Shakespeare occasionally called them thinkings.
They are those times when we apply ourselves to a problem and solve it: more than mere thoughts, but quests towards an end goal.
The great composer Giuseppe Tartini went to sleep one night in 1713 and woke in a vivid dream to see the devil at the end of the bed playing the violin: a haunting, furious little showstopper of a tune. Tartini woke: he wrote the tune down; and his Devil’s Trill Sonata was born.
The mind is a strange thing: an undiscovered country. Tartini’s effortlessly presented him with a masterpiece. Extravagant claims are made of the mind’s hidden capabilities, of the unconscious and all it stores and steers.
It was the University of Sydney where, around 2008, extraordinary claims were made for a mere cap: a piece of headwear which, it was claimed, made you smarter.
The idea was to surpress the left hand ‘bigger picture’ side of the brain with small electrical impulses so that the right side – the one which percieves life in fine detail- is allowed to become more dominant.
Experiments revealed that-for about an hour after the stimulation – subjects could draw with more realism; could pick up mistakes in text they had previously not noticed; and could count random numbers of dots on a screen with considerable accuracy.
Their control experiments, however, have since been denounced as flawed by prominent neuroscientists. Until someone designs tests which control other explanations, we are left pondering an intriguing idea.
The thinking cap may be open to startlingly modern interpretations, but the idea of a cap on the head to aid ‘thinkings’ is ancient. Judges here in England would put on a cap when passing sentence. The cap was a sign of great and weighty deliberation. It was notoriously retained for judges to wear when passing the death sentence here in Britain. Based on Tudor wear, it became a simple square of black material placed on the judicial wig to condemn a man to death. Dark, dark thinkings.
The thinking cap has come full circle: it is still part of the judge’s ceremonial regalia. Every November 9th, London’s Lord Mayor is presented to the Law Courts. It is vital to think very carefully indeed when Boris Johnson appraises the hallowed chambers.
A cap covering the head: why is it perceived to have such power? is it a brain warmer? A symbol of focus? Or perhaps it’s just a way to relax and wind down.
I stumbled upon a strange little book in my cybertravels. It is by a French man called Louis Sebastien Mercier, born in 1740, son of an artisan who polished swords. Seriously.
Mercier is a strange writer. Expert on 18th Century France, Robert Darnton, wrote of him that “There is no better writer to consult, if one wants to get some idea of how Paris looked, sounded, smelled, and felt on the eve of the Revolution.”
He wrote L’An 2440; a startling fantasy about a Utopian future Paris. But today we are concerned with a little-known work called The Nightcap.
On inspection it appears to be a set of blogs, almost 300 years before a time when folks published their thoughts in small pieces of reflection on internet web logs.
Mercier writes about whatever occurs to him in the hour before bedtime. And reading it, the writers among us must surely warm to him. For he talks of the importance of the nightcap moments in writing.
“How delectable,” he writes, “it is to converse alone with one’s pen, the night cap on one’s head! One is master of his ideas, of his expressions – a man delivers his thoughts in his own idiom; no critic, no purist present; one writes copiously and luxuriously.
“What can be more useful than to recall to oneself what one has experienced, to pronounce what decrees we please on events, and – what flatters the vanity of the author above all – the reasonings that are circulated? Ah…let me every night enjoy my pen one hour before I sleep!”
Mercier’s thinking cap is a comfortable device: a sleeping cap. He puts it on, and he relaxes, allowing his unconscious free rein to create.
Thinking hats: so often associated with striving for high achievement after the style of Mr De Bono. Man seems to think he must mould and suppress his mind, dominating it to force it to meet his goals.
But I’m with Mr Mercier. The mind adores to play: and I believe it is never more productive and alive, than when its thinking cap cossets it, and allows it to roam freely on the slopes of perception.
Look at Tartini: a fanciful dream produced a piece of music which has jazzed audiences for centuries.
Time to trust our minds. And get our thinking caps on.
Written in response to Side View’s weekend theme. The Hat, which you can find here