Read aloud the following colors as fast as you can:
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 inawrod 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. Our word patterns are so rigid that once we read the scrambled letters as words,we no longer see them as a bunch of mixed up letters but as ordinary words.
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, and 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.
Read the following sentence. “This sentence no verb.” Can you understand it? You can easily understand it despite the missing verb “has.” Again your sentence patterns triggers the missing verb automatically and fills in the blank.
In this instance, your brain patterns recognize the cognitive framework of words in sentences and, consequently, assumed words are not repeated in sentences and ignored the repetitions.
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.
Consider what happens when you read these words:
Just three words activate a thinking pattern in your brain that relates a story about a thief who is careless, gets caught and ends up in prison. There is no story. There are only three unrelated words. Your brain simply recognized a certain pre-existing cognitive pattern and assumed the story.
The brain processes new information by immediately imposing meaning based on the dominant, associated, assumed context rather than objective inspection. Secondly, our judgments and decisions are often based on automatic, rule of thumb responses to this information rather than on thorough, logical analysis. It is this habitual use of pattern recognition that provides us with an instant interpretation of the problem. It also limits our view of the world, our access to new ideas, and our access to unique solutions. If you always think the way you’ve always thought, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
An enlightening experiment was done by gestalt psychologists with a group of dogs: The dogs were trained to approach something when shown a white square and avoid it when shown a gray square. When the dogs learned this, the experimenters switched to using a gray square and a black square. The dogs immediately shifted to approaching the object in response to the gray square (which had previously triggered avoidance), and avoiding the object when shown the black square (which had not been conditioned to anything). Rather than perceive the gray as an absolute stimulus, the dogs were responding to the deeper essence of lighter versus darker as opposed to gray, white or black as being properties.”
We 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. For example, if the average person were trained to approach something when shown a white square and avoid it when shown a gray square, and the squares are switched to gray and black, the human will still avoid the gray square. Once gray has been defined in our minds, we see the gray as independent and entirely self-contained. This means nothing can interact with it or exert an influence on it. It, in fact, becomes an absolute.
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. For example, if the average person were asked to create a better zipper, the person would think in terms of pre-established categories such as “material zipper is made from, position of zipper on clothing, size of zipper, color and design of zipper, fasteners, zipper pulls to move the zipper up and down, and so on.” 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. You cannot will yourself to look at things in a different way, no matter how inspired you are to do so. No matter how hard or how long you think about a zipper, you will continue to see a zipper as an independent part of an independent reality and will continue to focus on the particulars of a zipper.
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 converging 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. The two lines serve as a tool that enabled you to see something that you could not otherwise see.
Your perception naturally limits the imagination. This is why you cannot imagine the lines of dots in A to be of unequal lengths. To see it, you have to disrupt your habitual thinking pattern by introducing something totally unrelated, the two converging lines in B. This gives you a different way to focus on the illustration and a different way to interpret what you are focusing on. The rows of dots are still equal but now you are seeing something different.
Change Your Thinking Patterns
You can change your thinking patterns by focusing on the universal instead of the particular. When you do this, you will find yourself looking at the same thing as everyone else, but seeing something different. The essence of a zipper, for example, is fastening. Think of the process of fastening instead of the particular zipper. Now instead of thinking of the particular (zippers) open your mind and think of how things fasten (universal).
How does a wasp fasten to its hive?
How does a window fasten to a sill?
How does a bird fasten its nest to a branch?
How does a person fasten a shoe to his foot?
How do mountain climbers fasten themselves to the mountain?
How do burdocks fasten to passerbys?
George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, occupied his mind with the idea of creating a better zipper. A creative thinker, he perceived the essence of a zipper to be “fastening.” Thinking inclusively, he was always trying to connect all sorts of things with the essence of “fastening:” One day he took his dog for a nature hike. They both returned covered with burrs, the plant like seed-sacs that cling to animal fur in order to travel to fertile new planting grounds. He made the “Aha” connection between burrs and zippers when he examined the small hooks that enabled the seed-bearing burr to cling so viciously to the tiny loops in the fabric of his pants. This inspired him to invent a two-sided fastener (two-sided like a zipper), one side with stiff hooks like the burrs and the other side with soft loops like the fabric of his pants. He called his invention “Velcro,” which is itself a combination of the word velour and crochet.
The key feature of George de Mestral’s thinking was his conceptual connection between patterns of a burr and patterns of a zipper. He bounced back and forth among ideas guessing as to what works and what doesn’t. By “guessing,” what I mean is that he had to take chances as to what aspects of a “burr” pattern matter, and what doesn’t. Perhaps shapes count, but not textures–or vice versa. Perhaps orientation count, but not sizes–or vice versa. Perhaps curvature or its lack counts and so on until he got it.
Patterns are fitted together like words in a phrase or sentence. A sentence is not the sum of its words but depends on their syntactic arrangement; “A man bites a dog” is not the same as “Dog a man a bites.” Likewise, an original idea is not the sum of combined thoughts but depends on how they are blended together. Velcro is not a burr + a zipper. It is a blend of the two.
Suppose you were challenged with the task of finding a better way to organize the way information flows on the internet. Think of how you would approach the problem. The average person will organize and think only about those particulars that relate to the internet, the way information is digitally organized, the way existing search engines work. However, if you combine your subject with unrelated subjects in other domains, you will provoke different thinking patterns which will enable you to focus on the problem in a different way.
What is the essence of the problem? How are things organized so they can flow? The principle is “flocking and flowing.”
1. How do things flock and flow?
2. Think about how things flock and flow in other worlds. Examples:
a. How do fish flock and flow?
b. How do molecules flock and flow in liquids ?
c. How do birds flock and flow while flying?
d. How do sheep flock and flow in herds?
e. How do people flock and flow in and out of football stadium?
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 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 of the same species flock and flow together and how information flocks and flows on the internet, he was able to look at his problem with a new perspective.
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.
Chi’s new 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.
Chi discovered the abstract connection that links and does not separate parts of two complex wholes by thinking of universals and essences. He connected the flocking and flowing of information with the flocking and flowing of birds. This is the essence of creative thinking: a complex blending of elements of two or more dissimilar 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.
Note: The color bars at the beginning of this post are based on the Stroop test. To learn more about creative thinking techniques, read Michael Michalko’s book Thinkertoys – a Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques, available at Amazon.com