Many of them are people who have contributed to make significant changes in the areas of science, art, politics or business. Their names and deeds can be read in most history books and they are usually regarded as geniuses. But less is known about the way they came up with their ideas. What were they thinking when they came up with such insight? Are there some common traits amongst these men and women that we can learn and emulate?
The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Aristotle and Plato created the rules for thinking that were introduced into Europe during the Renaissance. These rules have evolved into logical thinking habits. Typically, we’ve learned how to analyze a situation, identify standard elements and operations and exclude everything else from our thinking. We’re taught to emphasize exclusion rather than inclusion. Then we analytically fixate on something that we have learned from someone else and apply that to the problem.
Suppose we are given a button to match, from among a box of assorted buttons. How do we proceed? We examine the buttons in the box, one at a time; but we do not look for the button that might match. What we do, actually, is to scan the buttons looking for the buttons that “are not” a match, rejecting each one in which we notice some discrepancy (this one is larger, this one darker, too many holes, etc.). Instead of looking for “what is” a match, our first mental reflex is to look for “what is not” a match. Give a young child the same exercise and the child will immediately look to find what is a match. This is because the child is thinking naturally and has not yet been educated to think exclusively.
We sometimes say adults are better at paying attention than children, but we really mean the opposite. Adults are better at not paying attention. We’re educated to screen out everything else and restrict our consciousness to a single focus. This ability, though useful for mundane tasks, is actually a liability to creative thinking, since it leads us to neglect potentially significant pieces of information and thoughts when we try to create something new. To truly experience the difference between adult and children, take a walk with a two-year old. They see things you don’t even notice. The French poet Baudelaire was right: “Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.”
Suppose you were given a candle, a cork board and a box of tacks. Can you fasten the candle in such a way that it does not drip on the floor? Typically, when participants are given a candle, cork board, and a box of tacks and asked to fasten the candle on the wall so that it does not drip on the floor, most have great difficulty coming up with the solution. We’ve been taught to divide a complex problem into its separate objects that can be labeled and separated into separate pre-established categories such as cork board, candle, tacks and box. This kind of thinking is again, by nature, exclusionary. We look for “What is not@ instead of “What is,” and What can be.@ Interpreting problems by excluding things through the prism of past experience will, by definition, lead the thinker astray. Once the box is perceived as a container for the tacks, it is not thought of as anything else.
By thinking of “What can be,” instead of “What is not,” our thinking becomes more abstract and conceptual as we dramatically increase possibilities and freedom of thought. Thinking “what the box can be” suggests using it as a platform by tacking the box to the board as a platform and placing the candle on top.
An experimental psychologist set up the task of making a pendulum. Subjects were led to a table on which had been placed a pendulum-weight with a cord attached, a nail and some other objects. All one had to do was to drive the nail into the wall using the pendulum weight and hang the cord with the pendulum on the nail. But there was no hammer. Most of the subjects were unable to accomplish the task.
Next, another series of subjects were given the same task under slightly altered conditions. The cord was placed separately from the pendulum-weight and the word pendulum-weight was not used. All the subjects accomplished the task. Their minds were not prejudiced by past experiences, labels and categories, so they simply used the pendulum-weight to hammer in the nail, then tied the cord weight and the weight to the cord.
The first group failed because the weight was firmly embedded in its role as a pendulum-weight and nothing else, because it had been verbally described as such and because visually it formed a unit with a cord attached. The visual gestalt of weight-attached-to-cord, plus the verbal suggestion from their experimenter made it impossible for them to change their perception of a pendulum-weight into a hammer. “This is not a hammer,” they thought.
In contrast, creative thinkers think productively, not reproductively. When confronted with a problem, they ask “How many different ways can I look at it?”, “How can I rethink the way I see it?” and “How many different ways can I solve it?” instead of “What have I been taught by someone else on how to solve this?” They tend to come up with many different responses, some of which are unconventional and possibly unique.
Can you move one of these cards to leave four jacks in the following thought experiment? Try to solve it before you continue reading.
To solve the experiment you have to rethink how you see the cards. How, for example, you can remove one card to leave four jacks when there are only three jacks to begin with? How can you manufacture another jack out of thin air? Can you shuffle or move the cards in such a way to create another Jack? Is there anything you can do with the cards to make another jack? The solution is to take the king and place it over the queen so that the right half on the upper-left “Q” is covered making a “C.” Now you have formed the word “jack,” and you have four jacks.
LEARN TO THINK PRODUCTIVELY
With productive thinking, one generates as many alternative approaches as one can. You consider the least obvious as well as the most likely approaches, and you look for different ways to look at the problem. It is the willingness to explore all approaches that is important, even after one has found a promising one. Einstein was once asked what the difference was between him and the average person. He said that if you asked the average person to find a needle in the haystack, the person would stop when he or she found a needle. He, on the other hand, would tear through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles.
We automatically accept what we are taught and exclude all other lines of thought. The same thing happens when we see something odd or unusual in our experiences. We tend to accept whatever explanation someone with experience tells us. This kind of thinking reminds me of herring gulls. Herring gulls have a drive to remove all red objects from their nest. They also have a drive to retrieve any egg that rolls away from the nest. If you place a red egg in the nest, when the gull returns she will push it out, then roll it back in, then push it out again, only to retrieve it once more.
At a seminar, I asked participants if they could give me examples of people doing something absurd because they simply reproduced what was done before. One of the participants, a quality management consultant, told us about his experience with a small English manufacturing company where he consulted to advise them on improving general operating efficiency.
He told us about a company report which dealt with various aspects of productivity. At the top-right corner of one form, there was a small box with a tiny illegible heading. The consultant noted that the figure ‘0’ had been written in every such report for the past year. On questioning the members of staff who completed the report, they told him that they always put a zero in that box, and when he asked them why they told him they were told do so by their supervisor. The supervisor told him he guessed it had to do with accidents but wasn’t sure. It had always been “0” for the twenty years he had been there, so he continued the practice.
The consultant visited the archives to see if he could discover what was originally being reported and whether it held any significance. When he found the old reports, he saw that the zero return had continued uninterrupted for as far back as the records extended – at least the past thirty years. Finally he found the box that catalogued all the forms the company had used during its history. In it, he found the original daily report, in pristine condition. In the top right corner was the mysterious box, with the heading clearly shown …… ‘Number of Air Raids Today’.
(Michael Michalko is the highly-acclaimed author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://www.creativethinking.net)
A Special Operations officer, told me a story about a Special Forces soldier who was captured by the North Vietnamese during the Viet Nam war. There was a bounty for the heads of all Special Forces personnel who participated in operation Phoenix at the time and the soldier figured his life was over. He was […]
Our special gift is the imagination to make universal metaphorical – analogical connections between two dissimilar areas of experience. For example, in the illustration above, take the two nonsense words maluma and tuckatee and match them to the figures A and B. Which one is a “maluma,” and which is a “tuckatee?
You know the “why didn’t I think of that?” feeling you get when you observe a new idea or process? We’re struck by the obviousness of the idea once we see the analogical connection. Imagine how many entrepreneurs, inventors, and manufacturers kicked themselves when Gillette introduced the disposable razor.
Gillette was founded by King Camp Gillette, who, to make his fortune, pursued the idea of manufacturing something that would be used once a day and then thrown away. He methodically worked through the alphabet, thinking of potential products that started with A, and then B, and so on, listing every possibility. This proved a waste of time. The idea of a safety razor didn’t arrive through logical reasoning, but through a moment of insight when he realized that a razor was not an object but a “sharp edge.” In that moment, he said, he saw the disposable razor in pictures rather than thought.
In another example, scientists at Gillette wanted to develop a new toothbrush. Instead of focusing on a toothbrush, they focused on “cleaning.” Among the things they studied were:
• How are cars cleaned?
• How is hair cleaned?
• How are clothes cleaned?
• How are arteries cleaned?
• How are fingernails cleaned?
• How are waterways cleaned?
They got excited when they studied how cars are cleaned. Cars can be cleaned in a car wash. Car washes use multiple soaping and brushing actions in different directions. The scientists saw a relation¬ship between cars and teeth and incorporated the principle of mul¬tiple brushes brushing in different directions into the Oral B electric toothbrush, which became the bestselling toothbrush in the world. The Oral B was created because Gillette scientists were focused on the universal theme of the problem which is “cleaning” and not the object (toothbrush).
Most of us have lost the sensitivity to deeper relationships, functions, and patterns because we are educated to focus on the particulars of experience as opposed to the universals. We see them as independent parts of an objective reality. Over time we have cultivated an attitude which puts the major emphasis on separating human experience into different domains and universes. We’ve been tacitly taught that perception is the activity of dividing a complex scene into its separate parts followed by the activity of attaching standard labels to the parts (e.g., drinking water, rain water, stream, ocean, water from a well, etc.). These parts are placed in pre-established categories, such as “weather,” “geology,” “commercial,” “underground,” etc., and activate only those elements that it feels logical. This kind of thinking is exclusive. Its goal is to separate and exclude elements from thought based upon what exists now. It discourages creative thought.
Creative thinking is the opposite of this kind of thinking. The quintessential activity of perception is the discovery of some abstract connection that links and does not separate parts of complex wholes. The essence of creative thinking is a complex blending of elements of two or more different subjects, all of which involve guesswork rather than certainty. Perception is far more than the recognition of members of already-established categories–it involves the spontaneous manufacture of new categories.
In ordinary language, we talk of the “essence of the matter”, by which is meant it’s “meaning” or significance, the most important or defining aspect of a thing, besides which other aspects are just accidental or “unessential”. Working with principles and essences will break you out of the habit of associating qualities with things and will expand your thinking.
Suppose you were asked to create a better way to organize information on the internet. Think for a moment how you would approach the problem. What would be your plan?
Xiaohui Cui at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee was asked to see if he could create a better way to organize information on the web. His first thoughts were about the essence of the problem. He phrased it as how does information flock and flow? How do things in other worlds flock and flow? How do fish flock and flow? How do birds flock and flow? How does bacteria flock and flow?
He came up with an idea by making an analogical connection between how information flocks and flows on the Internet and how birds of the same species flock and flow together. His system mimics the way birds of the same species congregate while flying. He created flocks of virtual “birds.” Each bird carries a document, which is assigned a string of numbers. Documents with a lot of similar words have number strings of the same length. A virtual bird will fly only with others of its own “species” or, in this case, docu-ments with number strings of the same length. When a new article appears on the Internet, software scans it for words similar to those in existing articles and then files the document in an existing flock, or creates a new one.
ANSWER: The majority of people identify A as a “tuckatee” and B as a “maluma.” This is an example of our gift for making universal metaphorical-analogical connections even between words and dissimilar shapes. “It just looks like a tuckatee,” or “It just looks like a maluma.”
(Michael Michalko is the highly-acclaimed author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work)
Peter Cathcart Wason was a cognitive psychologist at University College, London who pioneered the Psychology of Reasoning. He progressed explanations as to why people make certain consistent mistakes in logical reasoning. The problem described below is a variation on the Wason selection task that was devised by Peter Wason. The Wason selection task was originally developed as a test of logical reasoning, but it has increasingly been used by psychologists to analyze the structure of human reasoning mechanisms.
Consider the following problem. Four cards are laid out with their faces displaying respectively, an A, a B, a 4 and a 7.
A B 4 7
You are told that each card has a letter on one side and a number on the other. You are then given a rule, whose truth you are expected to evaluate. The rule is: “If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other.” You are then allowed to turn over two, but only two, cards in order to determine whether the rule is correct as stated.
Which two cards do you turn over?
If you worked this problem silently, you will almost certainly miss it, as have the large percentage of subjects to whom it has been presented. Most subjects realize that there is no need to select the card bearing the consonant, since it is irrelevant to the rule; they also appreciate that it is essential to turn over the card with the vowel, for an odd number opposite would prove the rule incorrect.
The wording of the problem determines the perspective most people mentally default to almost immediately. Most people assume that the object is to examine the cards to ascertain that if a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other; and if a card has an even number on one side, then it has a vowel on the other side. This assumption leads them to make the fatal error of picking the card with the even number, because the even number is mentioned in the rule. But, in fact, it is irrelevant whether there is a vowel or a consonant on the other side, since the rule does not take a stand on what must be opposite to even numbers.
On the other hand, it is essential to pick the card with the odd number on it. If that card has a consonant on it, the result is irrelevant. If, however, the card has a vowel on it, the rule in question has been proved incorrect, for the card must (according to the rule) have an even (and not an odd) number on it.
The content of this specific problem influenced the way we constructed our perception of the problem. This perception created the assumption that leads to error. This should give one pause about mentally defaulting to first impressions. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote in his notebooks that one should always assume that your first impression of a problem is usually biased toward your usual way of thinking. He suggested looking at your problem in at least three different ways to get a better understanding.
“If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other.” Here we are working with letters and numbers. Transposing the words to read “If a card has an even number on one side, then……….” Clarifies the problem and gives us a different perspective on even numbered cards. It becomes apparent that what even numbered cards have on the other side has no significance. The rule is only concerned with cards that have vowels on one side.
Sigmund Freud would “reframe” something to transform its meaning by putting it into a different framework or context than it has previously been perceived. For example, by reframing the “unconscious” as a part of him that was “infantile,” Freud began to help his patients change the way they thought and reacted to their own behavior.
The important thing is not to persist with one way of looking at the problem. Consider the following interesting twist, again using four cards. This time, however, we reframe the problem by substituting journeys and modes of transportation for letters and numbers. Each card has a city on one side and a mode of transportation on the other.
LOS ANGELES NEW YORK AIRPLANE CAR
This time, the cards have printed on them the legends, respectively, Los Angeles, New York, airplane, and car; and the rule is reframed to read: “Every time I go to Los Angeles, I travel by airplane. While this rule is identical to the number-letter version, it poses little difficulty for individuals. In fact, now 80 percent of subjects immediately realize the need to turn over the card with “car” on it.
Apparently, one realizes that if the card with “car” on it has the name “Los Angeles” on the back, the rule has been proved incorrect; whereas it is immaterial what it says on the back of the airplane since, as far as the rule is concerned, one can go to New York any way one wants.
Why is it that 80 percent of subjects get this problem right, whereas only 10 percent know which cards to turn over in the vowel-number version? By changing the content (cities and modes of transportation substituted for letters and numbers), we restructured the problem, which dramatically changed our reasoning. The structure of a problem colors our perspective and the way we think.
The significant point about this test is that we are incredibly bad at it. And it doesn’t make much difference what the level of education is of the person taking the test. Moreover, even training in formal logic seems to make little difference to a person’s performance. The mistake that we tend to make is fairly standard. People almost always recognize that they have to pick up the card with the vowel, but they fail to see that they also have to pick up the card with the odd number. They think instead that they have to pick up the card with the even number.
One of the most interesting things about this phenomenon is that even when the correct answer is pointed out, people feel resistance to it. It apparently feels “right” that the card with the even number should be picked up. It feels right because your initial perspective is biased toward the usual way of thinking. It is only when you look at it from different perspectives that you get a deeper understanding of the problem.
You may have heard the story of Helen Keller. She was blind, deaf, and mute from an early age and could not communicate. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, realized that the key was to somehow teach her a communicable concept. Sullivan taught her a kind of Morse code with finger play and would scratch the alphabet on her palm to form words. For a long time, Keller could not grasp what this was all about. She said later that she did not know Sullivan was scratching words on her palm; in fact, she did not even know words existed. She would simply imitate the scratches, making her fingers go in a monkeylike fashion.
One day Sullivan, as if in a game, caused Keller to come in contact with water in a wide variety of different forms and contexts, such as water standing still in a pail, water flowing out of a pump, water in a drinking glass, raindrops, a stream, and so on. Each time, Sullivan scratched the word water on the palm of Keller’s hand.
Suddenly Keller realized that all these different experiences referred to one substance with many aspects, and that it was symbolized by the single collection of letters — the word water — scratched on the palm of her hand. This means she organized the many different experiences of water into a pattern of equivalence by blending them with the word water that she felt on her hand.
Keller conceptually blended the different experiences with the word water by mentally bouncing back and forth and comparing the separate experiences with each other and with the word on her hand. Here we have the undiluted act of conceptual blending, the sudden synthesis of the universe of signs and the universe of things. This discovery of the essence of water initiated a fantastic revolution in Keller’s life and the lives of hundreds of others. To further appreciate Keller’s achievement, think of how many ages must have passed before humans discovered that a brace of pheasants and a couple of days were both instances of the number 2.
Many people have a fundamentally mechanistic view of the world. They believe the world has rules, and that the rules are knowable. Anything that violates the rules is not possible. For example, we’re told the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. As an experiment, draw a straight line on paper. Mark A on the left side and B on the right. Take the page and fold it over, placing the B directly over the A. This makes the shortest distance between two points placing one point over the other.
In effect, when you do this, you are creating a “wormhole,” which is a passage in space-time connecting the separate points. This is the same principle as the wormhole in space that connects widely separated parts of the universe. It’s called a wormhole after the hole a worm makes in an apple. The worm could crawl over the surface of the apple to get from A to B, but instead it bores a hole through the center of the apple, creating a shortcut. This violates one of the rules recognized by those who subscribe to the mechanistic view of the world. Yet we see that it can be done.
In contrast to products of mechanistic formulas, the creative product is the result of a process of discovering possibilities in a very large space of possibilities. This large space includes the freedom of thought necessary to conceptually blend dissimilar and even paradoxical subjects into a single entity. An original idea is not the sum of combined thoughts but depends on how their patterns are fitted together.
What is the connection between playing a piano and writing?
Christopher Sholes, while watching a pianist performing, noted that each key of the piano produces one note. He thought “What else can each key produce?” Why not a “writing machine” in which each key writes one letter? He then went on to arrange a set of keys attached to levers that would strike a roller, creating the first typewriter.
His blend of writing and playing a piano recognized only those counterparts of each concept that were interesting to him as a result of his unique set of circumstances. The blend then released a bubble in his mind, an idea for a writing machine.
The laws of disciplined thinking demand that we stick to a given frame of reference and not change universes. Pianos are musical instruments. A pen is for writing letters. These are two totally different universes. There is no connection between playing a piano and writing with pen and paper. But creative thinkers like Sholes open all the doors of the specialized compartments in their brains — much like our ancient ancestors did — to allow bits of information and thoughts from different universes to freely intermingle and combine.
Think of the similarities between conceptual blending and music. You cannot appreciate the music of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir by listening to its members sing sequentially. You have to listen to the whole group perform together as they coordinate their voices and movements in rhythm with each other.
Similarly, it was not enough for Sholes to think of writing and playing a piano as two separate entities. He had to blend the two together in the same mental space so he could find similarities, differences, and similar differences.
Think of all the wonderful opportunities to combine existing technology with everyday products. An LED (light-emitting diode), for example, emits light when a voltage is applied to it. It is used primarily in electronic devices. Can you think of ways this type of light could be incorporated into household products?
One example is the ingenious combination pillow and sunrise invented by Eoin McNally and Ian Walton. Embedded with a grid of LEDs, the pillow uses nothing but light to wake you up. About forty minutes before your alarm is set to go off, the programmable foam pillow starts glowing, gradually becoming brighter, to simulate a natural sunrise. This helps set your circadian rhythm and ease you into day. The blend developed an emergent new idea not contained in either of the two inputs, the pillow or sunrise.
Helen Keller taught me that by combining separate experiences together, we create the opportunity for new original ideas to emerge.
Leonardo da Vinci
“Looking is giving a direction to one’s sight. A bird is an
an instrument………it opens its wings quickly and
sharply, bending in such a way that the wind…
raises it. And this I have observed in the flight
of a young falcon above the monastery at
Vaprio, on the morning of 14 April 1500.”
We tend to notice things which are directly relevant to our interest and ignore the rest. Blinkered by habit we glance rather than look at things. In effect, the eye sleeps until the mind wakes it with a question. What you see and what you notice are not the same thing. For example, you will, of course, have noticed the deliberate mistake in the preceding thought experiment and it’s not a spelling mistake.
As I wrote these words, I was reminded of an ancient Chinese story about a rainmaker who was hired to bring rain to a parched part of China. The rainmaker came in a covered cart, a small, wizened, old man who sniffed the air with obvious disgust as he got out of his cart, and asked to be left alone in a cottage outside the village; even his meals were to be left outside the door.
Nothing was heard from him for three days, then it not only rained, but there was also a big downfall of snow, unknown at that time of the year. Very much impressed, the villagers sought him out and asked him how he could make it rain, and even snow. The rainmaker replied, “I have not made the rain or the snow; I am not responsible for it.” The villagers insisted that they had been in the midst of a terrible drought until he came, and then after three days they even had quantities of snow.
“Oh, I can explain that. You see, the rain and snow were always here. But as soon as I got here, I saw that your minds had become lazy and that you could see but had forgotten how to look. So I remained here until once more you could see what was always right before your eyes.”
Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques
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