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On not thinking and the 'George Spencer Brown' method

Updated: Jun 19, 2018

To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is that one needs to know.[1]

I originally came across this quote in Guy Claxton’s book Hare Brain Tortoise Mind, a fascinating cognitive science account of the speeds of thought of the brain, from the rapidity of reflex, to conscious language-based thought to the under thought, the slow processing that our brains undertake without our conscious knowledge often emerging, apparently from nowhere, as insight and intuition. This intuitive process is vital for many artists and indeed many scientists. Humans have the capacity to detect complex patterns, but, according to Claxton, much of this pattern recognition takes place below the threshold of conscious thought. After a period of non-conscious reflection our consciousness is interrupted with the answer to a problem often appearing fully formed into our mind as if from nowhere.

I went back to the original source of the quote by George Spencer Brown in his book, Laws of Form. Published in 1969 it is a book on mathematical statistics and what struck me about the book was that the great bulk of it consisted of page after page of impenetrable (for me at least…) mathematical formulas. That is until the last chapter, when George lets his hair down and proceeds to tell us to stop thinking, stop talking, so being so busy.

Illustrated by W.Heath Robinson

The quote brings to mind the archetypal image of the absent-minded professor, lost in their thoughts, unaware of their surroundings and unable to usefully interact with the everyday processes of living.

Visually this comes to me as one of my childhood favourite fictional characters Professor Branestawm, Norman Hunter’s hapless inventor recognisable by his high balding scalp decorated with numerous pairs of spectacles (a look I seem to be adopting for myself…).

The essence of the quote is about complete immersion in a process. Surround yourself with what you need to know, be influenced by, experiment and play with then avoid engaging with anything else, no reading, no talking, no active listening, but just keep the notion you are exploring at the periphery of your attention. Don’t try to think about it directly, don’t try to understand or make sense of it, just live with it like a fuzzy shape just out of your eye line. Give the process enough time and in GSB’s view the image will resolve, the insight become clear, the understanding emerge, and the wisdom be present.

I have adopted this quote and use it as the basis of what I call the 'George Spencer Brown Method'. As an artist (and probably as a scientist), understanding how intuition works and where ideas come from is crucial. Finding a way of creating the right conditions for creative intuition potentially shortcuts some of the frustrations of the creative process especially when one is blocked or at a dead end. In the GSB Method I ask students to try to employ the recommendations of the quote for one week. As you will have noticed, George suggests it takes years. However, one step at a time.

One week of:

  • Not being active

  • Not reasoning

  • Not calculating

  • Not being busy

  • Not reading

  • Not talking

  • Not making an effort

  • Not thinking

  • Simply bearing in mind what it is that one needs to know

Of course, when you look at it like this one week seems an unreasonable length of time in our modern hyper-distracted age. Try it for one hour. Then two hours. Then half a day. Then a day. Then two days. After this it begins to resemble a retreat. Make it into an artists’ retreat. A creative retreat where you enter a space of not thinking, not knowing and not needing to know. The retreat is a good analogy as this process of non-effort paradoxically requires a degree of effort to organise and set up. Most people I know can’t simply stop talking for a week.

Start slowly. Build up to a week. See what happens just bearing in mind what ever it is that fascinates you. Let your marvellous mind do what it does without 'you' getting in the way. Then we call this process, this hour, this day, this week: ‘work’.

And don’t let any protestant-work-ethic wage-slave-junky tell you otherwise….

[1]G Spencer-Brown, Laws of Form (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969). p. 110


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