Last updated on 2nd May 2009
Last night I slept in a hostel rather than a tent. In fact the predicted gales and lashing rain never materialised. Some rain, some wind, but I woke in a comfortable bed feeling a little foolish, and very much recharged. Last night, good pub food, a shower, and a mattress rather than a sleeping mat. Yup and today's walk was beautiful. When I got back this evening, a girl working here at the hostel, said "Well someone's caught the sun. You look as though you've been in the Caribbean." And it was a lovely day. I drove back out to the start of Glen Affric, then walked up Gleann nam Fiadh for about 4 km before heading north up beside the stream and then angling west to climb the south-east ridge of Tom a' Choinich (hill of the moss). Extraordinary views back to yesterday's walk and the beauty of Mam Sodhail/Mam Soul, Carn Eige and Beinn Fhionnlaidh.
A descent then to the Bealach Toll Easa, apparently once a well used crossing between Glen Affric and Glen Cannich further north. Coming down from the summit of Tom a' Choinich, I saw footsteps in the steep snowfield. Someone's had more balls than me, I thought. I wouldn't risk running all the way down such a steep snow slope. I don't know whether my fear of starting an avalanche is excessive or whether whoever ran the slope was being a bit stupid - people die regularly in Scottish avalanches. I didn't resist joining further down though. Striding down a snow slope, digging deep in with one's heels, is exhilarating and also a fast way to lose height. Then across the Bealach and a longish, relatively gentle ascent to Toll Creagach (rocky hollow) - the eighth Munro climbed in three days.
And heading south down the hill back to the stream and the path that I'd walked in on. I swung along this track, singing ... Scottish folk songs, Dylan, a cluster of well known tunes ... and I seemed in good voice.
And over the day I thought and experienced a lot. My day to day life back home is great, and it's very busy. I'm disciplined and effective most of the time. Sometimes it feels to me that I'm striding down well-trodden pathways, ways of doing things that get the job done well - but the paths can become a bit lifeless and arid. Well-trodden packs the earth down and allows me to move rapidly. It doesn't encourage new green shoots of fresh thought or originality to grow up. When I'm very busy, I don't want new green shoots of originality getting in the way of achieving targets quickly and effectively. But, as so often, getting the balance seems the key. Coming away like this breaks the routines. The paths are not well-trodden. Walking for many hours, especially day after day, pressures ease. I think more creatively, have more perspective, can be much more original - I find it fascinating. One of my major trainings is as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist. Quite rightly - for people troubled seriously with depression and anxiety - I view rumination and worry as routinely counter-productive and damaging. I say to people that their thought process can so easily become like a bird trapped in a room. The bird (the thought process) flies round and round hurting itself and getting nowhere. There's so much evidence that rumination (that tends to focus back into the past) and worry (more going over future concerns) are associated with worse outcomes. I teach and encourage clients to look out for and interrupt these self-damaging thought cycles. But how does this relate to creativity or what I've experienced at times in the hills?
In their delightfully entitled paper "Why we sing the blues: the relation between self-reflective rumination, mood, and creativity", Verhaeghen and colleagues wrote "Past research has shown that creative behavior is associated with a higher risk for depression. The authors hypothesized that a 3rd underlying factor, namely, self-reflective rumination, may explain the connection. This hypothesis was examined in a sample of 99 undergraduate college students, using path analysis. The authors found that self-reported past depressive symptomatology was linked to increased self-reflective rumination. Rumination, in turn, was related to current symptomatology and to self-rated creative interests and objectively measured creative fluency, originality, and elaboration. No direct link existed between currently depressed mood and either creative interest or creative behavior. These results suggest that the association between depression and creativity is solely the result of rumination. The outlined direct connection between self-reflectiveness and Fluency and between Fluency and Originality, however, may also point to another underlying common mechanism ... researchers have suggested that rumination is because of failures of cognitive inhibitory mechanisms that limit the contents of consciousness to those relevant to a current goal or to a current task performance. Similarly, Fluency and Originality have been linked to dysfunctions in cognitive inhibition. Carson et al. recently suggested that attenuated cognitive inhibition may increase the number of available mental elements, described by Simonton as central to creative thought. As outlined in the introduction, Carson et al. found a near universal reduction of latent inhibition in a group of eminent creative achievers. Thus, cognitive inhibitory dysfunctions may lead to an increased access to a greater inventory of unfiltered stimuli during early processing. Depending on the thought content that preoccupies the individual at a given moment, this process may increase the odds for original recombinant ideation or increase the odds for recurrent, negative self-focused thinking. Clearly, future studies are needed to clarify possible underlying mechanisms of the self-reflection-rumination and creativity association."
There's so much more that could be said about this area. For example, it's all very well having a wealth of original, creative thoughts. We also need the courage to select and follow through on the new insights. This can be hard to do. Another issue is that of mood and creativity. Walking in the hills for days on one's own may well make space for original thinking, but the kind of mood one is in affects this a lot as well. And possibly most interestingly for a therapist like myself who has grown to be prejudiced against introspection because of rumination's link with depression - introspection may itself come in at least two distinct, and functionally different, flavours. These two distinct flavours were highlighted by Trapnell & Campbell in their fascinating paper "Private self-consciousness and the Five-Factor Model of Personality: Distinguishing rumination from reflection". They argue cogently that there are two different styles of introspection. They write "In this article we introduced and articulated a motivational distinction relevant to dispositional self-focus that bears a family resemblance to another dichotomy of long-standing utility in psychology: fear and curiosity. Rumination provides a summary conception of self-attentiveness motivated by perceived threats, losses, or injustices to the self. Reflection provides a summary conception of self-attentiveness motivated by curiosity or epistemic interest in the self. Rumination and reflection are statistically and psychologically distinct: Rumination is uniquely associated with the Neuroticism factor, and reflection is associated with the Openness factor of the FFM." For more on the Five-Factor Model of Personality (FFM) including an interesting questionnaire, see "Personality assessment, big five aspects & domains" half way down the page listing handouts I've produced on "Emotions, feelings & personality". So one can predict a four cell categorisation with Trapnell & Campbell writing "This intriguing "dyadic interaction" of reflection and rumination within close relationships suggests that the reflection-rumination distinction may be especially relevant to the coping and adjustment literature. Rumination and reflection appear to provide a useful 2 X 2 model of cognitive approach and avoidance styles. In combination, they suggest an intriguing, alternative definition of four cognitive styles with deep roots in the adjustment literature: sensitizing (high reflection, high rumination), repressive (low reflection, low rumination), vulnerable (low reflection, high rumination), and adaptable (high reflection, low rumination)." This reflection/rumination split and overlap has been looked at further in a recent paper by Takano & Tanno. Fascinating stuff and enough reflection (or rumination!?) for today.