A Special Operations officer, told me a story about a Special Forces soldier who was captured by the North Vietnamese during the Viet Nam war. There was a bounty for the heads of all Special Forces personnel who participated in operation Phoenix at the time and the soldier figured his life was over. He was […]
Peter Cathcart Wason was a cognitive psychologist at University College, London who pioneered the Psychology of Reasoning. He progressed explanations as to why people make certain consistent mistakes in logical reasoning. The problem described below is a variation on the Wason selection task that was devised by Peter Wason. The Wason selection task was originally developed as a test of logical reasoning, but it has increasingly been used by psychologists to analyze the structure of human reasoning mechanisms.
Consider the following problem. Four cards are laid out with their faces displaying respectively, an A, a B, a 4 and a 7.
A B 4 7
You are told that each card has a letter on one side and a number on the other. You are then given a rule, whose truth you are expected to evaluate. The rule is: “If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other.” You are then allowed to turn over two, but only two, cards in order to determine whether the rule is correct as stated.
Which two cards do you turn over?
If you worked this problem silently, you will almost certainly miss it, as have the large percentage of subjects to whom it has been presented. Most subjects realize that there is no need to select the card bearing the consonant, since it is irrelevant to the rule; they also appreciate that it is essential to turn over the card with the vowel, for an odd number opposite would prove the rule incorrect.
The wording of the problem determines the perspective most people mentally default to almost immediately. Most people assume that the object is to examine the cards to ascertain that if a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other; and if a card has an even number on one side, then it has a vowel on the other side. This assumption leads them to make the fatal error of picking the card with the even number, because the even number is mentioned in the rule. But, in fact, it is irrelevant whether there is a vowel or a consonant on the other side, since the rule does not take a stand on what must be opposite to even numbers.
On the other hand, it is essential to pick the card with the odd number on it. If that card has a consonant on it, the result is irrelevant. If, however, the card has a vowel on it, the rule in question has been proved incorrect, for the card must (according to the rule) have an even (and not an odd) number on it.
The content of this specific problem influenced the way we constructed our perception of the problem. This perception created the assumption that leads to error. This should give one pause about mentally defaulting to first impressions. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote in his notebooks that one should always assume that your first impression of a problem is usually biased toward your usual way of thinking. He suggested looking at your problem in at least three different ways to get a better understanding.
“If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other.” Here we are working with letters and numbers. Transposing the words to read “If a card has an even number on one side, then……….” Clarifies the problem and gives us a different perspective on even numbered cards. It becomes apparent that what even numbered cards have on the other side has no significance. The rule is only concerned with cards that have vowels on one side.
Sigmund Freud would “reframe” something to transform its meaning by putting it into a different framework or context than it has previously been perceived. For example, by reframing the “unconscious” as a part of him that was “infantile,” Freud began to help his patients change the way they thought and reacted to their own behavior.
The important thing is not to persist with one way of looking at the problem. Consider the following interesting twist, again using four cards. This time, however, we reframe the problem by substituting journeys and modes of transportation for letters and numbers. Each card has a city on one side and a mode of transportation on the other.
LOS ANGELES NEW YORK AIRPLANE CAR
This time, the cards have printed on them the legends, respectively, Los Angeles, New York, airplane, and car; and the rule is reframed to read: “Every time I go to Los Angeles, I travel by airplane. While this rule is identical to the number-letter version, it poses little difficulty for individuals. In fact, now 80 percent of subjects immediately realize the need to turn over the card with “car” on it.
Apparently, one realizes that if the card with “car” on it has the name “Los Angeles” on the back, the rule has been proved incorrect; whereas it is immaterial what it says on the back of the airplane since, as far as the rule is concerned, one can go to New York any way one wants.
Why is it that 80 percent of subjects get this problem right, whereas only 10 percent know which cards to turn over in the vowel-number version? By changing the content (cities and modes of transportation substituted for letters and numbers), we restructured the problem, which dramatically changed our reasoning. The structure of a problem colors our perspective and the way we think.
The significant point about this test is that we are incredibly bad at it. And it doesn’t make much difference what the level of education is of the person taking the test. Moreover, even training in formal logic seems to make little difference to a person’s performance. The mistake that we tend to make is fairly standard. People almost always recognize that they have to pick up the card with the vowel, but they fail to see that they also have to pick up the card with the odd number. They think instead that they have to pick up the card with the even number.
One of the most interesting things about this phenomenon is that even when the correct answer is pointed out, people feel resistance to it. It apparently feels “right” that the card with the even number should be picked up. It feels right because your initial perspective is biased toward the usual way of thinking. It is only when you look at it from different perspectives that you get a deeper understanding of the problem.
How Do You Know?
(*-*) AAA (00) I 000000 I ^–^ I – – _ – – _ I
Look at the six designs above. Assign a label to each of them by selecting one of the following words: “Indians,” “piggy nose,” “shy kitty,” “woman,” “sleeper,” and “bathroom.”
Now that you’ve assigned labels to the designs, ask yourself: “Why is this so easy to do?” For example, if you labeled AAA as “Indians,” then how does an Indian village with its ponies, tents, campfires, etc. fit so comfortably into three letters? The symbols have no meaning. We give them meaning by how we choose to interpret them. You have the freedom to select any meaning for any experience instead of being a victim who must assign one and only one meaning to each experience.
We automatically interpret all of our experiences without realizing it. Are they good experiences, bad ones, what do they mean and so on? We do this without much thought, if any, to what the interpretations mean. For instance, if a woman bumps into you, you wonder why. The event of her bumping into you is neutral in itself. It has no meaning. It’s your interpretation of the bumping that gives it meaning, and this meaning shapes your perception of the experience.
You may interpret the “bump” as rude or deliberately aggressive behavior. Or you may feel you are of such little significance that you are deliberately unnoticed and bumped around by others. You may choose to use the experience as an example of feminist aggression, or you may interpret the bump as her way of flirting with you. Your interpretation of the experience determines your perception.
Think of roses and thorns. You can complain because roses have thorns, or you can rejoice because thorns have roses. You can choose to interpret experiences any way you wish. It is not the experience that determines who you are; it is your interpretation of the experience. You do not see things as they are; you see them as you are.
Once upon a time, two explorers came upon a spectacular, perfectly tended garden of vegetables in the middle of jungle. One explorer says, “What a beautiful garden. It looks so perfect. Surely, a gardener must tend this garden.”
The other explorer disagrees, “There is no way a gardener can tend this garden. It is in the middle of the jungle, hundreds of miles from civilization. There is so sign of human life anywhere. Surely, it is some kind of natural phenomenon.”
After much arguing, they agree to set up camp and watch for someone to show up and tend the garden. They stay for months but nobody shows up.
“See,” said the Doubter. “There is no gardener, for surely he would have appeared by now to tend the garden, which is still perfect. It must be a random creation of nature.”
The Believer argued, “No, there must be a gardener. He may be invisible, intangible, and eternally elusive to our understanding. But it is not possible for such a beautiful, well tended garden to exist in the middle of the jungle without being tended. The garden, itself, is proof of the existence of the gardener, and I have faith that the gardener will return to tend his garden.”
Both the Believer and Doubter interpreted the garden differently, and these two different interpretations led to two different beliefs. When you believe something, you have the feeling that you chose to believe, or to not believe, based on reason and rational thinking. But this is not so, your beliefs are shaped by the way you interpret your experiences.
How you interpret experiences also helps determine how you feel. While researching happiness and well-being, Professor Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University discovered that when he asked college students if they were happy, most said yes. However, if he first asked how many dates they had in the last month and then asked if they were happy, most said no. Their interpretation of the questions determined how they felt.
Your theory about the world is deduced from your interpretations and beliefs. That theory then determines what you observe in the world. At one time, ancient astronomers believed that the heavens were eternal and made of ether. Their theory made it impossible for them to observe meteors as burning stones from outer space. Although the ancients witnessed meteor showers and found some on the ground, they couldn’t recognize them as meteors from outer space. They only sought out and observed only those things that confirmed their theory about the heavens.
We are like the ancient astronomers and actively seek only the information that confirms our beliefs and theories about ourselves and the world. Religious people see evidence of God’s handiwork everywhere; whereas atheists see evidence that there is no God anywhere. Conservatives see the evils of liberalism everywhere and liberals see the evils of conservatism everywhere. Likewise, people who believe they are creative see evidence of their creativity everywhere, and people who do not believe they are creative see evidence everywhere that confirms their negative belief. That which does not conform to our theories makes us feel uncomfortable and confused. I’m reminded of a story told to me by “Black Cloud,” my Lakota Sioux good friend, who heard the story from his grandfather.An old Sioux warrior had eight magnificent horses. One night, during a great storm, they all escaped. The other warriors came to comfort him. They said, “How unlucky you are. You must be very angry to have lost your horses.”
“Why?” replied the warrior.
“Because you have lost all your wealth. Now you have nothing,” they responded.
“How do you know?” He said.
The next day the eight horses returned bringing with them twelve new stallions. The warriors returned and joyously announced that now the old warrior must be very happy.
“Why?” was his response.
“Because now you are even richer than before,” They responded.
“How do you know?” He again responded.
The following morning, the warrior’s young son got up early to break in the new horses. He was thrown and broke both his legs. The warriors came once more, and talked with the old warrior about how angry he must be at his misfortune and how terrible it was for his son to break both legs.
“How do you know?” The warrior said once more.
Two weeks passed. Then the chief announced that all able-bodied men and boys must join a war party to fight against a neighboring tribe. The Lakotas won but at great cost as many men and young boys were killed. When the remaining warriors returned, they told the old warrior that it was lucky his son had two broken legs, otherwise he could have been killed or injured in the great battle.”
“How do you know?” He said.
When people use their imagination to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of those existing categories and concepts. This is true for scientists, artists, inventors, politicians and business people. Consider the following accident which was reported in The American Railroad Journal in 1835:
“As a train was approaching the depot at Paterson, an axle of the leading car gave way, which overturned that and the following two cars. None of the passengers were injured, though they felt the shock of the concussion. Mr. Speer, the conductor, a very industrious and sober man, was seated on the car at the break, and unfortunately was crushed to death under the load.”
Mr. Speer was the only casualty. What factors contributed to his untimely death? Certainly there was the immediate cause — the breaking of the axle and the overturning of the cars — but there is a more subtle cause as well. Note that Mr. Speer was riding on the car, not in it, and that none of the passengers, who were inside, was hurt. Why was he not in the car? What in the world was he doing on top of the car? Speer’s death was the result of a design flaw that required conductors to ride on the outside of cars.
This flaw is an example of the phenomenon of structured imagination. Early designs for railway cars were heavily influenced by the properties of the stagecoach, the most common vehicle of the day. The first railway cars were little more than stagecoaches with wheels on tracks, with no central aisle and designed so that conductors had to ride outside on running boards. The idea of a central aisle was considered odd and even unsanitary, based on the notion that it would become one long spittoon. Finally, as was true of stagecoaches, the brakes were located on the outside and were operated by the conductor who was seated on the top front of the car.
What this suggests is that even highly creative individuals and the ideas they develop are susceptible to the constraining influences of structured imagination. Their idea of a design for a railway car was heavily influenced by what they knew, understood, and were most familiar with — the stagecoach.
In genius, there is a tolerance for unpredictable avenues of thought. The result of unpredictable thinking may be just what is needed to shift the context and lead to a new perspective. When you come up with crazy or fantastical ideas, you step outside your cone of expectations — which is what happened to a manufacturer of dinner plates who had a problem with packaging. The plates were wrapped in old newspapers and packed in boxes. Every packer would eventually slow down to read the papers and look at the pictures. Most employees would drop to about 30 percent efficiency after a few weeks on the job.
The manufacturer tried using other material for packing, but that proved too expensive; the newspapers had been free. They tried using newspapers in different languages, but these were hard to obtain. They even offered incentives to workers to increase the number of plates wrapped, but without great success. Finally, one day in a meeting an exasperated supervisor said they should tape the workers’ eyes shut so they couldn’t read. This absurd comment created a lot of laughter as the others joked about his comment. But the supervisor had an “Aha!” moment: he got the idea to hire blind people to do the packing. The company not only greatly increased its packing efficiency but also received tax benefits for hiring the disabled.
A way to break up your rigidity of thinking is to deliberately explore the absurd and unusual. This gives you the freedom from design or commitment and allows you to juxtapose things which would not otherwise have been arranged in this way and to construct a sequence of events which would not otherwise have been constructed.
Suppose, for example, you want to improve morale in your company. You would first list several odd, unusual or absurd ideas about the problem.
Absurd Ideas: Allow people to stay at home and attend to household and landscape needs with full pay. E.g., three hours to mow a law, one week to paint a room, two weeks to repair a roof, four hours to repair a fence, and so on.
Extract the principle and build it into a practical idea. Paying people to stay home involves the principle of working on homes and landscapes. IDEA: Offer employees the services of a handyman as a benefit. Employee pays for materials; employer employs and pays the handyman to fix sinks, hang wallpaper, and so on.
Suppose you want to control the illegal whale harvesting by the Japanese whalers.
Crazy Idea: The Coast Guard boards and captures whalers. The whalers are then ransomed back to their Japanese owners. This would make the activity unprofitable, but it is also unlawful. We would become pirates.
Practical Idea: Pirating reminds us of the Somalian pirate ships off the coast of Africa. This inspired the thought of one way of fighting an illegal activity is to use an illegal enforcement activity. The final idea all this inspired is to make it a legal exemption for the Somali pirates and allow them to hijack illegal Japanese Whalers anywhere on the oceans and hold them for ransom.
Using criminals to help fight crime is an interesting thought that has led to other innovative solutions. A city was infested with drug activities and the police were overwhelmed. One workshop team came up with the crazy idea of treating drug dealers like entrepreneurs. One entrepreneurial idea was to assist drug dealers increase their profit by helping them eliminate their competitors. Poster were printed and posted around the city. The posters were titled “Attention Drug Dealers: Is Your Competition Costing You Money? We offer a free service to help you eliminate your drug competition!” All the would-be clients need to do is jot down on the poster the names, addresses and dealing habits of their business rivals and mail it to the police station.
Creative-thinking techniques break up your conventional thinking patterns which stimulate new thinking patterns that lead to new ideas and concepts that you cannot get using your usual way of thinking.
We are trained to think reproductively, logically and exclusively. By thinking reproductively I mean that whenever we are confronted with a problem we fixate on our past experiences, then analytically select the most logical approach and apply that to the problem, excluding all other lines of thought.
Correct this formula with a single stroke 5 + 5 + 5 = 550.
Many of us have difficulty with this problem because of our past experiences of arithmetic and arithmetical formulas. We were taught how to handle problems and new phenomena with fixed mental mindsets (based on what past thinkers thought) that predetermine our response to problems or situations. We are also taught to be exclusive thinkers and to disregard everything that is not immediately related to the way we were taught to handle arithmetical problems. This kind of thinking will keep you focused on the wrong items in the formula and make it impossible to solve the problem.
This problem can only be solved by approaching the problem on its own terms and by thinking inclusively with an open mind. By thinking inclusively, I mean you consider all approaches to the problem and consider all the elements in the problem. It is only when we start thinking inclusively that we start tinkering with everything in the formula including the symbols. You take the first addition symbol + and with one single diagonal stroke change it into a 4. Now 5 + 5 + 5 = 550 becomes 5 4 5 + 5 = 550.
I first became interested in Charles Darwin in college when I read about his thinking process that created his theory of biological evolution. When Charles Darwin returned to England after he visited the Galapagos, he distributed his finch specimens to professional zoologists to be properly identified. One of the most distinguished experts was John Gould. What was the most revealing was not what happened to Darwin, but what had not happened to Gould.
Darwin’s notes show Gould taking him through all the birds he has named. Gould kept flip-flopping back and forth about the number of different species of finches: the information was there, but he didn’t quite know what to make of it. He assumed that since God made one set of birds when he created the world, the specimens from different locations would be identical. It didn’t occur to him to look for differences by location. Gould thought that the birds were so different that they might be distinct species.
What was remarkable to me about the encounter is the completely different impact it had on the two men. Gould thought the way he had been taught to think, like an expert taxonomist, and didn’t see, in the finches, the textbook example of evolution unfolding right before him. Darwin didn’t even know they were finches. So the guy who had the intelligence, knowledge and the expertise didn’t see it, and the guy with far less knowledge and expertise comes up with an idea that shaped the way we think about the world.
Darwin came up with the idea because he was an inclusive thinker. He generated a multiplicity of perspectives and theories. Gould would compare new ideas and theories with his existing patterns of experience. He thought reproductively and exclusively. If the ideas didn’t fit with what he had been taught, he rejected them as worthless. On the other hand, Darwin was willing to disregard what past thinkers thought and was willing to entertain different perspectives and different theories to see where they would lead.
Most of us are educated to think like John Gould. We were all born as spontaneous, creative thinkers. Yet a great deal of our education may be regarded as the inculcation of mindsets. We were taught how to handle problems and new phenomena with fixed mental attitudes (based on what past thinkers thought) that predetermine our response to problems or situations. In short, we were taught more “what” to think instead of “how” to think. We entered school as a question mark and graduated as a period.
Consequently, we tend to process information the same way over and over again instead of searching for alternative ways. Once we think we know what works or can be done, it becomes hard for us to consider alternative ideas. We tend to develop narrow ideas and stick with them until proven wrong. Let’s say to advertise our product, we use television commercials during a popular prime time sitcom. We are fairly happy with the results and the television campaign seems to work. Are we going to check out other ideas that we don’t think will be as good or better? Are we likely to explore alternative ways to advertise our product? Probably not.
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 Watson, that demonstrates this attitude. Watson would present subjects with the following three numbers in sequence.
2 4 6
He would then ask subjects to explain the number rule for the sequence and to give other examples of the rule. 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 some similar sequence. And Watson would say, yes, that is an example of a number rule. Then they will say, “20, 22, 24″ 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 Watson 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 Watson 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 hypotheses 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.
Creative geniuses don’t think this way. The creative genius will always look for alternative ways to think about a subject. Even when the old ways are well established, the genius will invent new ways of thinking. If something doesn’t work, they look at it several different ways until they find a new line of thought. It is this willingness to entertain different perspectives and alternative ideas that broadens their thinking and opens them up to new information and the new possibilities that the rest of us don’t see.
As I wrote these final 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 were out of order and that you had forgotten how to see. So I remained here until once more you could see what was always right before your eyes.”
At one time in history, the Swiss dominated the watch industry. The Swiss themselves invented the electronic watch movement at their research institute in Neuchatel, Switzerland. It was rejected by every Swiss watch manufacturer. Based on their past experiences in the industry, they believed this couldn’t possibly be the watch of the future. After all, it was battery powered, did not have bearings or a mainspring and almost no gears. Seiko took one look at this invention that the Swiss manufacturers rejected and took over the world watch market.
You no doubt have noticed that the biggest innovative breakthroughs seem always to be made by people who have far less information and know less than the experts in the field. Einstein, for example, was by no means the most knowledgeable theoretical physicist of the 20th century. He often displayed a profound ignorance about certain aspects of his field. In contrast, many of his contemporaries had acquired much more information, gone to better schools, had better teachers, only to find they were unable to offer the world one single innovative idea.
Why is it that people who know more, see less? Consciously or unconsciously, we are anchored to our first impressions unless we actively change the way we look at the subject. Chester Carlson invented xerography in 1938. He tried to sell his electronic copier to every major corporation in the U.S. and was turned down emphatically by every single one. Because carbon paper was so cheap and plentiful no one, they said, would buy an expensive copy machine. Their thinking process was anchored by their initial impression of the cost of a copier versus the cost of carbon paper. This impression closed off all other lines of thought. It was Xerox, a new corporation that changed the perception of cost by leasing the machines.
Apple Computer Inc. founder, Steve Jobs, attempted, without success, to get Atari and Hewlett-Packard interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer. As Steve recounts, “So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And their experts laughed and said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You’re a college dropout. Go back and get your degree.”
What is it that freezes the expert’s thought and makes it difficult to consider new things that deviate from their theories? The figure below illustrates a series of progressively modified drawings that change almost imperceptibly from a man into a woman.
When test subjects are shown the entire series of drawings one by one, their perception of this intermediate drawing is biased according to which end of the series they started from. Test subjects who start by viewing a picture that is clearly a man are biased in favor of continuing to see a man long after an “objective observer” (an observer who has seen only a single picture) recognizes that the man is now a woman. Similarly, test subjects who start at the woman end of the series are biased in favor of continuing to see a woman.
Once an observer has formed an image–that is, once he or she has developed an expectation concerning the subject being observed–this influences future perceptions of the subject. Similarly, people who have a lot of experience in a particular field develop hypotheses about what is possible and what is not. This hypothesis biases their judgement about new ideas. Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., thought the idea of a personal computer absurd, as he said, “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, was ridiculed by every scientist for his revolutionary liquid-fueled rockets. Even the New York Times chimed in with an editorial in 1921 by scientists who claimed that Goddard lacked even the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high school science classes. Pierre Pachet a renowned physiology professor and expert declared, “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.”
If we experience any strain in imagining a possibility, we quickly conclude it’s impossible. This principle also helps explain why evolutionary change often goes unnoticed by the expert. The greater the commitment of the expert to their established view, the more difficult it is for the expert to do anything more than to continue repeating their established view. It also explains the phenomenon of a beginner who comes up with the breakthrough insight or idea that was overlooked by the experts who worked on the same problem for years.
Think, for a moment, about Federal Express and its founder, Fred Smith. The US Postal Service, UPS and the airline industry tried to come up with an overnight delivery system for packages. They all decided it was not possible to do profitably. This solidified, over many years, into the established view. Fred Smith, an outlier, ignored the establishment and created an overnight system based on the hub and wheel concept for moving money and information. Still, every delivery expert in the U.S. doomed Federal Express to failure because they said people will not pay a fancy price for speed and reliability. Fred smiled and said what they are willing to pay for is “peace of mind.” FedEx has become the model for delivery systems all over the world.
If you survey the history of science, it is apparent that most individuals who have created radical innovations did not do so simply because they knew more than others. Charles Darwin is a good case in point. He came back from the Beagle voyage and displayed his famous Galapagos specimens in London. Within six months of his return, most of the top naturalists in Britain had seen Darwin’s Galapagos finches and reptiles, and hence the crucial evidence that converted Darwin to evolution (and that we now consider the textbook case of evolution in action). None saw the connections.
John Gould, who was one of the greatest ornithologists of the nineteenth century, knew far more about Darwin’s Galapagos birds than Darwin did. Gould corrected numerous mistakes that Darwin had made during the Beagle voyage, including showing Darwin that a warbler was, in fact, a warbler finch and other birds that Darwin had not recognized as being part of the same finch family. Darwin was stunned by this and other crucial information that he received from Gould in March of 1837, and Darwin immediately became an evolutionist.
The strange thing is that Gould did not. He remained a creationist even after The Origin of Species was published. Hence the man who knew more saw less, and the man who knew less saw more. This is a classic example of the expert (John Gould) looking at nature for years and not being able to make the connections because of his long held hypothesis. Whereas Darwin, looking at nature with no hypothesis, made the connection immediately.
Consequently, Charles Darwin who knew less saw more than John Gould who knew more but saw less.
If one particular thinking strategy stands out about creative genius, it is the ability to make juxtapositions that elude mere mortals. Call it a facility to connect the unconnected that enables them to see relationships to which others are blind. They set their imagination in motion by using unrelated stimuli and forcing connections with their subject.
Leonardo Da Vinci discovered that the human brain cannot deliberately concentrate on two separate objects or ideas, no matter how dissimilar, without eventually forming a connection between them. No two inputs can remain separate in your mind no matter how remote they are from each other.
In tetherball, a ball is fastened to a slender cord suspended from the top of a pole. Players bat the ball around the pole, attempting to wind its cord around the pole above a certain point. Obviously, a tethered ball on a long string is able to move in many different directions, but it cannot get away from the pole. If you whack at it long enough, eventually you will wind the cord around the pole. This is a closed system. Like the tetherball, if you focus on two subjects for a period of time, you will see relationships and connections that will trigger new ideas and thoughts that you cannot get using your usual way of thinking.
Da Vinci’s knack to make remote connections was certainly at the basis of Leonardo’s genius to form analogies between totally different systems. He associated the movement of water with the movement of human hair, thus becoming the first person to illustrate in extraordinary detail the many invisible subtleties of water in motion. His observations led to the discovery of a fact of nature which came to be called the Law of Continuity. 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.
Conceptual blending is central to human thought and imagination, and evidence of this can be found in human language, art, science, industry and in a wide range of human activities. Think about the connections, if any, between a beehive and de-icing power lines during ice storms. How can a beehive be the clue to a solution? Engineers working for a power company in the northwest were struggling with the problem of how to de-ice power lines during ice storms so they don’t collapse from the weight of the ice.
The conventional approaches to the problem were proving to be very expensive and inefficient. It is not possible to think unpredictably by looking harder and longer in the same direction. When your attention is focused on a subject, a few patterns are highly activated in your brain and dominate your thinking. These patterns produce only predictable ideas no matter how hard you try. In fact, the harder you try, the stronger the same patterns become. If, however, you change your focus and think about something that is not related, different, unusual patterns are activated. If one of these newer patterns relates to one of the first patterns, a connection will be made. This connection will lead to the discovery of an original idea or thought. This is what some people call “divine” inspiration.
This is what the engineers did. Using a technique from my book Thinkertoys on how to find and force connections between a challenge and random stimuli, they randomly picked the subject “Beehives.” Then they listed a variety of things that are associated with beehives and listed them. Included were
Bees colonize and live in beehives.
Beehives are used to store honey and pollen.
Honey is a sweet food.
Ancient Egyptians used honey to embalm corpses.
Beehives are a favorite food of bears.
Bears will climb trees to get the hive or shake the tree to make it fall. Vibrations make them fall. Bees communicate with each other with vibrating wings. The associations with beehives and vibrating wings and bears vibrating trees got them all interested in the principle of vibrational motion as the answer. Vibrate the ice off the power lines. But how?
How can we use vibration to help solve the problem? In addition, bears retrieve beehives by shaking trees or by climbing them. Shaking would cause the power lines to vibrate and shake off the ice. A bear climbing a power pole would shake the pole and vibrate power lines as well. Vibration became the principle they focused on. How can they vibrate the power lines economically? One engineer remarked that bees can hover like helicopters. That reminded him of the powerful downwash from a helicopter’s blades. The answer is to hover choppers over the lines and the downwash will vibrate the ice off the lines. This proved to be the most efficient and economical solution to the problem.
George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, wanted to improve the ordinary zipper. He looked for a better and easier way to fasten things. George’s thinking was inclusive as he was always trying to connect all sorts of things with the “essence of fastening” (e.g., how do windows fasten, how does a bird fasten its nest to a branch, how do wasps fasten their hives, how do mountain climbers fasten themselves to the mountain and so on). 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 analogical-metaphorical 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. 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 – 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 counts, 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 dog bites a man” is not the same as “Dog a man bites.” Likewise, an original idea is not the sum of combined thoughts but depends on how they are integrated together.
De Mestral’s thinking 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. Velcro is not a burr + a zipper. It is a blend of the two into an original idea.
Perception and pattern recognition are major components of creative thinking. Russian scientist, Mikhail Bongard, created a remarkable set of visual pattern recognition problems where two classes of figures are presented and you are asked to identify the conceptual difference between them. Try the following patterns and see how you do.
Below is a classic example of a Bongard 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 think the way de Mestral thought when he created Velcro. One must 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 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 distracters. 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, Xs 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, Xs, circles or other easily recognizable structures for which we have clear structures. To solve this, you need to perceive subjectively and intuitively to 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.
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 the answer.
ANSWER: The dots in “A” are on the same side of the neck in the illustration. The dots in “B” are on the opposite sides of the neck.