In my experience solving mathematical problems, I generally make the most progress when I am in a playful mood. Relaxed and focused, but focus that is effortless because the problem is so interesting. This brings to mind a comment by Schmidhuber on laughter and the acquisition of new skills.

During one of his talks, he shares the observation that people generally laugh less frequently as they grow older. His explanation for this is that humans generally learn less as they age. It is well known that neuroplasticity declines as we age, but I also wonder whether this is the whole story. There may be a cultural factor and it does appear that some cultures favor the appearance of seriousness more than others. And all cultures generally expect adults to look serious most of the time, whether or not this is actually useful.

While the cultural component may be difficult to analyse, I have generally observed that most technical individuals tend to become more serious as they are confronted with harder problems. Perhaps this is partly due to the social expectation that they should look like they know what they are doing. But, this also means that they are more likely to revert to type and less likely to experiment. So the problem is more likely to go unsolved and these individuals are less likely to learn anything new from their efforts.

I won’t pretend that I have an original solution to this problem, but this paradox reminds me of a Zen teaching:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.-Shunryu Suzuki

References:

  1. “Formal Theory of Fun and Creativity Explains Science, Art, Music, Humor.” Schmidhuber , Jürgen. 2012. people.idsia.ch/~juergen/creativity.html.
  2. Balancing New Against Old Information: The Role of Puzzlement Surprise in Learning. M. Faraji, K. Preuschoff & W. Gerstner. Neural Computation. 2018.