My own belief is that a conscious thought can be planted into the unconscious if a sufficient amount of vigour and intensity is put into it. most of the unconscious consists of what were once highly emotional conscious thoughts, which have now become buried. It is possible to do this process of burying delbierately, and in this way, the unconscious can be led to do a lot of useful work. I have found, for example, that if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic the best plan is to think about it with very great intensity – the greatest intensity of which I am capable – for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done. Before I had discovered his technique, I used to to spend the intervening months worrying because I was making no progress: I arrived at the solution none the sooner for this worry, and the intervening months were wasted, whereas now I can devote them to other pursuits.
Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, Pg 49-50
This is a book I first read seven years ago and occasionally come back to. While it’s full of scattered insights, I’d struggle to think of any advice I’ve encountered anywhere that has been more straightforwardly useful than this suggestion. It’s something I began to try and practice consciously pretty much immediately and, in the past few years, it’s become such a habitual part of how I work that I’d pretty much forgotten I ever did anything else. It’s a natural antidote for those who, as C Wright Mills might have put it, can find themselves getting obsessed with the “feel of an idea” – my own take on Russell’s advice is to try and sit with an idea, see where associations lead you spontaneously, think through its implications and try to contextualise it in terms of ideas that are already more settled in your mind. Then to let it go, distracting yourself with something else and avoiding it for as long as possible until some practical exigencies demand reengagement. Often they don’t and this is where the method is particularly great.
It came back to mind recently because of a discussion in which I suddenly found that a fragmented set of thoughts which preoccupied me a couple of years ago (how cultural items can be used to mediate human relationships e.g. CDs, Mp3s, Books, Films, Youtube Clips) suddenly emerged back into my psyche as a fully formed theory (linking transformation of the cultural industry to theories of individualisation) which was relevant to the discussion. As far as I can remember, I’d expanded no deliberate thought or intellectual energy on addressing these ideas in the preceding couple of years – they’d simply been sitting in the back of my mind, baking until they were ready. The ‘baking’ metaphor is perhaps another example of this. Someone used the term at a conference I was at recently (in fact I’m not 100% sure I didn’t mishear them) and it briefly lodged in my attention without me really knowing why. Until I came to write this blog post and suddenly it became obvious why I had latched onto the metaphor of ‘baking an idea’.