Schiller wrote of a “watcher at the gates of the mind,” who examines ideas too closely. He said that in the case of the creative mind “the intellect has withdrawn its watcher from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.” He said that uncreative people “are ashamed of the momentary passing madness which is found in all real creators… regarded in isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea that follows it; perhaps in collation with other ideas which seem equally absurd, it may be capable of furnishing a very serviceable link.”
What is this “watcher at the gates of the mind” that crushes spontaneity, originality, and fun? A small study recently concluded that an explanation will be perceived as more satisfying if it has a neuroscience angle, even if the neuroscience angle is completely non-probative of its claims. So I am happy to say that I have a neuroscience explanation to offer: the censorious “watcher” likely lives in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
An even smaller study, for example, studied the brains of rappers, both reciting memorized verses and “freestyling”—inventing new lyrics on the fly. Under fMRI, subjects freestyling showed decreased activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). Another study, measuring jazz musicians either playing previously memorized music and improvising new music, demonstrated the same pattern of activation: decreased DLPFC activity in improvising musicians.
So we have a candidate for the watcher at the gates of the mind. Arne Dietrich named this the “transient hypofrontality hypothesis,” proposing that what altered states such as “dreaming, endurance running, meditation, daydreaming, hypnosis, and various drug-induced states” have in common is a pattern of inhibition in the prefrontal cortex. Group rituals, especially rhythmic rituals (like endurance running), have the power to inhibit ordinary self-conscious social rumination and provide pleasurable ego-loss as well as social connection and bonding.
Imagine your river of Babble at its source, the subconscious: a foaming, ugly-colored river littered with half-formed concepts, too wild to navigate, too dirty to drink from. A quarter mile across, the bellow of the rapids is deafening.
Downstream, you build a series of gates to tame the rushing rapids and perhaps extract something beautiful and pure.
The First Gate, conscious thought, is a huge dam a thousand feet high and holds almost all the incoming thoughts at bay. Behind it, an enormous lake forms, threatening to overflow at any moment. A thick layer of trash floats to the top of this lake, intermixed with a fair amount of the good stuff. The First Gate lets through anything that satisfies a bare minimum of syntactical and semantic constraints. Thoughts that make it past the First Gate are the first ones you become conscious of - that's why they call the output the Stream of Consciousness.
A mile down the Stream of Consciousness is the Second Gate, spoken word, the filter through which thoughts become sounds. This Gate keeps you from saying all the foolish or risqué thoughts tripping through your head. Past the Second Gate, your spoken words form only a pathetic trickle - a Babbling Brook.
By now there is hardly anything left to sift from. The Third Gate, written word, is no physical gate but a team of goldpanners, scattered down the length of the Babbling Brook to pan for jewels and nuggets of gold. Such rare beauties are the only Babble that actually make it onto paper. You hoard these little trinkets in your personal diary or blog, hoping one day to accumulate enough to forge a beautiful necklace.
At the First Gate, conscious thought, noticing is the way to let through more subconscious Babble. Practice noticing thoughts and sensations (not just confusion) that you never pay attention to. Much of meditation is devoted to relaxing this first Prune filter. Much of art is devoted to the motto: make the familiar strange, where strange is better translated as salient.
Another exercise along similar lines is zooming in on anything, anything at all. Pick up and stare at the whorls and aphids running down that twig on your driveway. Take apart that broken old Canon in the attic. Dissect your aversions toward attending Algebraic Geometry.
dissociation-into-subpersonalities exercise has a whole of great side effects, but the relevant one for us is that it again shortens the mental gap between the First and Second Gate by making thinking feel like conversation.