I’m sitting alone at a well-worn wooden desk at the front of my classroom. My students aren’t here yet, but they’ll start trickling in one-by-one soon. I’ve read some student book reviews and graded papers. I know the topics we’ll cover today well– poverty, economic disparity, corrupt governments, street-smart kids, all topics connected to life in Rio de Janeiro’s desperately poor Favela neighborhoods.
I thought a lot about poverty in Latin America earlier today. I didn’t read about it last minute or make detailed notes to guide what I’ll say in class. Instead I gave myself time to free-think. I have so much more to say, so many more stories to share and concepts to bring up and connect when I free-think during my drive north to the university where I teach History.
At first Poverty– as a concept, hung suspended in my thoughts. I worked to make it stay– as if gathering condensed water dispersed in an open sky to form one visible cloud. And then, I stopped trying. Poverty stood still, on alert, as if anticipating neuronal manipulation. I, ready to see (with my mind’s eye) what ideas, stories, facts and memories popped into my conscious thought. Now my sub-conscious did all the work.
I can play this mental game of sorts only when I know a subject well. I’ve read a lot about poverty of all kinds, on different continents and set in various historical periods. But more than that– I’ve seen poverty. I’ve smelled poverty. I’ve pushed through a crowd of one-hundred skinny boys each begging me to buy his box of Chiclets for a buck. I’ve watched four-dozen indigenous travelers step off a Sunday morning bus and– while their driver fueled up, each find a close-by spot to squat and pull up a skirt or zipper down pants to relieve herself on the blacktop. Then, with no toilet paper in sight or underwear to soil, each got back on the bus by the time the driver revved-up the engine.
I’ve got plenty of material stored in my Prefrontal cortex. It’s all kind of loose– disjunct. But when I let my mind roam where it wills and light up on its own, mental inhibition and judgement shuts down and original connections are possible.
Interestingly, this “mind’s eye” game falls flat when I’m green to a topic. A thought can’t play if it follows and precedes another in a linear pattern. When I don’t know my stuff, I can’t free-think. That’s because when you learn something new the Prefrontal cortex works for deliberate concentration– the opposite of free-thinking.
After thinking about thinking, I’ve decided to set time aside in class today for students to free-think in small groups. Free-thinking doesn’t always happen alone. But the concept is the same– loose parameters (a broad topic or question) and laissez-faire ( unmediated chatting) within the topic. If nothing else, Poverty– as a concept, will have seen the light on my classroom like never before.