Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less

Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less

by Guy Claxton

ISBN: 9780060955410

Publisher Harper Perennial

Published in Health, Mind & Body/Psychology & Counseling, Business & Money

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Turtle buries its thoughts, like its eggs, in the sand, and allows. the sun to hatch the little ones. Look at the oldfable of the tortoise and the hare, and decide for yourself whether or not you would like to align with Turtle.
Native American Medicine Cards

There is an old Polish saying, 'Sleep faster; we need the pillows', which reminds us that there are some activities which just win not be rushed. They take the time that they take. If you are late for a meeting, you can hurry. If the roast potatoes are slow to brown, you can turn up the oven. But if you try to speed up the baking of meringues, they bum. If you are impatient with the mayonnaise and add the oil too quickly, it curdles. If you start tugging with frustration on a tangled fishing line, the knot just becomes tighter.

The mind, too, works at different speeds. Some of its functions are performed at lightning speed; others take seconds, minutes, hours, days or even years to complete their course. Some can be speeded up -we can become quicker at solving crossword puzzles or doing mental arithmetic. But others cannot be rushed, and if they are, then they will break down, like the mayonnaise, or get tangled up, like the fishing line. 'Think fast; we need the results' may sometimes be as absurd a notion, or at least as counterproductive, as the attempt to cram a night's rest into half the time. We learn, think and know in a variety of different ways, and these modes of the mind operate at different speeds, and are good for different mental jobs. 'He who hesitates is lost', says one proverb. 'Look before you leap', says another. And both are true.

Roughly speaking, the mind possesses three different processing speeds. 'Me first is faster than thought. Some situations demand an unselfconscious, instantaneous reaction. When my motor-bike skidded on a wet manhole cover in London some years ago, my brain and my body immediately choreographed for me an intricate and effective set of movements that enabled me to keep my seat -- and it was only after the action was all over that my conscious mind and my emotions started to catch up. Neither a concert pianist nor an Olympic fencer has time to figure out what to do next. There is a kind of 'intelligence' that works more rapidly than thinking. This mode of fast, physical intelligence could be called our 'wits'. (The five senses were originally known as 'the five wits'.)

'Men there is thought itself -- the sort of intelligence which does involve figuring matters out, weighing up the pros and cons, constructing arguments and solving problems. A mechanic working out why an engine will not fire, a family arguing over the brochures about where to go for next summer's holiday, a scientist trying to interpret an intriguing experimental result, a student wrestling with an examination question: all are employing a way of knowing that relies on reason and logic, on deliberate conscious thinking. We often call this kind of intelligence 'intellect' -- though to make the idea more precise, I shall call it d-mode, where the 'd' stands for 'deliberation'. Someone who is good at solving these sorts of problems we call 'bright' or 'clever'.

But below this, there is another mental register that proceeds more slowly still. It is often less purposeful and clear-cut, more playful, leisurely or dreamy. In this mode we are ruminating or mulling things over, being contemplative or meditative. We may be pondering a problem, rather than earnestly trying to solve it, or just idly watching the world go by. What is going on in the mind may be quite fragmentary. What we are dunking may not make sense. We may even not be aware of much at all. As the English yokel is reported to have said: 'sometimes I sits and thinks, but mostly I just sits'. Perched on a seaside rock, lost in the sound and the motion of the surf, or hovering just on the brink of sleep or waking, we are in a different mental mode from the one we find ourselves in as we plan a meal or dictate a letter. These leisurely, apparently aimless, ways of knowing and experiencing are just as 'intelligent' as the other, faster ones. Allowing the mind time to meander is not a luxury that can safely be cut back as life or -work gets more demanding. On the contrary, thinking slowly is a vital part of the cognitive armamentarium. We need the tortoise mind just as much as we need the hare brain.

Some kinds of everyday predicament are better, more effectively approached with a slow mind. Some mysteries can only be penetrated with a relaxed, unquesting mental attitude. Some kinds of understanding simply refuse to come when they are called. As the Tao Te Ching puts it:

Truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing.

Those who are bound by desire see only the outward container.

Recent scientific evidence shows convincingly that the more patient, less deliberate modes of mind are particularly suited to making sense of situations that are intricate, shadowy or ill defined. Deliberate thinking, d-mode, works well when the problem it is facing is easily conceptualised. When we are trying to decide where to spend our holidays, it may well be perfectly obvious what the parameters are: how much we can afford, when we can get away, what kinds of things we enjoy doing, and so on. But when we are not sure what needs to be taken into account, or even which questions to pose -- or when the issue is too subtle to be captured by the familiar categories of conscious thought -- we need recourse to the tortoise mind. If the problem is not whether to go to Turkey or Greece, but how best to manage a difficult group of people at work, or whether to give up being a manager completely and retrain as a teacher, we may be better advised to sit quietly and ponder than to search frantically for explanations and solutions.

Excerpted from "Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less" by Guy Claxton. Copyright © 2000 by Guy Claxton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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