The Wilderness of Neural Possibility

James Neill, 1998

"It is in vain to dream of a wilderness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess of Concord, i.e. than I import into it."
- Henry David Thoreau, Journal, August 30, 1856

I think of thought as a wilderness of possibility. A wilderness of neural possibility, if you like. Most people take the highway. These are the thoughts we think everyday, the thoughts that are dug like ruts into our mind, the recorded neural circuits where we just push 'play' and away they go again, on the merry-go-round created by psychological habits.

Then there are some sealed side roads. We have been up these roads before when we were curious; these are favourite little ideas of ours which we've picked up from here and there and embellished, etc. and they are quaint little country roads that we wander down for a cup of Devonshire tea every now and then.

Off these roads there are some dirt tracks. These are roads where very occasionally we put our mind into four wheel drive and go chasing through the bush. The branches might scrape the side of our car, the bumps might surprise us.

Off these dirt roads, there are some footracks. This is where we might get out of our cars and walk along in the bush of unexplored with almost brand new thoughts crowding all around.

Very occasionally we might dare to enter the virgin bush and think a thought for which there has been no neural precedent, an entirely new combination. This is rare. This is dangerous. The habits, the preferences say its easier to think all the old thoughts that you've been thinking for years.

To step in new places without defaulting to the old circuits is extremely difficult. But it can be done. By pushing on through the unknown forest you might arrive at a new discovery, a beautiful pool, an untouched river, a spectacular rockface. You might even see a wild creature that no-one has ever seen before. You might find a great cave. These are possibilities. Or you may be too afraid and go running back to your car, puffing and panting, relieved to be back inside with the windows wound up, heading back to the highway of your mental habits.

This is the wilderness of thought. The choice is yours.