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396. Peace (VI)

John von Neumann held that he solved mathematical problems intuitively; he adhered to the system Alan Watts described: he forgot about the problem, let it become a hintergedanken (a “behind thought”), and then, at the right moment, the answer would pop into his mind—it is just the same principle as when a name is on the tip of your tongue, the trick is to forget it. For von Neumann, this mostly meant no more than to sleep on a problem, the old proverb being correct—then again, how many people actually remember to sleep on a problem, rather than working it over and over in the conscious mind? If I were more unscrupulous than I am, I would promote this post as “how to think like a genius” or “how to think like von Neumann”; well, not quite—the technique is certainly real, but it all depends on the brain that deploys it; so von Neumann remains safely in the stratosphere; there will be no rush from the masses to displace him.

As previously discussed, one way to explain magic is as a means to canalise your unconscious through what amounts to self-deception—even sleep is self-deception. On this account, popular with the Chaos magicians, the strange sigils, cowled and hooded outfits, and cauldrons are all props to get down to the unconscious—Austin Osman Spare and Aleister Crowley just found novel symbolic ways to access the unconscious and put it to work.

You encode a desire as a sigil and then your unconscious goes to work without interference from your mind’s conscious “want” aspect—the aspect that usually makes you trip over your own feet. The actual symbols are irrelevant, all that matters is their potential to distract and scramble the conscious desire and so clear the path for intuition; so you might jumble your desire as rearranged words, for example.

Von Neumann discovered much the same process: he was well-known for working to loud music or in the living room with the television on—apparently he annoyed Einstein because he played very loud German marching music in his office. I doubt he had worked this out consciously, since he probably would have told people this was why he enjoyed loud things; as it stood it just “helped him work” and was put down to typical eccentric genius behaviour.

The process was probably the same as what Crowley, Spare, and the Chaos magicians were up to in a more formalised way; von Neumann kept his conscious “desiring” mind distracted with vigorous music or loud TV programs and so let the other “deep” parts within his brain work on the problem without distraction from the higher conscious part—and this was how he made sure the answers “popped” into his head intuitively, as with a word on the tip of your tongue. He could have used magic spells or sigils to the same effect and become notorious rather than just famous; and, arguably, a switch to self-conscious magic would have been easier on his wife and Einstein.

The mind really works like that; everyone knows the sensation from school where you furrow your brow and make a show that you are “working” at a problem—and yet the answer always pops in from nowhere (literally so in my experience, it feels like it comes from the back of the mind; from the hinterland). So it is unwise to “push it” when it comes to problems. Perhaps this also has something to do with our social nature, with the way when we mull a conscious problem we also think about how it will be received by others or how it flatters our self-conception; hence the schoolboy furrows his brow to signal he is “really” thinking about it this time, really trying—and it is fairly common a person to play along as if they “get” something and then, suddenly, you see their face change and relax when they actually get it, as opposed to playing along.


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