Tag: CREATIVITY ARTICLES

Combine What Exists Into Something That Has Never Existed Before

combine

In his book, Scientific Genius, psychologist Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California at Davis suggests that geniuses are geniuses because they form more novel combinations than the merely talented. He suggests that, in a loose sense, genius and chance are synonymous. His theory has etymology behind it: cogito—”I think”—originally connoted “shake together”; intelligo, the root of intelligence, means to “select among.” This is a clear, early intuition about the utility of permitting ideas and thoughts to randomly combine with each other and the utility of selecting from the many the few to retain.

Because geniuses are willing to entertain novel combinations, they are able to discard accepted ideas of what is possible and imagine what is actually possible. In 1448, Johannes Gutenberg combined the mecha¬nisms for pressing wine and punching coins to produce movable type, which made printing practical. His method of producing movable type endured almost unchanged for five centuries. The laws of heredity on which the modern science of genetics is based are the result of the work of Gregor Mendel, who combined mathematics and biology to create this new science. Thomas Edison’s invention of a practical system of lighting involved combining wiring in parallel circuits with high-resistance filaments in his bulbs, two things that were not considered possible. 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.

ICE CUBES

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.

If you take another cube (e.g., 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 and insert the mirrors 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.

NASA 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 shower-head on an arrangement of adjustable rods. While manipulating the shower-head, 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. Blending the Hubble telescope and the shower-head in the same mental space simultaneously 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.” Crocker solved it by thinking unconventionally by forcing connections between two remotely different subjects.

Look at the following illustration A of the rectangle and circle. Both are separate entities. Now look at the extraordinary effect they have when blended together in illustration B. 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.

SQUARE.AND.CIRCLE

Combining a rectangle with the circle changed our perception of the two figures into something extraordinary. In the same way, combining information in novel ways increases your perceptual possibilities to create something original.

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 Valery, is quoted by Jacques Hadamard in Jacque Hadamard: a universal mathematician by T.O. Shaposhnikova as saying “It takes two to invent anything. The one makes up combinations; the other chooses, recognizes what he wishes and what is important to him in the mass of things which the former has imparted to him.” Valery related that when he writes poetry, he uses two thinking strategies to invent something new in writing poetry. With one strategy, he would make up combinations; and with the other, he would choose what is important.

Think for a moment about a pinecone. What relationship does a pinecone have with 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.

Just as conceptual blending allows information to intermingle in the mind of the individual, when people swap thoughts with others from different fields, it 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. 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.

A SURREAL IDEA

surreal

André Breton was a French writer and poet. He is known best as the founder of surrealism. The surrealists sought to overthrow the oppressive rules of society by demolishing its backbone of rational thought. To do so, they attempted to tap into the “superior reality” of the subconscious mind. “Completely against the tide,” said Breton, “in a violent reaction against the impoverishment and sterility of thought processes that resulted from centuries of rationalism, we turned toward the marvelous and advocated it unconditionally.” 

Many of the tenets of surrealism included an emphasis on the actual functioning of thought…in the absence of any control exercised by reason. They created many exercises designed to probe the subconscious by getting the minds to be as passive and receptive as possible. 

One day I had a long discussion with a friend about the Japanese whaling industry and their illegal poaching practices. After the discussion, I decided to experiment with one of Andre Breton’s surrealist exercises. The exercise has 3 small, grid like areas and one large grid on a sheet of paper.  

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The first rule of the exercise was to always forget your genius, talents, as well as the genius and talents of others. Try not to think about what you are doing—just let your automatic functions take over, letting them proceed as they wish. Your final solution will not come from your normal way of solving problems, but from a deeper, more intuitive impulse. So whatever happens, let it happen. The guidelines are:

  • Think of a problem. Don’t dwell on it and dismiss it from your thoughts. Look at the design below with the grids.
  • Use the 3 small grids at the top to create an image in the spirit of your unconscious. Try not to think of what you’re doing…just let your automatic functions take over, letting them proceed as they wish.
  • Then with the large grid on the bottom revert to your usual way of thinking and impose your will to create whatever imagery, abstract or literal you wish.

My problem was how to control the illegal whale harvesting by the Japanese whalers. In the small grids I drew one squiggle that looked like a human skull, one that looked like quotation markets and one that looked like a rose. In the large grid I drew a stick figure of a man with two profiles: one looking left and one looking right.

I pondered over my drawings for a long time. The skull reminded me of a pirate’s black flag; the quotation marks reminded me of a quote “The opposite of a profound truth is another truth; and the rose reminded me of the roses I give my wife to celebrate our union as husband and wife. The stick figure in the large grid reminded me of the ambiguity in all aspects of life e.g., no one is all good or all evil.

These images combined and recombined in my imagination and inspired the thought of one way of fighting an illegal activity is to use an illegal enforcement activity. The pirate’s flag reminded me of the Somalian pirate ships off the coast of Africa. The rose got me thinking of combining two illegal activities. The stick figure made me think of looking the other way when something illegal is accomplishing something good.

My final idea all this inspired is to make it legal for the Somali pirates to hijack illegal Japanese Whalers and hold them for ransom.

Now it’s your turn to give it a try.

ARE YOU COGNITIVELY LAZY?

thinking

We have not been taught how to think for ourselves, we have been taught what to think based on what past thinkers thought. We are taught to think reproductively, not productively. What most people call thinking is simply reproducing what others have done in the past. We have been trained to seek out the neural path of least resistance, searching out responses that have worked in the past, rather than approach a problem on its own terms.

Educators discourage us from looking for alternatives to prevailing wisdom. When confronted with a problem, we are taught to analytically select the most promising approach based on past history, excluding all other approaches and then to work logically within a carefully defined direction towards a solution. Instead of being taught to look for possibilities, we are taught to look for ways to exclude them. This kind of thinking is dehumanizing and naturalizes intellectual laziness which promotes an impulse toward doing whatever is easiest or doing nothing at all. It’s as if we entered school as a question mark and graduated as a period.

Once when I was a young student, I was asked by my teacher, “What is one-half of thirteen?” I answered six and one half or 6.5. However, I exclaimed there are many different ways to express thirteen and many different to halve something. For example, you can spell thirteen, then halve it (e.g., thir/teen). Now half of thirteen becomes four (four letters in each half). Or, you can express it numerically as 13, and now halving 1/3 gives you 1 and 3. Another way to express a 13 is to express it in Roman numerals as XIII and now halving XI/II gives you XI and II, or eleven and two. Consequently one-half of thirteen is now eleven and two. Or you can even take XIII, divide it horizontally in two (XIII) and half of thirteen becomes VIII or 8.

My teacher scolded me for being silly and wasting the class’s time by playing games. She said there is only one right answer to the question about thirteen. It is six and one-half or 6.5. All others are wrong. I’ll never forget what she said “When I ask you a question, answer it the way you were taught or say you don’t know. If you want to get a passing grade, stop making stuff up.”

When we learn something, we are taught to program it into our brain and stop thinking about or looking for alternatives. Over time these programs become stronger and stronger, not only cognitively but physiologically as well. To get a sense of how strong these programs are, try solving the following problem.

Even when we actively seek information to test our ideas to see if we are right, we usually ignore paths that might lead us to discover alternatives. Following is an interesting experiment, which was originally conducted by the British psychologist Peter Wason that demonstrates this attitude. Wason would present subjects with the following triad of three numbers in sequence.

2       4       6

He would then ask subjects to write other examples of triads that follow the number rule and explain the number rule for the sequence. The subjects could ask as many questions as they wished without penalty.

He found that almost invariably most people will initially say, “4, 6, 8,” or “20, 22, 24,” or some similar sequence. And Watson would say, yes, that is an example of a number rule. Then they will say, “32, 34, 36″ or “50, 52, 54″ and so on– all numbers increasing by two. After a few tries, and getting affirmative answers each time, they are confident that the rule is numbers increasing by two without exploring alternative possibilities.

Actually, the rule Wason was looking for is much simpler– it’s simply numbers increasing. They could be 1, 2, 3 or 10, 20, 40 or 400, 678, 10,944. And testing such an alternative would be easy. All the subjects had to say was 1, 2, 3 to Watson to test it and it would be affirmed. Or, for example, a subject could throw out any series of numbers, for example, 5, 4, and 3 to see if they got a positive or negative answer. And that information would tell them a lot about whether their guess about the rule is true.

The profound discovery Wason made was that most people process the same information over and over until proven wrong, without searching for alternatives, even when there is no penalty for asking questions that give them a negative answer. In his hundreds of experiments, he, incredibly, never had an instance in which someone spontaneously offered an alternative hypothesis to find out if it were true. In short, his subjects didn’t even try to find out if there is a simpler or even, another, rule.

On the other hand, creative thinkers have a vivid awareness of the world around them and when they think, they seek to include rather than exclude alternatives and possibilities. They have a “lantern awareness” that brings the whole environment to the forefront of their attention. So, by the way, do children before they are educated. This kind of awareness is how you feel when you visit a foreign country; you focus less on particulars and experience everything more globally because so much is unfamiliar.

I am reminded of a story about a student who protested when his answer was marked wrong on a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen. The imaginative student was purportedly Niels Bohr who years later was co-winner of the Nobel Prize for physics.

In answer to the question, “How could you measure the height of a skyscraper using a barometer?” he was expected to explain that the barometric pressures at the top and the bottom of the building are different, and by calculating, he could determine the building’s height. Instead, he answered, “You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building.

This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that the student was failed immediately. The student appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case.

The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics. To resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer that showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.

For five minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought. The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn’t make up his mind which to use. On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:

“Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t squared. But bad luck on the barometer.”

“Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper’s shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper.”

“But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T =2 pi sqr root (I /9).”

“Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up.”

“If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building.”

“But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor’s door and say to him ‘If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this skyscraper’.”

The obvious moral here is that education should not consist merely of stuffing students’ heads full of information and formulae to be memorized by rote and regurgitated upon demand, but of teaching students how to think and solve problems using whatever tools are available. In the mangled words of a familiar phrase, students should be educated in a way that enables them to figure out their own ways of catching fish, not simply taught a specific method of fishing.

Read Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius