Thinking Cap

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


50 thoughts on “Thinking Cap

  1. I have always been curious as to where our creative juices flow from. It is maddening to awake from a dream in which you have resolved some puzzle and the answers just flit away before you have time to jot them down. I guess I better start wearing that thinking cap some and find out if it helps in the early morn as that is the time when I enter the cyber space word fantasies.

  2. This gives me pause to wonder about my own head, and question yet again why I seldom have memory of ANY dream, let alone something creative. Is it possible that I should be wearing a nightcap? The head of my bed abuts an exterior wall which, particularly at this time of year, conducts a certain element of the outside temp into the room. Perhaps my creative juices are simply turning to slush and refusing to flow! 🙂

    1. Funny: I don’t remember dreams much either, Karen. I do wake up with answers though, which is fab. Your thinking cap hypothesis made me chuckle. Perhaps indeed your brain needs to be nice and warm to do its utmost.

  3. Yes, absolutely–it’s the subconscious mind that needs cosseting, or maybe just a little respect. There’s a lot of music to be made in this world. In my writing classes, I spend two weeks out of ten teaching students how to do just that; giving them not only permission but also encouragement–especially in an academic setting–results in some amazing things! I will try to add a link here, in case you’re interested, to an old post about trusting the subconscious on my own blog that rambles its way to a conclusion similar to the one you reach here with such efficiency and grace.

  4. I wonder if the Judge covering his head before passing judgement is in deference to the higher authority (God) in much the same way that a Jewish person wears a Kibbah to show deference? It would be in line with our shared religious roots.

  5. It would be interesting to look more at the physiology of warm blood flowing around the skull and brain and whether a cap does make a difference, particularly one with a bit that flops to the side – fascinating post 🙂

  6. Great post! With or without a nightcap (and who wears them anymore anyway? 🙂 ), I agree with Mercier: “How delectable 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.” It is indeed delectable!

    1. It can. Jolly nice, that, although there’s evidence it doesn’t help one sleep well. When I was having mulled wine just before bed I had spiral eyes like Kaa in the Disney Jungle Book!!

  7. I am not so organized as Mercier, but I have a hokey little light up notepad on my nightstand for those last thoughts before the pillow wins the bout.

    Do you think I could get the Australian cap for editing times? Picking up heretofore missed errors in text seems a delightful gift.

  8. I’ve often heard that one’s most creative thoughts come in that twilight period between waking and sleeping, sleeping and waking. I’ve always kept a notebook and pen on the nightstand and have been known to scribble notes in complete darkness. Always fun trying to translate them the next day. The human mind is incredibly complex and I don’t doubt scientists will continue to learn new things about it for decades after I’m gone.

    1. You’re right, such a creative time, PT. Working with our minds reminds me of how we handle the rest of the globe: we have a choice: whether to manhandle the mind, or to let it wander and create under its own steam.

  9. EVERY TIME I want to buy a new hat, I am going to pull this post up on my phone and wave it in MTM’s face. (You have no idea how many hats I have. I really don’t either. But, a girl can never have too many. Especially if they aid in thinking.)

    I hope you and Phil are enjoying your new white bedroom. Our will be blue by the time I am done on Monday. 🙂

  10. Yet, a common image in Films and TV was a person taking their cap or helmet off, so they could scratch their head while thinking. A self inflicted blow to the forehead also seemed to do the trick.
    I suspect that it’s all down to stimulating nerves or blood supplies. My method has always been drumming lightly with my fingernails.
    I wonder if a Dunce’s Cap was ever thought to be therapeutic?

    1. There’s a link that Martin highlighted: the head is not just a centre of learning but, uncovered, a sign of humility in front of God. And a Dunces cap: a drop in status…Head mannerisms: dissertation material!

  11. I will feel a little better about my ever-constant hats! I wear them for sun protection and have recently thought that maybe I look a little eccentric. I’ll change that thought immediately! I don’t often remember my dreams, but I do work out my problems. On occasion when I do remember a dream, I do pay attention! I’m being told something, I’m just sure. I really enjoyed where you took me with this one, Kate. Debra

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