A different way of thinking
"Getting ideas down on paper"
or "Leaving things till the last minute"
experience the most common cause of the "getting the ideas down on
paper" type of problem is any of a range of
subtle visual problems, which I have explained on the page "Gifted
Learning Disabled", in the section on Behavioural Optometry. If
your child has this type of problem, it is very important to have a vision
assessment (covered by Medicare in Australia) by a Behavioural Optometrist,
before looking any further for a cause of the problem. There are also
Behavioural Optometrists overseas.
It seems only reasonable to most of us that when we approach the task of writing an essay, giving a speech, or developing a project of some sort, we do so by beginning with a few ideas, doing research as needed, and building on them in a progressive and timely fashion, spreading the development of the project over the time available for the task. This is certainly what teachers generally expect, and this process of demonstrably working steadily on an initial group of ideas is what they expect to see from their students; they take it as evidence that the child is working on the task diligently and successfully, in the way they expect and approve of.
As the child
grows older and progresses to higher school years, this process of
"developing" the task in a demonstrable, serial and timely fashion, is expected to become more and more established, and the student's
ability to submit successive drafts at stated intervals may even become a required part of the
project as a whole. This seems reasonable and logical, and
school, parents, and students themselves, assume that everyone who is working
diligently works like this, because
it seems only natural.
there is a type of mind which in my late 30’s I
found that I have myself, and which I have since found many gifted children
I’ve worked with also have, which doesn't work in this way at all. I have thought of as a “conceptual,
holistic, subconscious processing” mind, because that's the way it seems to
function. In this type of mind, the planning or design and development of
a task takes place more (in some cases entirely) subconsciously, and during the
development stage the task is very difficult or impossible to access consciously; therefore it’s
difficult to be confident that it’s even happening.
Between the beginning of the project, when one researches it and thinks about it
generally, and the production of the final product, there may be quite a long
time during which nothing much seems to be happening and one doesn't seem to be
"getting on" with the task. If people with this type of mind are confident in their ability, they may
not notice the difference, especially in the earlier years of school when tasks
are smaller, because when they come to write the story or report,
or set up the experiment or give the speech, it all happens satisfactorily as if
impromptu. However if they become anxious or are pressured they can impede the
process from working in its own fashion, and the practical result of this is
that when asked to, or even when they wish to, they may indeed find great difficulty
"getting their ideas down on paper".
type of mind can become a source of great anxiety to a student, because if any outside person such as a
parent or teacher puts pressure on them to produce early drafts on demand, or to show evidence of
some regular progress being made, or some evidence that they are working
on the project in a serial, orderly fashion, (or at all) then they don’t have the
reassurance of being able to do this, or even of going over
some of the progress in their conscious mind simply to reassure themselves.
When the time comes and the whole project is completed in a single effort
"at the last moment", as if
out of nowhere, it may seem like a strange fluke and may not be at all
reassuring that on a future occasion one will be able to produce such a
"fluke" again. In any case, it definitely looks like that dreaded crime in
our education system, "leaving work till the last moment". This is very confusing to
most people whose minds work in this way; in
the case of a young child who has difficulty with it, the school situation
resulting from this can be very
worrying and confusing.
I found gifted children to have this type
of mind in the past I was working with secondary students, and I came to recognise their
typical presentation. Usually by secondary
school they present on investigation as gifted, competent students who have
produced a lot of good work in the past, but have nevertheless lost all confidence in their own abilities and
become very confused.
They are also usually having difficulties with their teachers who, because the
student can’t produce evidence of well-organised progress with their school
projects in the way they expect, are putting increasing pressure
on them to do so as they get older and closer to important exams.
Their inability to do this, combined with the pressure and subsequent
negative feedback from school staff, is usually the cause of their increasing
lack of confidence in themselves. Although
they may have had many successful projects in the past, they often tend to regard
these as lucky flukes, because of the lack of reassurance in their own mind that
the work was developed consciously and in an approved and understandable fashion.
I discovered that I had this type of mind when, as a mature age student doing a second university degree, I tried to make myself conform to the model we all have of the diligent & well-organised student. In secondary school all the work I produced was produced at one sitting, apparently off the top of my head, but this hadn't caused me much trouble because I was a naturally articulate person and the level of the schoolwork was easy for me; without thinking about it, I knew from experience that I could always "come up with something" when I really needed to. To me it seemed as though I simply skipped all the boring preparatory work. I got through my first tertiary degree in much the same way, though with a growing lack of confidence, and a strong feeling that I wasn't as "good" a student as others I knew who prepared in advance and seemed to work in a far more "organised" way - even though generally I achieved comparable or higher grades than these other students.
I came to do my second tertiary degree in my thirties, however, I felt that I
had now reached years of discretion, and it was very important to me to make a determined
effort to work in a more "orderly", "steady" and
"efficient" way, definitely not leaving things till the last
moment. The results were really terrifying. Having been given a
topic some months in advance, I would diligently work through the required
reading, and was horrified to find that although I gradually became aware of a
general feeling of familiarity with the subject, my wish to become organised and
efficient seemed unattainable; as far as producing any drafts
or outlines of the finished result, I seemed to have no ideas at all.
Despite all my efforts I seemed to be an incorrigible procrastinator and
"last minute" worker. Other students seemed able happily to discuss the ideas they had to date, most
of which impressed me enormously ("Why can't I think of things like
that?"), but when asked what lines I was thinking along I could think of
absolutely nothing to say, which even as I write it now, seems ridiculous.
Inevitably but unwillingly, I gained a reputation for being very
guarded and grudging about sharing my ideas. The first 2 1/2 years of my second degree (psychology) progressed in a serious of last-minute late-night
efforts which always terrified me (in case I couldn't come up with anything after
all). It wasn't until part way through my third year that I began to notice that I
consistently scored top or near-top with these last night "disasters",
and finally I began hesitantly to wonder whether this last-minute
procrastination wasn't a terrible "student" crime after all, but was simply the way my mind worked.
later when reading a book of collected
basic writings of Bertrand Russell, I came across a description which so exactly
fits this way of thinking, that it’s clear Bertrand Russell also had this type
of mind. Given that he’s a double
Nobel Laureate and one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, this has been even more successful in reassuring older
students that this way of processing writing and other projects is a known and
successful one. They’re able to
read his very clear description and relate to it.
Human cognitive function is still so poorly
understood currently that I don’t want to speculate as to what is actually
happening here. It has been
tempting to think that perhaps projects and material are being processed
holistically and conceptually in the right brain, and that while being worked on
there, the project simply doesn’t have direct or simple communication with the linguistic, serially logical left brain – but we really
know too little to make this sort of speculation useful.
Extract from a brief essay entitled “How I write”, by Bertrand Russell”.
[Please remember when reading the following, that Bertrand Russell was both one of the 20th Century's greatest mathematicians and logicians, and a Nobel Laureate for literature. We are definitely not dealing here with someone with a sloppy, illogical mind, or someone who, if he were still in school, should be regarded as a poor student by his teachers. Please note however, that we are definitely dealing with someone who is describing difficulty "getting his ideas down on paper" - until he learns to have confidence in the way his mind works.]
gradually I have discovered ways of writing with a minimum of worry and anxiety.
When I was young each fresh piece of serious work used to seem to me for
a time – perhaps a long time – to be beyond my powers.
I would fret myself into a nervous state from fear that it was never
going to come right. I would make
one unsatisfying attempt after another, and in the end have to discard them all.
At last I found that such fumbling attempts were a waste of time. It
appeared that after first contemplating a book on some subject, and after giving
serious preliminary attention to it, I needed a period of subconscious
incubation which could not be hurried, and was, if anything, impeded by
deliberate thinking. Sometimes I
would find, after a time, that I had made a mistake, and that I could not write
the book I had in mind. But often I was more fortunate.
Having, by a time of very intense concentration, planted the problem in
my subconsciousness, it would germinate underground until, suddenly, the
solution emerged with blinding clarity, so that it only remained to write down
what had appeared as if in a revelation.
most curious example of this process, and the one which led me subsequently to
rely upon it, occurred at the beginning of 1914.
I had undertaken to give the Lowell lectures at Boston, and had chosen as
my subject “Our Knowledge of the External World”. Throughout 1913 I thought about this topic. In term time in
my rooms at Cambridge, in vacations in a quiet inn on the upper reaches of the
Thames, I concentrated with such intensity that I sometimes forgot to breathe
and emerged panting as from a trance. But
all to no avail. To every theory I
could think of I could perceive fatal objections.
At last, in despair, I went off to Rome for Christmas, hoping that a
holiday would revive my flagging energy. I
got back to Cambridge on the last day of 1913, and although my difficulties were
still completely unresolved I arranged, because the remaining time was short, to
dictate as best I could to a stenographer.
Next morning, as she came in at the door, I suddenly saw exactly what I
had to say, and proceeded to dictate the whole book without
a moment’s hesitation.
do not want to convey an exaggerated impression. The book was very imperfect,
and I now think that it contains serious errors.
But it was the best I could have done at the time, and a more leisurely
method (within the time at my disposal), would almost certainly have produced
End of Bertrand Russell: the following comments are by Helen Dowland:
Obviously Russell was brilliant above the level of most of us. I’d like to emphasise that in my own experience, although I very clearly recognise the above description of the development of ideas, mine don’t (certainly didn't) always come through “as if in a revelation”, “with blinding clarity”, when I need them to. In years past, my experience used to feel very much like descriptions of the process of giving birth; an incredibly difficult and painful convulsion of the mind was needed to bring the largely complete project through into consciousness, and while doing this I couldn't really follow it or form any clear idea what it was about, or what its quality was. In my case, it then often needed a lot of working on and sorting, as it seemed to come through in chunks, not necessarily in consecutive order, although the chunks were verbally complete; that is, the wording was complete and specific.
I would often have pages written or printed out, and when going through them find myself thinking things such as: "Oh, I see - this is the introduction! So that's what it's about. And this bit here goes with that section there, and it's the summary. Hey, I'm starting to see what this is - this is pretty good!" They were the sort of comments you might expect if I were looking at someone else's work, rather than something I'd just written myself; and I'm quite aware that this will sound ridiculous to all you organised, serial thinkers who are reading it. (But I'm reassured by the thought of all the fellow-thinkers who'll recognise what I'm describing and be overcome with gratitude to find there are others out there like themselves.)
Returning to my comparison with Bertrand Russell's description however, the facts that it had not previously been possible to get any conscious idea what lines my mind was thinking along, or what the form & content of the final result would be, but that when it came through the project was complete and finished to as high a standard as I was probably capable of at that time, are the same as Russell describes. I definitely agree with Russell's statement that the development of the project was "the best I could have done at the time". During that tertiary course, it was also almost always good enough to get me the top grade - which you have to admit is pretty amazing considering I couldn't have told you anything about it 24 hours previously. You can easily see why a student might call this "difficulty getting thoughts down on paper".
now think the “painful
giving birth” difficulty was mainly caused by my anxiety, and by
my own strong expectation that my mind “should” work consciously, with more
accessible logic & efficiency than it seemed to, so that I was trying to
force my mind to work in a different way than it actually did.
In fact, once I had had several similar experiences to that described
above by Russell (not, of course, involving being at Cambridge & giving a
series of prestigious lectures in Boston), and began to have confidence in my
own mind, the “birth” process became much easier, and I came to realise that
this whole way my mind worked was a hugely efficient process; it simply didn’t
follow the characteristics we expect of a mind working on a project or problem.
Once I became confident that it would always work, after an initial
period of research, reading, & taking in a lot of facts, I found I could
relax, forget about the whole thing, and rely on producing a (to me &
everyone else) high quality, complete and original piece of work in one intense
session, even at midnight the night before the assignment was due in.
(The footnotes, unfortunately, never come as a revelation: they have to be done
painstakingly with a lot of hard work.)
(The footnotes, unfortunately, never come as a revelation: they have to be done painstakingly with a lot of hard work.)
one time I wondered whether this type of thinking was generally
characteristic of highly intelligent
people (not intending to compare myself to Bertrand Russell), but after some enquiries among
academics I worked with at
times, I found that the answer is definitely “No”; some people, even though
brilliant and creative, do work in a methodical and conscious way, totally
unlike myself and Bertrand Russell, and many gifted children I’ve worked with
(this is probably the only time in my life that I'll have the opportunity to
write the phrase "myself and Bertrand Russell").
So it appears there are simply at least these two very different types of
intelligent minds; there may be many more, and many extents and mixtures of
for a while, however, what problems this type of mind could present for a young
who has not yet learned to use it, and is in a school system which constantly
emphasises the need to work bit by bit sequentially on assignments which may
well be so trivial and boring that the section of one’s mind which works
subconsciously on these things may even be responding “Sorry, this is trivial
rubbish; I won’t waste my time on it”.
I think it's possible that some primary-aged gifted children who don't have vision problems, but who still have trouble "getting their ideas down on paper" may have this subconscious- processing type of mind. For children who do have trouble with this at an early age, it's hard to know how to suggest helping them. However in my experience the only reason this type of mind presents a problem is if its owner has become anxious, or is under pressure, or is trying to put him or herself under pressure, to make his or her mind work in a "conscious, serial" way. Therefore I would spend a lot of time reassuring the child, explaining that the ideas will probably come, that ideas can sometimes be like many children, and not like to be "made" or "picked on" to do things, but prefer just come along when they're ready. If the child's anxiety is relieved, and he or she is supported to have confidence that those ideas will allow themselves to be put down on paper when they're ready, I think most children with this problem should be helped by this approach.
Certainly in the case of secondary-school aged students, I always found that this type of moral support and reassurance was effective in restoring their confidence and enabling them to relax about producing school-work in their own way.
One also has to bear in mind that gifted children are often thinking about things on a level which they may not yet have the skills to express, and may have their own high standards and unwillingness to put down on paper anything less than the relatively complex concept they are trying to deal with mentally. Therefore reassurances that it's alright to put just a few ideas down on paper, and add others when they come, might also be helpful. Above all, do resist the temptation to try to guide the child to put down ideas in a steady serial way, because such attempts by parents or teachers may actually be the initial cause of the problem.
Since coming across the concept of “visual
spatial learner”, which you may find referred to on other sites relating to
gifted children, I have been trying to decide whether this concept is the same
as my “conceptual subconsciously processing mind”.
However although some of the characteristics listed for “visual spatial
learners” are the same, some are not. I
was never aware of this type of mind processing causing me any problem during my
primary years, or during any learning process, and I have no visualising ability whatever.
I think that “labels” about cognitive function are of limited use
when applied to how our minds function, because we understand so little yet
about our minds, and the labels are necessarily limited and restrictive.
When it comes to gifted children, their minds are presumably even more
Finally, one might wonder how to tell the difference between the type of student I'm describing, and the student who really is just "leaving things till the last minute". In my experience the difference is very clear - it lies in the students attitude to her or his work, and in the quality of work her or she has produced in the past. If the student avoids school work generally, and produces poor quality final projects, then he or she is probably a plain procrastinator. But if she or he is clearly a "good" student, and if projects produced in the past "at the last minute" are high quality, then it's very likely that in common with me, Bertrand Russell, and a lot of other gifted students, he or she simply has this "other" way of thinking.
is a Gifted Child?] [Intelligence & IQ] [How
do I Know if my Child is Gifted?] [Problem
Analysis] [Testing Gifted Children]