Lolling Around in Chairs and Fondling Balls

I was fascinated by something I came across recently about how we think, and how a simple technique could be used to improve sailing skills.

There are two types of thinking that we do: focused and diffuse thinking. Focused thinking is the kind of thinking you do when you are concentrating on something specific - doing a maths problem, working on a crossword, or reading a complex text. Diffuse thinking is the big-picture, making-connections, general kind of thinking.

We tend to use diffuse thinking when we are doing something that doesn't require concentration - like jogging, or washing up, or even sleeping, and it is great for getting a handle on something that we have been struggling with. We've all, for instance, experienced being stuck doing a crossword, and then being interrupted by our flipping wonderful children. When we return to our crossword we suddenly get the word we were struggling with quite quickly; or we've been working on a complex topic, go out for a walk, and when we come back we seem to have a clearer idea as to how it all fits together.

The funny thing about focused and diffuse thinking is that we can't do both types of thinking at the same time. we're either one or the other, but never both. A lot of leading scientists working in the field now reckon we should work on something for around 25 minutes, and then take a five minute break before continuing, to incorporate both types of thinking. They also recommend working on a problem until frustration begins to kick in, and then doing something completely different, to allow diffuse thinking to kick in and do some of the work moving us forward.

So much, so unsurprising. A lot of us know these things already to a greater or lesser degree. Also not particularly surprising is that some of the geniuses from human history have developed ways to enhance this to do amazing things.

Salvador Dali is said to have sat in a chair, with a key on a string hanging from his fingers, and relax, drifting off to sleep whilst loosely thinking about a piece he was working on. When he dozed off the key would fall from his fingers, clanging on the floor and waking him. He would then get up and immediately work, using his dream-like thoughts to develop his art. Given his paintings, this is hardly surprising.

More surprising is that Thomas Edison used a very similar technique. He used ball-bearings rather than keys, but other than that he did pretty much as Dali did, using the technique to help move on through difficult problems, or to get creative ideas. Einstein and Aristotle are also said to have used the technique.

Very interesting stuff.

But what does it have to do with sailing?

One of the things that this research showed up was that even those of us that don't have time to loll around in chairs fondling ball-bearings can still use diffuse thinking to help with specific things. The idea is that we focus on something that we want to improve just before we go to bed, and then tell ourselves that we want to dream about the topic. This has been shown to produce significant improvements in various activities, from solving problems to physical ability.

So, in theory, by watching a video of a top sailor just before bed, and then deciding to dream about it, our bodies can develop better technique for sailing.

Which does sound a little unbelievable.

But...our bodies are controlled by our brains. By allowing the brain to look at a great example of how to sail our particular class of boat, and then letting it loose on the image with diffuse thinking, it is able to create new neural pathways that weren't there before. We're allowing our subconscious to understand how to sail better, and as most of the boat-handling manoeuvres are best done without thinking about them, this is crucial to sailing well.

You could also use it to help work through complex tactical problems, technical issues, and so on.

Or you could use it for something useful like a problem at work.

Or you could just go to sleep like a normal person. But then you're a sailor, so you already have a track record of doing ridiculous things.

I have no idea if this technique works, but, if nothing else, it's a good excuse to watch sailing videos.


If you're interested in reading more about the technique you can find Dali's book here

3 thoughts on “Lolling Around in Chairs and Fondling Balls

  1. I thought that about Tillerman too, Blake. I’d certainly like to see some of his paintings.

    Sorry it took a couple of days to post your comments – I’m getting an unmerciful amount of spam in the comments section which means I have to manually clear it out. I’m hopefully close to getting it sorted (famous last words…).

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