Teacher Development

Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: An Excellent Combination

Understanding the difference between fast and slow thinking, and the place and time for each.
December 2, 2005

I was a history teacher for ten years and I enjoyed it very much indeed. But today's educational trends, which focus on specific metrics of accountability, represent a fundamental change in mind-set that demands some pretty astounding creativity on the teacher's part.

I've been interested in what makes people creative ever since I started writing forty years ago. My first discovery was that I would frequently go to bed with a problem unsolved, and then find in the morning not only that the solution had mysteriously arrived, but that I couldn't quite remember what the problem had been in the first place. Very strange.

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Then I came across research done at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s by Donald W. MacKinnon. He had examined what made people creative, and he found that the professionals rated "most creative" by their colleagues displayed two characteristics: They had a greater facility for play, meaning they would contemplate and play with a problem out of real curiosity, not because they had to, and they were prepared to ponder the problem for much longer before resolving it. The more creative professionals had a "childish capacity" for play -- childish in the sense of the total, timeless absorption that children achieve when they're intrigued.

This is fascinating, but it's completely countercultural. Our current business ethos dictates that the only real kind of thinking is quick, logical, and purposeful. Any other kind feels sloppy, amateur, self-indulgent, because we're supposed to be busy saving time. I was reminded of this recently, when I saw this irresistible offer in a mail order catalogue:

"The World's 100 Greatest Books Audio Cassette Collection. If you were to read each of these one-hundred great books at the highly ambitious rate of 4 per year it would take twenty-five years... But now with each book condensed onto a 45-minute sound cassette you can absorb much of their knowledge, wisdom and insight in just a few weeks and acquire a depth of knowledge achieved by only a few people who have ever lived."

Now, there's efficiency for you.

There is of course a point in doing some activities quickly, but hurrying has become a mind-set. The assumption is that the kind of thinking we should be using all the time is fast, purposive, logical, computer-type thinking. Poppycock!

We often don't know where we get our ideas from, but it certainly isn't from our laptops. They just pop into our heads somehow, from out of the blue. They're not the result of fast, purposeful, logical thinking.

We all understand that the slower kind of thinking regularly works for us. Yet, for some reason, we don't quite trust it.

Which is why I was overjoyed to find a book, Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, by Guy Claxton, an academic psychologist. Claxton uses the phrase "hare brain" to refer to the sort of deliberate, conscious thinking we do when we apply reason and logic to known data. "Tortoise mind," on the other hand, is more playful, leisurely, even dreamy. In this mode we are contemplative or meditative. We ponder a problem, rather than earnestly trying to solve it, by just bearing it in mind as we watch the world go by.

Why, then, has the tortoise mind become neglected? One reason is that the hare brain is articulate. It can explain its thoughts and solutions because it's consciously aware of its own activity. As the math teacher says, you can show your figuring as you go along. The hare brain can always justify itself.

So we must not mistrust the tortoise mind simply because it's not articulate. We must be willing to give it time to find ways to express itself before we let our articulate hare brain in to analyze and criticize its ideas.

When we're stuck, when we see we're just digging the same hole deeper, that's when we need to use our tortoise mind. I promise you, it will always produce new ideas.

John Cleese starred in the Monty Python TV and film series, created and starred in the TV comedy classic Fawlty Towers, and wrote and starred in many blockbuster movies. He's also written self-help books and owns a training-video business.