Self-Reflections from the Field: Pressure Release Thinking

Cathy Manduca
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published Aug 13, 2009
One of my psychologist friends tells me that psychologists are very skeptical of individuals self reflections on their thinking. From their point of view most of the interesting action takes place beneath the surface of conscious thought in the sub-conscious. That said, one of the most interesting things about working on learning has been becoming more cognizant of my own thinking processes. I am happily entertained watching how I navigate, perceiving where my spatial skills are strong or weak, metacogniting on my metacognition, and cataloging my strengths and weaknesses as a thinker. I am also fascinated by the commonalities and differences with others and the ramifications of all of this on teaching and collaboration.

One of the most important things I have learned about myself, which I expect applies to many others as well, is what I call pressure-release thinking. Just as mantle melts and releases magma when the pressure is reduced at a mid-ocean ridge, I find that I need to reduce the pressure on my mind for many of my best ideas to emerge. When I get to the end of an ordinary workday (and sometimes before I get to the end) I have been dealing with so many specific issues that I can hardly think. Then I know that I need to go outside and 'clear my head' in order to figure out what needs to happen next. When I pack for a trip, I know that if I leave myself 30 minutes after I have finished packing up my briefcase for a trip, I will remember all of the items I have forgotten (usually this occurs 30 minutes down the road). After an hour, I will remember all of the items that should have been done before I left. The office is very familiar with this phenomenon because it usually results in a phone call asking for help.

But perhaps most interestingly, by the time I am 2 hours away, I start to have obvious insights that I should have had in the office. The first time this happened I was in graduate school in Pasadena headed out for the field in Idaho. By the time I got out of the LA basin, I had figured out that the ages I had spent the past several months producing in the lab were the same ages that were reported by colleagues to the northwest. One would have thought that such a simple insight would have been forthcoming while I was slaving over those numbers – but the details of doing the analysis prevented the insight from making its way up into my consciousness. When I leave for a month in the summer, or two weeks in the winter, I have time to forget about work and focus on other things. Every year I am rewarded by some unexpected idea making its way to the top. Sometimes, I think I can feel these ideas bumping up and struggling to get my attention. But more often, I think I have to be patient and give them a low-pressure zone in which to emerge.

I have a second naive theory about my thinking that I call serendipity time. When my husband was working on the Hubble telescope, he told me that they had planned for serendipity mode, where they would collect data from wherever the telescope happened to be pointing. Apparently this has led to some interesting discoveries. When my children were young and I felt the most pressure I have ever felt on my time, I became very adept at being efficient. I would organize my time, prioritize my work, and get the most important things faithfully done. After about a year of this, I realized my work was efficient but not particularly creative. I had scheduled out all of the time where I fortuitously interacted with people with unintended consequences, the time where I read things that yielded unanticipated insight, and the time when my brain just noodled about—I had lost all of my serendipity time. Since that realization, I've done my best to make sure I have serendipity time. I try to always take on a few responsibilities that seem slightly far afield, to interact with a few new people where I'm not sure exactly what I'll learn, and to make time for reading that is apparently useless to my work. The rewards are exactly what you would expect. I learn unanticipated things, make unanticipated connections, think interesting, unanticipated thoughts, and often get involved in unanticipated collaborations that are among the most interesting and productive things I am doing. I am a big fan of serendipity time. It reflects in me the need to balance being 'responsible' with having fun, learning new things, and being creative. The idea of serendipity time lets me be responsible about making time for these other important aspects of my professional life.

So taken together, serendipity time and pressure-release thinking explain some of the more peculiar aspects of my behavior. Like fighting so religiously to have the weekends off from meetings, phone calls, and workshops. As many of you know, I have routinely disappeared to Idaho in August for several years. This is my family home, my time for recharge, and the time when interactions with my family take the stage with no competition. It is also the time when I have my best, biggest ideas. Several years ago, I sketched out the idea for SERC and its initial agenda on a piece of 3x5 paper while fishing at a lake in the Seven Devils (I caught a huge trout on a raisin at this lake). We have been remarkably true to that agenda.

I have to stop writing now so that I can go fishing and collect huckleberries ☺ Ask me in the fall for a jar of jam and my new thoughts.

Self-Reflections from the Field --Discussion  

I love the metaphor of mid-ocean ridge pressure release melting as a mechanism to allow thoughts to emerge, magma-like. Is there also a metaphor to be made about the addition of impurities (oddball thoughts), by analogy with water triggering melt above a subduction zone?

I also have been working with a psychologist who is deeply skeptical about individuals' self-reflections on their own thinking. My own reaction has been that it's so exciting to work with subjects who can talk, after all those years of trying to make sense out of rocks, and landforms and other things that are not able to talk about what they are doing or why they are doing it. To disregard what individuals tell us they are doing seems like a missed opportunity.

In support of the notion that the best, biggest ideas can come while relaxing, I sketched out the "Where are We?" map skills curriculum in my head while swimming. Within a half hour swim at my local YMCA, the basic functionality of the software was all laid out, crystal clear in my mind. The final published version of the software was remarkably true to the swimming vision, including all four modes of use of the software.



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There is an article on Serendipitous Astronomy in the Jan 1 issue of Science. Clearly astronomers have had good experience with this. The article sites Galeileo's discovery of Jupiter's moons, Uranus, and the first asteroid, Ceres, early measurements of the expanding universe, radio waves and more as outcomes of serendiptious observations of the sky. I'm off to sit by the fire and think unstructured thoughts, and to call a few people I haven't had time to be in touch with lately!


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