems in first year calculus). It's assembling the tiny number of things that we actually learn in physics (3 laws of thermodynamics, 4 Maxwells Equations, 1 Newton lay of universal gravitation, conservation of energy and momentum, that's it (I even named one twice)! Quantum physics and relativity don't really introduce anything substantially new, just different approaches.) into the right combinations to predict the outcome of an event. The masterful "trick" that only seems to work after pounding your head against a problem for hours, is to walk away and do something else. Then it hits you. Great buzz.
    The problem with neural nets is that they're difficult to justify in situations where you're trying to discover something new or determine a unique previously unknown result. The only way to argue with them is to reverse engineer them – which is kind of a pain. They also fail miserably if over or under trained.
    Oh, and "by the way" there's a great layman's description of how neural nets work in

  4. this is why i write short stories 🙂

    i wonder if there's a way to integrate the unconscious thought into a writer's schedule. that is, to integrate your post of time management with posts on problem solving in writing.

    in the 70s and 80s, there was an unusual number of poets in SU who worked as stokers (to feed coal into the mechanical boilers of centrally heated apartment blocks) — possibly not only because this was a good job off the grid, but also because the mechanical labor is helpful to the writing process? in some not very demanding proportions?

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