I like to set aside time at least once a week to work on something creative, computer stuff excluded. It’s my arts and crafts time. I can pick something from pinterest to mimic or start another journal or make cards for certain holidays. It’s not about creating something that I can show off or learning a skill. Instead, the time is a sort of mental reset, kind of like meditation or napping. See, when you first learn a skill, it takes a lot of conscious effort. You try to dissect the technique and compartmentalize each of the motions until you master each one separately. This is a low degree of competency: you can do it, but it’s mentally taxing. After a while, the process becomes repetitive and second-hand, and you start losing the conscious component. The sensory perception information starts to bypass conscious thought completely. When we learn to hit a tennis ball or drive a car, we no longer have to think about the specific motions involved. Our subconscious can directly process the copious amounts of information necessary to maintain coordinated motor output. This in particular is the effect I look for.
Direct processing is a curious thing. Idle tasks like sewing and cutting paper easily take up the majority of a person’s motor capabilities, but nearly none of the conscious ones. It leaves you free to ponder things that would otherwise be difficult to focus on, especially with the many distractions of the modern world. It’s no use to sit down for ten minutes and try to reproduce this effect by simply mimicking someone else’s idle activity. No. Your mind has to be fully convinced that there exists nothing for it to consciously process, and only then does direct processing take effect. When we get bored, it’s not because we have nothing to do, but rather, we have nothing we can do given the current circumstances. When the best use of your time is so drastically limited by your location, your situation, whatever it may be, you feel apathetic and bored. Similarly, direct processing is most effective during times when you truly believe you have for lack of better words, nothing better to do. This could be at two in the morning, when the next best thing to do is, well, sleep1. This could be at the airport, waiting for a boarding call. This could be Monday afternoon in calculus class. For me, it’s Friday night, mostly, when I am at home.
The most recent thing I’ve made is a thread-bound notebook using copy paper and the scrapbook paper leftover from my February 14th day cards. Sewing itself is a peculiar process, though I was not really sewing but driving a needle through thirteen layers of unyielding paper. At first, I used simple lateral force to shove the pointy end through, piercing a hole until it reached all the way to the last sheet. It was precise, but made my fingers sore. Then, I thought of what I knew about impulse and shear stress and the mechanical advantage of nails2. The thing about hammering a needle is, one well-placed strike with perfectly-aligned orthogonal force and a follow-through to maximize impulse is much more effective than a series of misdirected hits or one forceful lopsided slap. Threading a needle and getting the stitches to line up is very frustrating. It’s natural to use more force and become angered from the result, but this only worsens the situation. It’s a playful mental game. In order to thread properly, you need mental equanimity3. Maintaining peace of mind also contributes to the effects of direct processing. This trend can be clearly tracked as my stitches are more and more aligned near the bottom of the notebook’s binding.
Direct processing does not necessarily require quiet, only quietude. For example, social interactions in most people often (and necessarily) dissents to direct processing, especially when a large number of factors (people) are involved. The complexity of such situations quickly becomes overwhelming for conscious thought, and so is better left to unconscious direct processing of stimuli. Emergent properties in your speech (one in particular: wit) are the result of direct processing, while more profound properties (compassion, evaluation, judgement) are indicative of higher-level conscious processing. At a basic level, anybody who interacts with human beings understands this. It’s unacceptable to apply thought to every social scenario, but insightful to do so for some.
This kind of wisdom certainly can be helpful. You can consciously trigger your brain to switch to direct processing. Your conscious thought will yield to direct processing if you simply remind it of the disadvantages of judging everything, and so, you can avoid delayed responses or completely absent ones. When someone says they are feeling off or out of it, they really mean that they’ve lost track of their direct processing. It’s like how you can’t sleep when you keep thinking about sleeping. This is not always effective, but a quick fix for such uncomfortable situations is to descend momentarily into deep analytical thought, then jump back to the surface, continuing the shallow cycle of stimulus-response. If ever you find that this mechanism stops working for you, it’s a sign that you haven’t been thinking enough.