Category: Creativity (page 1 of 14)

Articles from selected publications written by Michael Michalko. These articles offer some clarification and amplification of his views towards creative thinking and his vision of reality.

Why are some people creative and others not?

The key question isn’t “Why are some people creative and others not?” It is why in God’s name isn’t everyone creative? Where and how was our potential lost? How was it crippled? Why does education inhibit creativity? Why can’t educators foster more creativity instead of less? Why is it that the more expert people become in their fields, the less creative and innovative they become? Why is it that people who know more create less, and people who know less create more? Why are people amazed when someone creates something new, as if it were a miracle?

We’ve been educated to process information based on what has happened in the past, what past thinkers thought, and what exists now. Once we think we know how to get the answer, based on what we have been taught, we stop thinking. The Spanish word for an “answer” is respuesta, and it has the same etymological root as response (responsory), the song people sing to the dead. It’s about what has no life anymore. In other words, when you think you know the answers, based on what has happened in the past, your thinking dies.
This is why, when most people use their imaginations to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of existing categories and concepts. Creative thinking requires the ability to generate a host of associations and connections between two or more dissimilar subjects, creating new categories and concepts. We have not been taught to process information this way.

CONCEPTUAL BLENDING

The key to creatively generating associations and connections between dissimilar subjects is conceptual blending. This is a creative-thinking process that involves blending two or more concepts in the same mental space to form new ideas.

Imagine, for a moment, that thought is water. When you are born, your mind is like a glass of water. Your thinking is inclusive, clear, and fluid. All thoughts intermingle and combine with each other and make all kinds of connections and associations. This is why children are spontaneously creative.

In school you are taught to define, label, and segregate what you learn into separate categories. The various categories are kept separate and not allowed to touch each other, much like ice cubes in a tray. Once something is learned and categorized, your thoughts about it become frozen. For example, once you learn what a can opener is, whenever someone mentions “can opener” you know exactly what it is.

You are taught, when confronted with a problem, to examine the ice cube tray and select the appropriate cube. Then you take the cube and put it in a glass, where your thinking heats and melts it. For example, if the problem is to “improve the can opener,” the glass will contain all you have learned about can openers, and nothing more. You are thinking exclusively, which is to say you are thinking only about what you have learned about the can opener. No matter how many times the water is stirred, you end up creating, at best, a marginal improvement.

Now if you take another cube (for example, vegetables) and put it in the same glass with the can-opener cube, your thinking will heat and melt both together into one fluid. Now when you stir the water, more associations and connections are made and the creative possibilities become immensely greater. The vegetable cube, once blended with the can-opener cube, might inspire you to think of how vegetables open in nature. For example, when pea pods ripen, a seam weakens and opens, freeing the peas. This might inspire you to come up with novel ideas. You could, for example, manufacture cans with a weak seam that can be pulled to open the can. You cannot get this kind of novel idea using your conventional way of thinking.

What happens when you think simultaneously, in the same mental space, about a showerhead and a telescope orbiting the earth? When the Hubble telescope was first launched into space, scientists were unable to focus it. It could be salvaged only by refocusing it using small, coin-shaped mirrors. The problem was how to deliver the mirrors and insert them precisely into the right location. The right location was in a light bundle behind the main mirror. The NASA experts who worked on the problem were not able to solve it, and the multi¬million dollar Hubble seemed doomed.

Electrical engineer James Crocker was attending a seminar in Germany when he found out about the problem. He worked on it all day. Tired, he stepped into the shower in his hotel room. The European-style shower included a showerhead on an arrangement of adjustable rods. While manipulating the showerhead, Crocker suddenly realized that similar articulated arms bearing coin-shaped mirrors could be extended into the light bundle from within a replacement axial instrument by remote control. Mentally blending the Hubble telescope and the showerhead created this remarkable solution.

Crocker was startled by his sudden realization of the solution that was immensely comprehensive and at the same time immensely detailed. As Crocker later said, “I could see the Hubble’s mirrors on the shower head.” The NASA experts could not solve the problem using their conventional linear way of thinking. Crocker solved it by thinking unconventionally — by forcing connections between two remotely different subjects.

Look at the following illustration of the square and circle. Both are separate entities.

Now look at the extraordinary effect they have when blended together. We now have something mysterious, and it seems to move. You can get this effect only by blending the two dissimilar objects in the same space. The power of the effect is not contained in the circle or in the square, but in the combination of the two.

Creativity in all domains, including science, technology, medicine, the arts, and day-to-day living, emerges from the basic mental operation of conceptually blending dissimilar subjects. When analyzed, creative ideas are always new combinations of old ideas. A poet does not generally make up new words but instead puts together old words in a new way. The French poet Paul Valéry is quoted by mathematician Jacques Hadamard in Jacques Hadamard, A Universal Mathematician, by T. O. Shaposhnikova, as saying, “It takes two to invent anything. The one makes up combinations; the other one chooses, recognizes what he wishes and what is important to him in the mass of the things which the former has imparted to him.” Valéry related that when he wrote poetry he used two thinking strategies to invent something new. With one strategy, he would make up combinations; and with the other, he would choose what was important.

Consider Einstein’s theory of relativity. He did not invent the concepts of energy, mass, or speed of light. Rather, he combined these ideas in a new and useful way.

Think for a moment about a pinecone. What relationship does a pinecone have to the processes of reading and writing? In France in 1818, a nine-year-old boy accidentally blinded himself with a hole puncher while helping his father make horse harnesses. A few years later the boy was sitting in the yard thinking about his inability to read and write when a friend handed him a pinecone. He ran his fingers over the cone and noted the tiny differences between the scales. He conceptually blended the feel of different pinecone scales with reading and writing and realized he could create an alphabet of raised dots on paper so the blind could feel and read what was written with it. In this way Louis Braille opened up a whole new world for the blind.

Braille made a creative connection between a pinecone and reading. When you make a connection between two unrelated subjects, your imagination will leap to fill the gaps and form a whole in order to make sense of it. Suppose you are watching a mime impersonating a man taking his dog out for a walk. The mime’s arm is outstretched as though holding the dog’s leash. As the mime’s arm is jerked back and forth, you “see” the dog straining at the leash to sniff this or that. The dog and the leash become the most real part of the scene, even though there is no dog or leash. In the same way, when you make connections between your subject and something that is totally unrelated, your imagination fills in the gaps to create new ideas. It is this willingness to use your imagination to fill in the gaps that produces the unpredictable idea. This is why Einstein claimed that imagination is more important than knowledge.

Just as conceptual blending allows information to intermingle in the mind of the individual, when people swap thoughts with others from different fields, this creates new, exciting thinking patterns for both. As Brian Arthur argues in his book The Nature of Technology, nearly all technologies result from combinations of other technologies, and new ideas often come from people from different fields combining their thoughts and things. One example is the camera pill, invented after a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided-missile designer.

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If You Always Think The Way You’ve Always Thought, You’ll Always Get The Same Old Ideas You Always Got. Learn How to be a Creative Thinker and Get The Ideas You Need

 

Now quickly read aloud the colors of the following words …
not the words themselves, but the colors in which the words are shown:

Difficult isn’t it? No matter how hard you concentrate, no matter how hard you focus, you will find that it is almost impossible to read the colors aloud without becoming confused. The word patterns have become so strong in your brain that they are activated automatically whether you want them to be or not.

Now read the following paragraph.

“Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabridge Uinvervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the litteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a ttoal mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is besauae ocne we laren how to raed we bgien to aargnre the lteerts in our mnid to see waht we epxcet to see. The huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but preecsievs the wrod as a wlohe. We do tihs ucnsoniuscoly wuithot tuhoght.”

Amazing, isn’t it? How are you able to see and understand a group of jumbled letters as words? How can you find meaning in a mass of jumbled letters? Show this paragraph to any child just learning to read and they will tell you that what you think are words is nonsense. This is because the word patterns in their brain have not yet become rigid.

The dominant factor in the way our minds work is the buildup of patterns that enable us to simplify and cope with a complex world. These patterns are based on our past experiences in life, education, and work that have been successful in the past. We look at 6 X 6 and 36 appears automatically without conscious thought. We brush our teeth in the morning, get dressed, drive to work without conscious thought because our thinking patterns enable us to perform routine tasks rapidly and accurately.

But this same patterning makes it hard for us to come up with new ideas and creative solutions to problems, especially when confronted with unusual data. In our paragraph, our word patterns are so hard wired that even a small bit of information (the first and last letter of a word) activates the entire word pattern. We end up seeing what our brains expect to see instead of what is right before our eyes.

We are instructed in schools to think reproductively by memorizing formulae, systems, and methodologies that others have used successfully in the past. This instruction has created strong thinking patterns. When confronted with problems, these thinking patterns are activated with even a small bit of information and lead our thinking in a clearly defined direction toward something that has worked in the past for someone else, excluding all other approaches.

Think of your mind as a dish of jelly which has settled so that its surface is perfectly flat. When information enters the mind, it self-organizes. It is like pouring warm water on the dish of jelly with a teaspoon. Imagine the warm water being poured on the jelly dish and then gently tipped so that it runs off. After many repetitions of this process, the surface of the jelly would be full of ruts, indentations, and grooves.

New water (information) would start to automatically flow into the preformed grooves. After a while, it would take only a bit of information (water) to activate an entire channel. This is the pattern recognition and pattern completion process of the brain. Even if much of the information is out of the channel, the pattern will be activated. The mind automatically corrects and completes the information to select and activate a pattern.

This is why, when we sit down and try to will new ideas or solutions, we tend to keep coming up with the same-old, same-old ideas. Information is flowing down the same ruts and grooves making the same-old connections producing the same old ideas over and over again.

Creativity occurs when we tilt the jelly dish and force the water (information) to flow into new channels and make new connections. These new connections give you different ways to focus your attention and different ways to interpret whatever you are focusing on. These different ways of focusing your attention and different ways of interpreting what you are focusing on lead to new insights, original ideas and solutions.

You cannot will yourself to look at things in a different way, no matter how inspired you are to do so. To illustrate, following are two rows of parallel dots which are equal in length. Try to will yourself to see the rows of dots as unequal in length. No matter how hard you concentrate and how long you look at the dots, the two rows remain equal.

 

However, if you change the way you look at the dots by combining the dots with two convergent straight lines, your perception of the dots changes. When you do that, the top row appears longer than the other one.

 

The rows are still equal (go ahead and measure them), yet, you are now seeing something different. Combining the dots with straight lines focused your attention in a different way and caught your brain’s processing routines by surprise. This provoked a different thinking pattern that changed your perception of the illustration and allowed you to see something that you could not otherwise see.

If one particular thinking strategy stands out for creative geniuses throughout history, it is the ability to provoke different thinking patterns by using creative thinking techniques that enable them to perceive conceptual analogical and metaphorical juxtapositions between dissimilar and unrelated subjects and information.

Xiaohui Cui at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee immersed himself in the problem of a better way to organize information on the internet. He abstracted the principle of the problem to “how do things flock and flow.” He studied how things flock and flow in different domains. Then he made the analogical connection between how information flocks and flows on the internet and how birds of the same species flock and flow together.

The system he created mimics the ways 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, documents 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.

This new web-feed tool will, whenever you go online, automatically update your browser with any new stories added to your favorite websites. It will also provide automatic updates from other websites, such as when new scientific papers are added to journals.

To get this idea, Xiaohui had to provoke a change in his thinking patterns about the internet. He did this by abstracting the principle of the problem (flocking and flowing) and immersed himself in searching in other domains for how things flock and flow. When he made the analogical connection between how birds flock and how information flocks, he was able to look at his problem with a new perspective. (Metaphorically, it was like placing two straight lines next to the dots in the illustration.)
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.

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Can You Spot The Hidden Tiger?

 

Only 1% of people can spot the second tiger. These people have acute perceptive abilities. If you can’t find it, go to the end of this article for the answer.

Cognitive scientists understand the importance of perception and pattern recognition as a major component of creative thinking. When you are committed and start to actively work on a problem that you are passionate about, you will start to notice more and more things that relate to what you are working on. With an infinite amount of stimuli constantly hitting our brains, we need the ability to filter that which is most relevant to us. And our mind is that filter. Often these connections can seem like coincidences, but cognitive scientists tell us it is simply that part of our brain that screens out information we are not interested in and focuses on the things that we can use. These connections give you different ways to look at information and different ways to focus on it.

George de Mestral was inspired to improve the zipper. He thought about the essence of zippers which is to fasten two separate pieces of fabric together. His question became “How do things fasten?” He became committed to the idea of inventing a better fastener and spent considerable time pondering how things fasten in other domains including nature.

One day when George was hunting birds with his Irish pointer, he traveled through some burdock thistles. The prickly seed burrs from the plants clung to his clothing and to his dog. While pulling off the burrs he noticed how they were removable yet easily reattached.

The burdock fascinated George and he imagined a fastener that mimicked a burdock. He studied the burrs under a microscope and discovered a hook system used by the burdock plant to migrate its seeds by attachment. The hooks could grab onto loops of thread or fur and migrate with the object it fastened itself to. This gave him the idea of creating a hook and loop fastener.

It was not logic that guided his thinking process but perception and pattern recognition between two totally unrelated subjects: zippers and burdocks. Logic dictates that burdocks are animate plants and zippers are inanimate man-made objects that are totally unrelated and, therefore, any relationship between the two is to be excluded. It was George’s creative perception, not logic, that recognized the common factor between a burdock and a zipper that fastens, not logic.

George envisioned two fabrics that could attach in this manner with one having a surface covered with minuscule hooks and another with hoops. Most of the experts he visited did not believe hooks could be created on the surface of fabric. However, he found a weaver at a textile plant that was willing to work with him. George discovered that a multi filament yarn woven from velvet or cotton terry cloth created a surface of hooped threads. To create hooks, George would partially cut the hoops so they would become hooks. There was a great deal of experimentation to get the right density, thread sizes and rigidity. He eventually wove the hook-side yarn from nylon and invented Velcro.

Russian computer scientist, Mikhail Bongard, created a remarkable set of visual pattern recognition problems to test one’s creative perception. The Bongard problems present two sets of relatively simple diagrams, say A and B. All the diagrams from set A have a common factor or attribute, which is lacking in all the diagrams of set B. The problem is to find, or to formulate, convincingly, the common factor.

Below is an example of a Bongard problem. Test your perception and pattern recognition skills and try to solve the problem. You have two classes of figures (A and B). You are asked to discover some abstract connection that links all the various diagrams in A and that distinguishes them from all the other diagrams in group B.

One has to take chances that certain aspects of a given diagram matter, and others are irrelevant. Perhaps shapes count, but not sizes — or vice versa. Perhaps orientations count, but not sizes — or vice versa. Perhaps curvature or its lack of curvature counts, but not location inside the box — or vice versa. Perhaps numbers of objects but not their types matter — or vice versa. Which types of features will wind up mattering and which are mere distractors.

As you try to solve the problem, you will find the essence of your mental activity is a complex interweaving of acts of abstraction and comparison, all of which involve guesswork rather than certainty. By guesswork I mean that one has to take a chance that certain aspects matter and others do not.

Logic dictates that the essence of perception is the activity of dividing a complex scene into its separate constituent objects and attaching separate labels to the now separated parts of pre-established categories, such as ovals, X’s and circles as unrelated exclusive events. Then we’re taught to think exclusively within a closed system of hard logic. In the above patterns, if you were able to discern the distinction between the diagrams, your perception is what found the distinction, not logic. The distinction is the ovals are all pointing to the X in the A group, and the ovals area all pointing at the circles in the B group.

The following thought experiment is an even more difficult problem, because you are no longer dealing with recognizable shapes such as ovals, X’s, circles or other easily recognizable structures for which we have clear representations. To solve this, you need to perceive subjectively and intuitively, make abstract connections, much like Einstein thought when he thought about the similarities and differences between the patterns of space and time, and you need to consider the overall context of the problem.

                                                                                                                                                                                       A                                                                             B

Again, you have two classes of figures (A and B) in the Bongard problem. You are asked to discover some abstract connection that links all the various diagrams in A and that distinguishes them from all the other diagrams in group B.

SCROLL DOWN FOR ANSWER

ANSWER: The rule is the “dots” in A are on the same side of the neck.

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SECOND TIGER

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The Key to Thomas Edison’s Incredible Innovative Creativity: Adaptation

 

One of the paradoxes of creativity is that in order to think originally, we must first familiarize ourselves with the ideas of others. Thomas Edison put it this way: “Make it a habit to keep on the lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others have used successfully. Your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you are working on.” Many cultural historians agree with Edison in that a whole host of new objects and ideas are based on objects and ideas already in existence. Adaptation is a common and inescapable practice in creativity. Even the “Star Spangled Banner,” which was written in defiance of England, was essentially the same as a popular tune sung in English pubs.

To become an expert at adaptation, ask:
⦁ What else is like this?
⦁ What other idea does this suggest?
⦁ Does the past offer a parallel?
⦁ What could I copy?
⦁ Whom could I emulate?
⦁ What idea could I incorporate?
⦁ What other process could be adapted?
⦁ What else could be adapted?
⦁ What different contexts can I put my concept in?
⦁ What ideas outside my field can I incorporate?
⦁ What ideas inside my field can I incorporate?

I have a friend who is a chef. One day he and I had a discussion about creative thinking and I brought up the principle of adaptation. A month or so later, I ran into him and he told me that he was getting a patent for his invention of an olive oil dispenser.

It’s easy to overdo the olive oil, both in terms of application and health implications, which is why he said he decided to look around his world for an idea he could adapt to solve his problem. One day he was thinking about his olive oil problem while he played with his ball point pen. He suddenly realized he could adapt an idea from the principle of a ball point pen.

He made an olive oil dispenser from a simple glass vessel topped with a hollow cork stopper that’s sealed with a rolling wooden ball that soaks up the oil and then dispenses it easily and evenly across breads, meats, and other foods. The device makes it easy to spread an even layer of olive oil on meat and bread without any of the mess.

WHAT IDEA CAN BE ADAPTED?
A while back, I wrote an article about a publisher who embedded tree seeds into the cover of a biodegradable storybook for children. The book included instructions of how to plant the book after the child had read it and nurture it as it grew into a tree. The owners of an organic food company adapted this idea of embedding seeds into consumer products. They created the idea of producing a series of floral lollipops with seeds embedded in the sticks-ready to be planted once the lollipop is eaten. They created flavors such as peach and marigold, vanilla and hibiscus, and sage and mushroom. The flower seeds were embedded in the sticks corresponding to the plant used in flavoring the lollipop. The sticks are biodegradable, and made from recycled paper. Once done licking, users simply plant the stick in the ground or in a pot, and wait for the seeds to grow.

WHAT PROCESS CAN BE ADAPTED?
Consider the incredible opportunity that the U.S. Postal Service and UPS both missed by failing to create an “overnight” delivery service. Their entire focus was on using established systems and theories to create the service.  If, for instance, using the established system you want to connect one hundred markets with one another, and if you do it all with direct point-to-point deliveries, it will take one hundred times ninety-nine — or 9,900 — direct deliveries. They failed to look for alternative ideas and simply concluded that the cost was prohibitive. There was no way they could make it economically feasible.

It took an individual who looked at the problem in a different way to solve the problem. After a tour of duty with the Marines in Vietnam, Fred Smith returned home in 1971 to find that computers were becoming an indispensable part of doing business and delivery systems were not keeping up with the increased demand for speed and reliability when delivering computer parts.

Fred abstracted the problem from delivery services to one of “movement.” How do things move? He thought about how information is moved, and how banks move money around the world. Both information systems and banks, he discovered, put all points in a network and connect them through a central hub. He decided to create a delivery system — Federal Express, now known as FedEx — that operates essentially the way information and bank clearinghouses do. He realized that a hub-and-spoke network could create an enormous number of connections more efficiently than a point-to-point delivery system. The delivery system he conceived used both airplanes and trucks, which was unheard of at the time. His system was 100 times more efficient than existing systems at the time and was subsequently employed in, of course, all air cargo delivery systems in the airline industry.

GECKO GLOVES. After watching Spider-Man, researchers at the University of Manchester played with the idea of developing adhesives that would help people climb and cling to vertical surfaces. They brainstormed by considering ways that animals, reptiles, insects, and birds attach themselves to plants and trees. They were most intrigued by geckos, which have tiny hairs on the soles of their feet that allow them to climb slick surfaces. The researchers adapted this feature into an adhesive that mimics geckos’ feet, demonstrating the feasibility of self-cleaning, reattachable dry adhesives. These artificial micro-hair adhesives are being developed into gecko gloves, which will enable humans to climb vertical walls as easily as a gecko or Spider-Man.

WHAT BEHAVIORS CAN BE ADAPTED?
Dr. Peter Pronovost, a critical care specialist at the Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore, thought he knew how to minimize human error. It was, as Dr. Atul Gawande describes it in his provocative new book, “The Checklist Manifesto,” an idea so simple that it seemed downright loopy.

In 2001 Dr. Pronovost borrowed a concept from the aviation industry: a checklist, the kind that pilots use to clear their planes for takeoff. In an experiment Dr. Pronovost used the checklist strategy to attack just one common problem in the I.C.U., infections in patients with central intravenous lines (catheters that deliver medications or fluids directly into a major vein). Central lines can be breeding grounds for pathogens; in the Hopkins I.C.U. at the time, about one line in nine became infected, increasing the likelihood of prolonged illness, further surgery or death.

Dr. Pronovost wrote down the five things that doctors needed to do when inserting central lines to avoid subsequent infection: wash hands with soap; clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic; cover the patient’s entire body with sterile drapes; wear a mask, hat, sterile gown and gloves; and put a sterile dressing over the insertion site after the line was in. Many of his colleagues thought his idea was a no-brainer. It seemed silly to make a checklist for something so obvious.”

But Dr. Pronovost knew that about one-third of the time doctors were skipping at least one of these critical steps. What would happen if they never skipped any? He gave the five-point checklist to the nurses in the I.C.U. and, with the encouragement of hospital administrators, told them to check off each item when a doctor inserted a central line — and to call out any doctor who was cutting corners. The new rule made it clear: if doctors didn’t follow every step, the nurses would have backup from the administration to intervene.

The nurses were strict, the doctors toed the line, and within one year the central line infection rate in the Hopkins I.C.U. had dropped from 11 percent to zero. Two years after the checklist was introduced, Dr. Pronovost calculated, it had prevented 43 infections, avoided 8 I.C.U. deaths and saved the hospital millions of dollars.

Based on this success, Dr. Pronovost and his colleagues wrote up checklists for other situations in the I.C.U., like mechanical ventilation. (Were antacids prescribed to prevent stomach ulcers? Was the bed propped up 30 degrees to keep the windpipe clear of saliva?) The average length of stay in the I.C.U. dropped by half, and 21 fewer I.C.U. patients died than had died the previous year.

CAN THE CONTEXT BE ADAPTED FOR A DIFFERENT MARKET?
A couple of brothers named Jacuzzi, who sold water pumps for farm use, designed a special whirlpool bath as a treatment for their cousin’s arthritis. They did little with this new product until Roy Jacuzzi put the concept in a different context—the luxury bath market—and bathrooms were never the same again. The Jacuzzi sold like crazy across the country, from California to the White House.

WHAT IDEAS CAN BE ADAPTED FROM NATURE?
Medical doctors working with geneticists have discovered a way to use fire-flies to fight cancer. The gene that activates a firefly’s bioluminescence is inserted into cancer cells, causing them to glow. A photosensitizing agent is added, making the cells produce toxic substances and causes them to self-destruct. This principle is already used in photodynamic therapy, which uses bursts of light to attack tumors. Inserting the light source directly into the cells makes it possible to attack tumors deep in the body without using an outside light source that could damage healthy tissue on the way.

WHAT MATERIAL CAN BE ADAPTED?
To help his experiments, Thomas Edison designed a laboratory model of a transatlantic cable, in which cheap powdered carbon was used to simulate the electrical resistance of thousands of miles of wires. Alas, the rumble of traffic outdoors, clattering in the machine shop, or even the scientists’ footsteps shook the equipment enough to change the pressure of the connecting wires on the carbon, thus altering its resistance. Since the accuracy of the model depended upon constant resistance in the carbon, Edison finally abandoned this approach. But later, when confronted with the problem of how to improve the transmission of voices over the telephone, he adapted his failed work on variable resistance with the undersea cable to his work on a telephone transmitter. used a funnel-shaped mouthpiece to focus sound waves on a carbon button. The pressure of those vibrations altered the resistance in the circuit in synchrony with the speaker’s voice. In other words, the material that ruined Edison’s underwater-telegraphy experiments is exactly what made his telephone transmitter such a triumph. Indeed, this innovative transmitter rendered Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone practical–so much so that it became the industry standard.

MICHAEL MICHALKO. My books give details and blueprints of the creative thinking techniques used by creative geniuses throughout history to get their original and novel ideas. http://creativethinking.net/#sthash.SXV5T2cu.dpbs

Creative Thinking Habit: Always Look at Problems with Multiple Perspectives

Leonardo da Vinci always assumed that his first way of looking at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of thinking. He would always look at a problem from at least three different perspectives to get a better understanding. It has been my observation that people who pride themselves on their ability to think logically and analytically ignore his advice and trust their usual way of thinking

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 E, a K, a 4 and a 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.

“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.

………………………………………..

Learn the creative thinking habits from history’s greatest creative geniuses.  Read https://www.amazon.com/Cracking-Creativity-Secrets-Creative-Genius/dp/1580083110/ref=pd_sim_14_2?ie=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=CAJTPVGTFC7R940PAQSN

How Not To Think

 

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.

PAYING ATTENTION

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.

5jacks-cards

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

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) 

WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT?

maluma-tuckatee

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)

What Helen Keller Taught Me about Creative Thinking

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.

Artificial Surprise

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.

DO YOU LOOK AT WHAT YOU SEE?

RAIN (2)

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
http://www.amazon.com/dp/1580087736/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_qucvxb0A4HCF1 … via @amazon

HOW TO OPEN UP YOUR SUBCONSCIOUS MIND

 

brain

black squares

Illusory grey spots mysteriously appear at the points of intersection in the following black and
white grid. However, the spot does not occur at the specific intersection on which you concentrate your attention.
.
Sometimes ideas, like the gray spots, do not appear when you are concentrating your attention and mysteriously appear when you are not. Modern science recognizes this phenomenon of incubation and insight yet cannot account for why it occurs. That this is a commonplace phenomenon was shown in a survey of distinguished scientists conducted over a half-century ago. A majority of the scientists reported that they got their best ideas and insights when not thinking about the problem. Ideas came while walking, recreating, or working on some other unrelated problem. This suggests how the creative act came to be associated with “divine inspiration” for the illumination and appears to be involuntary.

The more problems, ideas and thoughts that you think about from time to time, the more complex becomes the network of information in your mind. Think of thoughts as atoms hanging by hooks on the sides of your mind. When you think about a subject, some of these thoughts become loose and put into motion in your subconscious mind. The more work you put into thinking about a problem, the more thoughts and bits of information you put into random motion. Your subconscious mind never rests. When you quit thinking about the subject and decide to forget it, your subconscious mind doesn’t quit working. Your thoughts keep colliding, combining and making associations. This is why you’ve experienced suddenly remembering names, getting solutions to problems you’ve forgotten about, and ideas out of the blue when you are relaxing and not thinking about any particular thing.

There’s a thing in mathematics called “factorial”, which calculates how many ways you can combine things. If you have three objects, then there are one times two times three, which leaves six combinations. The factorial of ten is over three million. Ten bits of information will combine and recombine in three million different ways in your mind. So you can imagine the cloud of thoughts combining and making associations when you incubate problems when you stop working.

There is an important Chinese term, “wuwei,” “not doing,” the meaning of which is not “doing nothing,” but “not forcing.” Things will open up of themselves, according to their nature. And they do.

Cognitive scientists have observed that people, after a period of incubation from a problem, are 39 percent more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas. Yet this enhancement of creative thinking exists completely beneath the radar screen. In other words, people are more creative after they forget about the problem for a period of time, but they don’t know it. It’s as if a period of incubation resets your mind. You’re taking a walk or taking a shower and realize “Wait a minute, there’s another way to do this.”

The famous philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell was quoted in The Conquest of Happiness as having said: “I have found, for example, that if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan is think about it with very great intensity—the greatest intensity with which I am capable—for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months, I return consciously to the topic and find the work has been done. Before I discovered this technique, I used to spend time worrying because I was making no progress; I arrived at the solution none the faster for this worry and the worrying time was wasted.” When author Norman Mailer had writer’s block, he would instruct his subconscious mind to work on the problem and to notify him when it was resolved. Then he would leave the problem until the “insight” arrived in his consciousness.

Incubation usually involves setting a problem aside for a few hours, days, or weeks and moving on to other projects. The creative act owes little to logic or reason. In their accounts of the circumstances under which big ideas occurred to them, scientists have often mentioned that the inspiration had no relation to the work they happened to be doing. Sometimes it came while they were traveling, shaving or thinking about other matters. The creative process cannot be summoned at will or even cajoled by sacrificial offering. Indeed, it seems to occur most readily when the mind is relaxed and the imagination roaming freely.

I gave a seminar for an advertising agency that was under pressure from a major television network to come up with an innovative marketing campaign to introduce the networks new shows. I compared our subconscious mind to an egg. I said imagine an egg sitting in its nest of straw. It doesn’t do anything and makes no sound. It doesn’t change shape, it doesn’t change color. It doesn’t pulsate. It doesn’t roll around. You could look at it for days and days and you’d come away thinking that it was an inert object and there was nothing going on.

Yet inside the egg a riot of change is taking place, a storm of re-organization, feeding and growth, of total activity as a bunch of random cells become an entity, which in turn becomes ever more defined and more complex, more organized in every way, more mature, more fantastic with every heartbeat, every breath that passes.

One day the egg that lay so motionless for so very long and seemed to be nothing but an inert shape will begin to rock, and then it will crack, and the a newly born bird will emerge, spread its wings for the first time and take its first small steps.

We talked a lot about the similarity between the subconscious mind and eggs. Then I asked them to perform a thought experiment which is to write a letter to their subconscious mind. (The guidelines for the thought experiment are at the end of the article.)

Bert, the creative director at the agency, wrote a letter which he addressed to his subconscious mind that he called “Secret Expert.”

“How are you Secret Expert?

I haven’t heard from you in some time, so I thought I would write you a letter. I need your help with a problem. I need to come up with an exciting new marketing program to introduce a new season of television shows. The shows include programs about criminal forensics, contests for prizes, lawyer shows and comedies. I’m interested in coming up with some kind of campaign that will capture the audience’s attention more than one time. The approach of the campaign should be unique and unexpected.

We’ve had several meetings but keep coming up with the same old traditional marketing campaign ideas. What do people need and keep? Is there something they need that we can advertise on? What kind of goods, products, foods and services should we investigate? What producers, distributors and retailers should we study? Can we combine our services with another company? Do we need to share revenue? I need a fresh approach to advertising. Your mission is to give me a new idea on how to advertise television shows. I need the idea in two days. Help!!!

Thanks, Bert”

Bert mailed the letter to himself and two days later received it. When he read what he had written, he got his brainstorm, which was to advertise on “eggs.” Did the connection come from our discussions about eggs and the subconscious? Or did it come from an association between “foods,” “need,” “producers,” and “fresh approach,” as in “fresh eggs?”

He arranged to place laser imprints of the network’s logos, as well as some of its shows on eggs—some thirty million. Some of the slogans that will be imprinted on the eggs are “Crack the Case on CSI,” “Scramble to win the great race,” “Hard-boiled drama,” “Leave the Yolks to us,” and “Funny Side UP.”

The consumers look at a single egg at least a few times. When they open the carton at the store, when they transfer them to the refrigerator, and when they crack them open. It’s unlike any other ad medium in the world because you’re looking at it while you are using it. Egg producers, distributors and retailers all love the concept as they will all share in the ad revenue.

Ideas are free to combine with other ideas in novel patterns and new associations in your subconscious mind. It is also the storehouse of all your experience, including things you can’t easily call into awareness. When I use this technique and don’t receive an answer within the allotted time frame, I’ll say “Oh well, let me know as soon as you think of something.” Without exception, I will get the answer sooner or later.

Here is another example of this technique. The marketing director for a soft drink corporation wanted to come up with a novel way to package soft drinks. He spent time listing all the ways products and liquids can be packaged. He then turned off his self-censor by giving himself an idea quota of 120 ways to package things. This forced him to list every single thought he had no matter how obvious or absurd. The first third were his usual ideas, the next third became more interesting and complex and the last third became fantastical and absurd as he stretched his imagination to meet his quota.

Finally, he wrote the following letter he addressed to MacGuyver (He calls his subconscious mind MacGuyver after the TV character who solves cases by improvisation.)

Dear MacGuyver,

How are you? I haven’t heard from you in a long time, so I thought I would write you a letter. I need some innovative ideas about packaging our soda, a package that would create a new experience for the consumer. Right now, as you know, our soft drinks are packaged in bottles and cans. I’m trying to think of ways to make our packaging innovative and fun in such a way that it will heighten consumer attention. So far, I’ve researched the methodology of packaging, brainstormed for ideas, and have asked everyone I know for their thoughts.

Reviewing my list of ideas, I’ve noticed a theme of environmental concerns. Citizens have become aware and sensitive to what happens to discarded bottles and cans. So I think the package should be environmentally friendly. Another theme, I noticed, is “put to other uses.” In other words, how else can the consumer use the package? A cousin of mine told me about the time he was in the peace corps in a very poor section of Guatemala. Soft drinks in bottles were too expensive for the natives. He told me popular domestic sodas are instead poured into sandwich baggies and sold.

I need your help. Please deliver your ideas to me within three days.

Sincerely,

John

The Idea he received from MacGuyver is to create a biodegradable plastic bag in the shape of a soda bottle. This bag will save buyers bottle deposit money and retains the drink’s fizz and experience, while simultaneously being more environmentally friendly. Being new and fun, it actually creates a new brand experience adapted to cultural environmental tendencies that local consumers are sure to appreciate. Additionally, the plastic bags afford greater flexibility in storage options and can also be re-used by the consumer as a storage container for other foods and liquids. Additionally, the product adapts itself to new markets in impoverished countries.

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT BLUEPRINT

• Work on a problem until you have mulled over all the relevant pieces of information. Talk with others about the problem, ask questions, and do as much research as you can until you are satisfied that you have pushed your conscious mind to its limit.

• Write a letter to your subconscious mind about the problem. Make the letter as detailed and specific as possible. Describe the problem definition, the attributes, what steps you have taken, the problems, the gaps, what is needed, what you want, what the obstacles are, and so on. Just writing the letter will help better define a problem, clarify issues, point out where more information is needed, and prepare your unconscious to work on a solution. The letter should read just like a letter you would send to a real person. Imagine that your unconscious is all-knowing and can solve any problem that is properly stated.

• Instruct your unconscious to find the solution. Write, “Your mission is to find the solution to the problem. I would like the solution in three days.”

• Seal the letter and put it away. You may even want to mail it to yourself.

• Let go of the problem. Don’t work on it. Forget it. Do something else. This is the incubation stage when much of what goes on occurs outside your focused awareness, in your unconscious.

• Open the letter in three days. If the problem still has not been solved, then write on the bottom of the letter, “Let me know the minute you solve this” and put it away again. Sooner or later, when you are most relaxed and removed from the problem, the answer will magically pop into your mind.

 

(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)

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