What I Was Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking

Following are twelve things about creative thinking that I learned during my lifetime of work in the field of creative thinking that I wished I had been taught when I was a student but was not.

1.YOU ARE CREATIVE. The artist is not a special person, each one of us is a special kind of artist. Every one of us is born a creative, spontaneous thinker. The only difference between people who are creative and people who are not is a simple belief. Creative people believe they are creative. People who believe they are not creative, are not. Once you have a particular identity and set of beliefs about yourself, you become interested in seeking out the skills needed to express your identity and beliefs. This is why people who believe they are creative become creative. If you believe you are not creative, then there is no need to learn how to become creative and you don’t. The reality is that believing you are not creative excuses you from trying or attempting anything new. When someone tells you that they are not creative, you are talking to someone who has no interest and will make no effort to be a creative thinker.

2.  CREATIVE THINKING IS WORK. You must have passion and the determination to immerse yourself in the process of creating new and different ideas. Then you must have patience to persevere against all adversity. All creative geniuses work passionately hard and produce incredible numbers of ideas, most of which are bad. In fact, more bad poems were written by the major poets than by minor poets. Thomas Edison created 3000 different ideas for lighting systems before he evaluated them for practicality and profitability. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart produced more than six hundred pieces of music, including forty-one symphonies and some forty-odd operas and masses, during his short creative life. Rembrandt produced around 650 paintings and 2,000 drawings and Picasso executed more than 20,000 works. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. Some were masterpieces, while others were no better than his contemporaries could have written, and some were simply bad.

3. YOU MUST GO THROUGH THE MOTIONS. When you are producing ideas, you are replenishing neurotransmitters linked to genes that are being turned on and off in response to what your brain is doing, which in turn is responding to challenges. When you go through the motions of trying to come up with new ideas, you are energizing your brain by increasing the number of contacts between neurons. The more times you try to get ideas, the more active your brain becomes and the more creative you become. If you want to become an artist and all you did was paint a picture every day, you will become an artist. You may not become another Vincent Van Gogh, but you will become more of an artist than someone who has never tried.

4. YOUR BRAIN IS NOT A COMPUTER. Your brain is a dynamic system that evolves its patterns of activity rather than computes them like a computer. It thrives on the creative energy of feedback from experiences real or fictional. You can synthesize experience; literally create it in your own imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an “actual” experience and an experience imagined vividly and in detail. This discovery is what enabled Albert Einstein to create his thought experiments with imaginary scenarios that led to his revolutionary ideas about space and time. One day, for example, he imagined falling in love. Then he imagined meeting the woman he fell in love with two weeks after he fell in love. This led to his theory of acausality. The same process of synthesizing experience allowed Walt Disney to bring his fantasies to life.5.

5. THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT ANSWER. Reality is ambiguous. Aristotle said it is either A or not-A. It cannot be both. The sky is either blue or not blue. This is black and white thinking as the sky is a billion different shades of blue. A beam of light is either a wave or not a wave (A or not-A). Physicists discovered that light can be either a wave or particle depending on the viewpoint of the observer. The only certainty in life is uncertainty. When trying to get ideas, do not censor or evaluate them as they occur. Nothing kills creativity faster than self-censorship of ideas while generating them. Think of all your ideas as possibilities and generate as many as you can before you decide which ones to select. The world is not black or white. It is grey.

6. NEVER STOP WITH YOUR FIRST GOOD IDEA. Always strive to find a better one and continue until you have one that is still better. In 1862, Phillip Reis demonstrated his invention which could transmit music over the wires. He was days away from improving it into a telephone that could transmit speech. Every communication expert in Germany dissuaded him from making improvements, as they said the telegraph is good enough. No one would buy or use a telephone. Ten years later, Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. Spencer Silver developed a new adhesive for 3M that stuck to objects but could easily be lifted off. It was first marketed as a bulletin board adhesive so the boards could be moved easily from place to place. There was no market for it. Silver didn’t discard it. One day Arthur Fry, another 3M employee, was singing in the church’s choir when his page marker fell out of his hymnal. Fry coated his page markers with Silver’s adhesive and discovered the markers stayed in place, yet lifted off without damaging the page. Hence the Post-it Notes were born. Thomas Edison was always trying to spring board from one idea to another in his work. He spring boarded his work from the telephone (sounds transmitted) to the phonograph (sounds recorded) and, finally, to motion pictures (images recorded).

7. EXPECT THE EXPERTS TO BE NEGATIVE. The more expert and specialized a person becomes, the more their mindset becomes narrowed and the more fixated they become on confirming what they believe to be absolute. Consequently, when confronted with new and different ideas, their focus will be on conformity. Does it conform to what I know is right? If not, experts will spend all their time showing and explaining why it can’t be done and why it can’t work. They will not look for ways to make it work or get it done because this might demonstrate that what they regarded as absolute is not absolute at all. This is why when Fred Smith created Federal Express, every delivery expert in the U.S. predicted its certain doom. After all, they said, if this delivery concept was doable, the Post Office or UPS would have done it long ago and this is why the experts at IBM said there were no more than six people on earth who had need of a personal computer. Thomas Edison is quoted as saying “His greatest blessing in life was the lack of a formal education. Had he been educated,” he said “he would have realized that what he accomplished in life was not possible to do.”

8. TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. Don’t allow yourself to get discouraged. Albert Einstein was expelled from school because his attitude had a negative effect on serious students; he failed his university entrance exam and had to attend a trade school for one year before finally being admitted; and was the only one in his graduating class who did not get a teaching position because no professor would recommend him. One professor said Einstein was “the laziest dog” the university ever had. Beethoven’s parents were told he was too stupid to be a music composer. Charles Darwin’s colleagues called him a fool and what he was doing “fool’s experiments” when he worked on his theory of biological evolution. Beethoven’s parents were told he was too stupid to be a music composer. Walt Disney was fired from his first job on a newspaper because “he lacked imagination.” Thomas Edison had only two years of formal schooling, was totally deaf in one ear and was hard of hearing in the other, was fired from his first job as a newsboy and later fired from his job as a telegrapher; and still he became the most famous inventor in the history of the U.S.

9. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS FAILURE. Whenever you try to do something and do not succeed, you do not fail. You have produced a result. It’s what you do with the result that’s important. You have learned something that does not work. Always ask “What have I learned about what doesn’t work?”, “Can this explain something that I didn’t set out to explain?”, and “What have I discovered that I didn’t set out to discover?” Whenever someone tells you that they have never made a mistake, you are talking to someone who has never tried anything new.

Take the first airplane. On Dec. 8, 1903, Samuel Pierpont Langley, a leading government- funded scientist, launched with much fanfare his flying machine on the Potomac. It plummeted into the river. Nine days later, Orville and Wilbur Wright got the first plane off the ground. Why did these bicycle mechanics succeed when a famous scientist failed? Because Langley hired experts to execute his theoretical concepts without going a series of trials and errors.

Studying the Wrights’ diaries, you see that insight and execution are inextricably woven together. Over years, as they solved problems like wing shape and wing warping, they made several mistakes which inspired several adjustments all of which involved a small spark of insight that led to other insights. Their numerous mistakes led to unexpected alternative ways which, in turn, led to the numerous discoveries that made flight possible.

10. YOU DO NOT SEE THINGS AS THEY ARE; YOU SEE THEM AS YOU ARE. Interpret your own experiences. All experiences are neutral. They have no meaning. You give them meaning by the way you choose to interpret them. If you are a priest, you see evidence of God everywhere. If you are an atheist, you see the absence of God everywhere. IBM observed that no one in the world had a personal computer. IBM interpreted this to mean there was no market. College dropouts, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, looked at the same absence of personal computers and saw a massive opportunity. Once Thomas Edison was approached by an assistant while working on the filament for the light bulb. The assistant asked Edison why he didn’t give up. “After all,” he said, “you have failed 5000 times.” Edison looked at him and told him that he didn’t understand what the assistant meant by failure, because, Edison said, “I have discovered 5000 things that don’t work.” You construct your own reality by how you choose to interpret your experiences.

11. ALWAYS APPROACH A PROBLEM ON ITS OWN TERMS. Do not trust your first perspective of a problem as it will be too biased toward your usual way of thinking. Always look at your problem from multiple perspectives. Always remember that genius is finding a perspective no one else has taken. Look for different ways to look at the problem. Write the problem statement several times using different words. Take another role, for example, how would someone else see it, how would your favorite teacher, a physician, an author, a politician, and so on see it? Draw a picture of the problem, make a model, or mold a sculpture. Take a walk and look for things that metaphorically represent the problem and force connections between those things and the problem (How is a broken store window like my communications problem with my students?) Ask your friends and strangers how they see the problem. Ask a child. Ask a grandparent. Imagine you are the problem. When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

12. LEARN TO THINK UNCONVENTIONALLY. Creative geniuses do not think analytically and logically. Conventional, logical, analytical thinkers are exclusive thinkers which means they exclude all information that is not related to the problem. They look for ways to eliminate possibilities. Creative geniuses are inclusive thinkers which mean they look for ways to include everything, including things that are dissimilar and totally unrelated. Generating associations and connections between unrelated or dissimilar subjects is how they provoke different thinking patterns in their brain. These new patterns lead to new connections which give them a different way to focus on the information and different ways to interpret what they are focusing on. This is how original and truly novel ideas are created. Albert Einstein once famously remarked “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

And, finally, Creativity is paradoxical. To create, a person must have knowledge but forget the knowledge, must see unexpected connections in things but not have a mental disorder, must work hard but spend time doing nothing as information incubates, must create many ideas yet most of them are useless, must look at the same thing as everyone else, yet see something different, must desire success but embrace failure, must be persistent but not stubborn, and must listen to experts but know how to disregard them.

(Michael Michalko is the 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)

7 WAYS TO WAKE UP YOUR IMAGINATION

tree

If we toss seeds on hard packed ground the chances of them taking root and producing healthy plants is minimal. However, if we plough and till the ground (that is, mix it up, break it apart, make it “less” solid and more “loose”) the chances of a variety of seeds (both those we purposely sow and those that serendipitously fall) will find a way to grow in the loose soil.

In the same way, if we start a brainstorming session cold with a serious, uptight facilitator throwing out questions and problems to a stiff, conservative group, the chances of producing healthy ideas is minimal. Following are tips on how to loosen up the group to energize their creative thinking.

SYMBOL

Ask participants to draw a personal symbol that metaphorically symbolizes their view about creativity. It can be anything……..an eagle, a compass, a paint brush, the moon, etc. Then each participant displays his or her symbol and explains how or why it represents their view.

SIX WORD BOOKS

A recent book published by Smith Magazine carried the intriguing title, Not  Quite What I was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. This book and similar collections of extremely short prose have been inspired by a six-word novel said to have been written by Ernest Hemingway on a dare. The novel read: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” A six word memoir might read “For sale. Chastity belt. Never worn.” “For sale. Wedding ring. Seldom worn.” A six word description of creative thinking could be: “Last night confused. Slept. Morning. Eureka!”, or “At night all thoughts are gray.” Ask each participant to write a six word book that describes their perspective on creativity.

DIFFERENT WORDS

 An activity to practice getting rid of preconceptions is to create different names for things. For example, “rainbow” might be named “painted rain”. Have the participants create different names for:

  • mountain
  • cloud
  • ocean
  • world
  • painting
  • creative thinking

Next have the participants rename the subject of the meeting with a different name. For example, if the meeting is about office morale, “morale” might be named “a spring flower”, or a “warm hug”, and so on.

As an aside, it’s always a good idea to habitually change the words in your challenge statement several times to get different perspectives. Toyota once posted a sign over their suggestion boxes that read “How can we become more productive?” They got few responses. When the sign was changed to “How can we make our jobs easier?”, they were inundated with ideas.

HEALTH AND HAPPINESS

By thinking and saying positive thoughts about and to others, you gradually can create a positive change not only in the other person, but also in yourself. Psychologists call this restructuring cognitions. An exercise to illustrate this follows.

  • Tell the participants you are going to conduct an experiment.
  • Have the participants count off by twos. Ask the One’s, “How many of you are in a positive mood today? How many of you are in a negative mood?” On the board I record these numbers. Ask the Two’s the same questions and again tally the results on the board.
  • Next, tell the One’s to follow you out of the room. In the hallway, tell them to hang out for a few minutes, to talk to each other, and that you’ll come back to get them.
  • Return to the classroom and say to the Two’s, “I wish you health and happiness”. They usually laugh. I tell them to get up and while shaking the hands of five people in the room and looking them in the eye, say, as earnestly as possible, “I wish you health and happiness.” Usually, they do this with little difficulty, although there is some awkwardness and giggling. Once they finish, have the group all says together, “I wish you health and happiness.”
  • Call the One’s back into the room and again tally the positive and negative moods for both groups. It will become clear that the group that wished others health and happiness is now a much more positive, smiling group; whereas, the group in the hall doesn’t change much if at all. The effect of this little exercise is quite remarkable.

CREATIVE COLLAGES

A collage is an assembly of various pictures, either as wholes or fragments, arranged in such a way that each element loses its separate identity as it becomes part of the collage. The collage is greater than, and often different from, the sum of it’s parts.

When two or more dissimilar images collide in a collage, the imagination transforms them into an altogether new reality transcendent over the separate elements. For example, a picture of  seals performing in a marine show next to a picture of a building may become a metaphor for salespeople performing for customers, a user-friendly computer program, or how to perform for a job interview, and so on. The imagination transforms the picture into a symbol for many different things. The guidelines are:

  • Cut out several pictures or parts of pictures from magazines, newspapers, catalogs, flyers, and so on.
  • Mix and match the pictures by moving them around into different patterns and associations. Play with the pictures until you get a feeling for possible ways to use these patterns. Form patterns and associations without forcing them. Continue until your collage feels complete. Make one large metaphorical picture by assigning a word or phrase to each picture and then completing the sentence,  “My subject is a lot like (insert a word or phrase from the montage) because it—-“.

Think metaphorically and analogically. The R&D staff for a furniture company looked for ways to develop a paint that does not fade, chip, or scratch. They made a collage that included pictures of various trees and plants. The collage triggered a discussion of how trees and plants get their color. Their subsequent research inspired the idea of “everlasting” color. They created the idea of injecting trees with dye additives that impregnates color to the plant cells which spreads the color throughout the tree. The tree is painted before it is cut down.

Another interesting way to collage your subject is to create two separate ones to represent two separate aspects of your subject.  Suppose you want to improve corporate communications. You could create one collage to represent upper management and another one to represent employees. With the two sets of visuals, compare the common points and identify the gaps between upper management and the employees.

CROSS BREEDING

Conceptual inertia is the property of your mind that allows you to resist change. Just as physical objects resist changes in state, ideas resist movement from their current state, and change in direction of their movement. Thus, when people try to create new ideas, those ideas tend to resemble old ideas and new ideas do not move much from the old.

Practice to upset conceptual inertia and get a group’s imagination moving with the “bizarre” activity “Cross Breeding”.  Encourage the group to wildly experiment by cross-breeding plants, objects, and animals. Have three boxes containing slips of paper with random names of “Plants”,  “Objects”, and  “Animals”. A variation is to use objects that are business related such as Xerox machine, product, phone, paperwork, desk, meeting room and so on; and people instead of animals. Each participant takes one of each. Then make hybrids out of two of them.

Examples:

  • bird x supervisor
  • pony x patient
  • customer x door
  • watermelon x therapist
  • key x plant
  • meeting room x ballet dancer

Consider:

  • What does each look like? Draw a picture. Label and post it on a wall.
  • Think. What does each do?
  • What sound does each make?
  • What are the unique strengths of each (at least 3)?
  • What are the unique weaknesses of each (at least 3)?

Finally create an idea about the cross breed strengths. One person cross bred a rose with a key. She thought a strength would be the availability of a key flowering in the garden. This made her think of a rose as the key which triggered the thought of “key chain plants”. A key chain plant is a clear plastic micro-mini case where plants grow in their own individual arboretum until they get too large, at which point they can be transplanted into bigger pots.

USE YOUR IMAGINATION

When we compare problems to something unusual, we tend to have a need to understand it. Consequently, we break it down and analyze the different parts to see if this will allow us to understand it or make it somehow familiar. When this happens, we form new links and relationships that may lead to breakthrough ideas. For example, years back, a group of designers were looking for ideas for a new light fixture. They compared a light fixture with a “monkey” and imagined a monkey running around a house with a light. This thought led them to conceive track lighting. Ask metaphoric questions to stimulate the group’s imagination. For example:

    • What animal is like the problem? Why?
    • A cold, half-eaten pizza is like the solution to the problem because….
    • How is your problem like a flash light battery? How can the similarities spark new ideas?
    • What famous historical figure comes closest to resembling the essence of the problem?
    • What movie comes closest to representing your life? What movie character?
    • Suppose your organization has a communications problem. Metaphoric scenario: Astronauts travel to Mars. While visiting Mars, their perception of events becomes different for each, depending on their prior history. They perceive everything differently. A sequence of events can be anything; quick or slow, orderly or random, causal or without cause, salty or sweet and so on. How can they work together in order to return to earth? What can be learned and applied to real life from the metaphoric scenario?

Suppose your company is thinking about restructuring and reorganizing itself.  Metaphoric scenario: A comet hits the earth and permanently wipes out everyone’s long-term memory, except the people in this room. How do we handle this global situation? How do you reorganize the people on earth? What can be learned and applied to real life from the scenario?

Michael Michalko is a highly-acclaimed creativity expert and author of the best-seller Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Business Creativity), ThinkPak (A Brainstorming Card Deck), Cracking Creativity (The Secrets of Creative Genius), and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. Michael provides keynote speeches, workshops, and seminars on fostering creative thinking for clients who range from Fortune 500 corporations to associations and governmental age.

http://creativethinking.net/#sthash.SXV5T2cu.dpbs

 

WHAT DOGS CAN TEACH YOU

dog

 

If a dog were your teacher

These are some of the lessons you might learn…

 

When loved ones come home, always run to greet them

Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joyride

Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face

to be pure ecstasy

 

When it’s in your best interest

practice obedience

Let others know when they’ve invaded your territory

Take naps and stretch before rising

Run romp and play daily

 

Thrive on attention and let people touch you

Avoid biting, when a simple growl will do

On warm days stop to lie on your back on the grass

On hot days drink lots of water and lay under a shady tree

When you’re happy dance around and wag your entire body

 

No matter how often you’re scolded

don’t buy into the guilt thing and pout

run right back and make friends

 

Delight in the simple joy of a long walk

Eat with gusto and enthusiasm

Stop when you have had enough

Be loyal

Never pretend to be something you’re not

 

If what you want lies buried

dig until you find it

When someone is having a bad day

be silent …..

…sit close by.

 

…and nuzzle them gently.

 

(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)

 

When You Can’t Change Your Circumstances, Change Yourself

RADIATOR

When I was a young boy I was so upset about the presidential election of Harry Truman I told my grandfather that I could not believe how stupid and misguided the voters were. Or, I suggested elections must be rigged as how could a haberdashery clerk possibly defeat an urbane intellectual like John Dewey. It was the end of America.

His grandfather filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to a boil. In the first, he placed carrots, in the second he placed eggs and the last he placed ground coffee beans. He let them sit and boil, without saying a word. In about twenty minutes he turned off the burners. He fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. He pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then he ladled the coffee out into a cup. Turning to the boy, he asked, “Tell me, what do you see?” “Carrots, eggs, and coffee,” the boy replied. Then he asked the boy to feel the carrots, which he did and noted that they were soft and mushy. His grandfather then asked him to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, the boy observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, he asked the boy to sip the coffee. He smiled as he tasted the coffee with its rich aroma. The boy asked, “I don’t understand. What does this mean, if anything?”

His grandfather laughed and explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity–boiling water–but each had reacted differently. “Which are you?” the grandfather asked. “When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity, becomes soft and loses strength? Are you the egg that appears not to change but whose heart is hardened? Or are you the coffee bean that changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the coffee bean, when things are at their worst, your very attitude will change your environment for the better, making it sweet and palatable.”

The moral of the parable is that it is not the experience that matters. What matters is how you interpret and react to the experience. We are each given a set of experiences in life. The experiences are neutral. They have no meaning. It is how we interpret the experiences that give them meaning. Your interpretations of your experiences shape your beliefs and theories about the world which, in turn, influence the way you live your life. The grandfather’s lesson is that when you can’t change your circumstances, you change yourself.

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 someone 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 an accident or you may feel you are of such little consequence that you’re deliberately unnoticed and bumped around by others. You may fault the architect for the design of the sidewalks or you may feel you are at fault for not being more attentive of others. You may interpret the bump as a deliberate example of feminist aggressiveness, or you may even interpret the bump as her way of flirting with you. Your interpretation of the experience determines your perception.

Think for a moment about Abraham Lincoln who is considered by many the greatest president in the history of the U.S. He could not choose his parents, the immediate circumstances of his upbringing, or the historical epoch of his birth. Modern day psychologists would label his parents as dysfunctional and abusive. He was mocked and ridiculed by his school classmates because he was awkward and gangly and his clothes never fit properly. At age 22, he failed in business, he ran for the state legislature and was defeated, and he tried to start another business and failed again. At age 26, he was rejected by a woman he loved and had a nervous breakdown. At age 33, he married a woman who was found to be mentally unstable, and once more was defeated for Congress. At age 37, he was finally elected to Congress but at age 39 he was once again defeated. He subsequently campaigned for and was defeated for the senate, vice presidency, and again for the senate. At age 51 he was elected president of the U.S.

Lincoln was not born with a positive “can do” attitude. On the contrary, his life is testimony that a positive attitude toward one’s experiences takes considerable effort and practice. Lincoln learned to expect difficulties, and, so was not traumatized and defeated when faced with problems but viewed them as part of the natural course of events. Lincoln learned the harder one works to sustain a positive interpretation, the more one appreciates life.

Lincoln did not choose his experiences of failure and defeat, but he did choose how to respond. He realized that he was not reacting to an event but to how he interpreted the event. His life is testimony to the uniquely human potential to turn defeats into triumphs and to turn ones predicament into a human achievement. For those events that were not up to him, it was his own attitude that determined their influence on him. When he was no longer able to change a situation, he changed himself.

…………………………………………………………………………………….

Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. Visit http://www.creativethinking.net

 

 

 

 

 

You Do Not See Things As They Are; You See Them As You Are

five

Some scientists visited a New Guinea tribe that believed their world ended at the nearby river. After several months one of the scientists had to cross the river to leave. When the scientist was safely across he waved, but the tribesmen did not respond. They said they didn’t see him as nothing existed beyond the end of the world. Their entrenched patterns of belief about where the world ended distorted their perception of reality.

The New Guinea people disregard things which do not fit into the way they were taught to view reality and make them into something consistent with their beliefs. They see what they expect to see.

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

Take a look at these two tables. Which one of them do you think is longer, and which one is wider?

tables-largesst-001

It might be hard to believe, but the two tables have the exact same dimensions! Measure both table surfaces with a ruler and prove it to yourself. Why, then, does the table on the left look elongated, while the table on the right appears to have a wider width? The illusion of two tables was first discovered by Roger Shepard at Stanford University.

It comes down to how we perceive the scene. Accustomed as we are to photography and Western art, we automatically interpret the scene as three-dimensional. The concept of perspective, first mastered by artists during the Renaissance, is one we encounter in our everyday lives, and our brains automatically assume that the further away an object is from us, the smaller it will be. To compensate, our brain interprets and “lengthens” lines that appear to be pointing away from us into the distance. In this scene, the interpretation made by our brain extends the length of the table on the left by making it appear longer and the shorter side of the right-hand table by making it appear wider. Our brain constructs what we perceive based on our past experiences rather than what is there.

People tend to think of perception as a passive process. We see, hear, smell, taste or feel stimuli that impinge upon our senses. We think that if we are at all objective, we record what is actually there. Yet perception is demonstrably an active rather than a passive process; it constructs rather than records “reality.” Perception implies understanding as well as awareness. It is a process of inference in which people construct their own version of reality on the basis of information provided through the five senses.

THE CLASSIC TEASER OF THE MIRROR

Noble laureate physicist, Richard Feynman, wrote about the classic teaser of the mirror. Why, Feynman wondered, does a mirror seem to invert left and right but not top and bottom? That is, why are the letters of a book backward but not upside down, and why would Feynman’s double behind the mirror appear to have a mole on the wrong hand?

Imagine yourself standing before the mirror, he suggested, with one hand pointing east and the other west. Wave the east hand. The mirror image waves its east hand. Its head is up. Its west hand lies to the west. Its feet are down. Everything’s really all right.

The problem is on the axis running through the mirror. Your nose and the back of your head are reversed: if your nose points north, your double’s nose points south. The problem now is psychological. We think of our image as another person. We cannot imagine ourselves “squashed” back to front, so our brains imagine ourselves turned left and right, as if we had walked around a pane of glass to face the other way.

It is in this psychological turnabout the brain makes that make us believe that left and right are switched.

This is another example that shows the extraordinary extent to which the information obtained by an observer depends upon the observer’s own assumptions and preconceptions. We cannot imagine our image squashed so we construct a reality that assumes an image of ourselves as if we walked around the pane of glass.

THE WAR OF GHOSTS THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

Read the following story. Wait a few minutes. Then write what you remember about the story. You might also want to try it with a friend. Ask a friend to read the story, wait a few moments, and then ask your friend to retell it to you from memory. Compare the stories to see the results.

THE STORY. One night two young men from Egulac went down to the river to hunt seals and while they were there it became foggy and calm. Then they heard war cries, and they thought: “Maybe this is a war party”. They escaped to the shore and hid behind a log. Now canoes came up, and they heard the noise of paddles, and saw one canoe coming up to them. There were five men in the canoe, and they said: “What do you think? We wish to take you along. We are going up the river to make war on the people.”

 One of the young men said, “I have no arrows.” “Arrows are in the canoe,” they said.  “I will not go along. I might be killed. My relatives do not know where I have gone. But you,” he said, turning to the other, “may go with them.”

 So one of the young men went, but the other returned home. And the warriors went on up the river to a town on the other side of Kalama. The people came down to the water and they began to fight, and many were killed. But presently the young man heard one of the warriors say, “Quick, let us go home: that Indian has been hit.” Now he thought: “Oh, they are ghosts.” He did not feel sick, but they said he had been shot.

 So the canoes went back to Egulac and the young man went ashore to his house and made a fire. And he told everybody and said: “Behold I accompanied the ghosts, and we went to fight. Many of our fellows were killed, and many of those who attacked us were killed. They said I was hit, and I did not feel sick.” He told it all, and then he became quiet. When the sun rose he fell down. Something black came out of his mouth. His face became contorted. The people jumped up and cried.

He was dead.

Now look away from the story. Wait a few minutes. Now write the story as you remembered it. How did your stories compare? You will amaze yourself at how different your story is from what you have read.

This story was used by British psychologist, Sir Frederic Bartlett, in his experiments in perception. He asked people to read the story which was unfamiliar to them and then later asked them to write what they remembered. He found that when they recalled the story, they had changed it to fit their existing knowledge, and it was this revised story which then became incorporated into their memory. He demonstrated that existing conceptual patterns of knowledge, beliefs, and theories absorb unfamiliar new experiences and re-interpret them to fit with what they know.

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 Michael Michalko is a creativity expert and author of several books on creative thinking. Discover how to get the ideas you need by visiting www.creativethinking.net

NEED IDEAS?  TAKE A THOUGHT WALK

walker

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the famous French philosopher, did his best thinking on trips he made alone and on foot, which he called thought walks. Similarly, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the brilliant German author, took a walk whenever he wanted to think and come up with new ideas. It was during his long hikes in the mountains of Berchtesgaden that Sigmund Freud worked out his imposing structure of the unconscious, preconscious and conscious that has bound the twentieth-century psyche ever since. In fact, he told his good friend, Wilhelm Fliess, a Berlin doctor, that his book The Interpretation of Dreams was designed to have the effect of one of his hikes through a concealed pass in a dark forest until it opens out on a view of the plain. Taking a walk stimulated and refreshed their thinking.

Whenever you’re deeply involved with a problem, take a thought walk. You will find walking around your neighborhood, a shopping mall, a park, the woods, industrial complex and so on to be highly stimulating. Look for interesting objects, situations, or events that are interesting or that can be metaphorically compared with whatever project you happen to be working on. For example, suppose your problem is how to improve communications in your company. You take a walk and notice potholes in the road. How are “potholes” like your corporate communication problem? For one thing, if potholes are not repaired, they get bigger and more dangerous. Usually road crews are assigned to repair the potholes. Similarly, unless something is done to improve corporate communications, it’s likely to deteriorate even further. An idea with a similar relation to “road crews” is to assign someone in the organization to fill the role of “communications coach.” The role would entail educating, encouraging, and supporting communication skills in all employees. And just as road crews are rotated, you can rotate the assignment every six months.

A thought walk is one of my favorite techniques to stimulate creativity. A while back while aimlessly walking around my neighborhood, I noticed a U.S. Postal truck delivering mail. The road was in poor shape and had many large potholes that the truck had to avoid. The postal truck and poor condition of the road inspired an idea.

The postal service has thousands of trucks that travel on fixed routes and transport mail to every nook and corner of the country. Fitting the trucks with smart sensors, the trucks can collect important data on weather, communications, infrastructure and several other systems that determine the development and safety of the country.

The data gathered by these truck-mounted sensors would establish a baseline map of ordinary conditions, making it significantly easier to spot a problem or anomaly. Such a system could aid in homeland security by rapidly detecting chemical agents, radiological materials and, eventually, biological attacks; it could also assess road quality, catalog potholes and provide early warning of unsafe road conditions like black ice.

A system like this could also detect gaps in cell-tower coverage, weak radio and television signals and sources of radio frequency interference. This data could help provide uninterrupted communication services and promote more efficient use of broadcasting. I have a colleague working with the post office now to develop and implement this idea. This is a valuable resource that can make the postal service profitable.

Sometimes I will walk aimlessly and simply list objects or experiences that I find interesting.  When I return, I draw a picture of the object or experience and list all of its characteristics. Then I list all the associations I can think of between each characteristic and a problem. I ask questions such as:

  • How is this like my problem?
  • What if my problem were a…?
  • What are the similarities?
  • This….is like the solution to my problem because…?
  • How is …like an idea that might solve my problem?
  • What metaphors can I make between….and my problem?

This kind of thought walking is incredibly productive. A designer friend of mine and another designer were thought walking together in New York City.  They were discussing new product ideas when they stopped by the site for Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower in New York City. The spire of the building is planned to be 1,776 feet high – 1776 was the year when the United States Declaration of Independence was drafted. They were intrigued by the idea of using invisible information to generate visible forms that have meaning.

When they returned to their office, they mulled over possible ideas of using invisible information to create visible forms. Leafing through catalogs they came across ads for sweaters with computer generated space invader designs. Combining the sweater with the freedom tower inspired their idea. They came up with what they call voice knitting where an audio input (a song or a voice) is computer translated into a simple visual form to give a sweater or other piece of clothing its own unique style and vocal fingerprint of the owner.

Thought walks give you different aspects to focus on and different ways to interpret what you are focusing on. An engineer was contracted to find ways to safely and efficiently remove ice from power lines during ice storms. He was blocked. He took a break and went for a walk. He visited a store that had several different varieties of honey for sale in a variety of different containers. The store advertised the honey with a cutout of a large bear holding a jar of honey. He bought a jar and returned to his office.

At his desk, while simultaneously thinking of honey and his power line problem together, he came up with a humorous absurd solution to his problem. The solution was to put a honey pot on top of each power pole. This would attract bears and the bears would climb the poles to get the honey. Their climbing would cause the poles to sway and the ice would Avibrate@ off the wires. This silly idea got him to thinking about the principle of “vibration,” which inspired the solution. The solution the power company implemented was to bring in helicopters to hover over the iced power lines. Their hovering vibrated the ice off the power lines.

(Michael Michalko is the 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)

 

MEMORY TEST: ARE YOUR MEMORIES REAL OR FALSE

memory

The actor Alan Alda once visited a group of memory researchers at the University of California, Irvine, for a TV show he was making. During a picnic lunch, one of the scientists offered Alda a hard-boiled egg. He turned it down, explaining that as a child he had made himself sick eating too many eggs.

In fact, this had never happened, yet Alda believed it was real. How so? The egg incident was a false memory planted by one of UC Irvine’s researchers, Elizabeth Loftus.

Before the visit, Loftus had sent Alda a questionnaire about his food preferences and personality. She later told him that a computer analysis of his answers had revealed some facts about his childhood, including that he once made himself sick eating too many eggs. There was no such analysis but it was enough to convince Alda.

Your memory may feel like a reliable record of the past, but it is not. Loftus has spent the past 30 years studying the ease with which we can form “memories” of nonexistent events. She has convinced countless people that they have seen or done things when they haven’t – even quite extreme events such as being attacked by animals or almost drowning. Her work has revealed much about how our brains form and retain memories.

While we wouldn’t want to plant a memory of a nonexistent childhood trauma in your own brain, there is a less dramatic demonstration of how easy it is to form a false memory called the Deese-Roediger-McDermott digm. Read the first two lists of words and pause for a few minutes. Then scroll down and read list 3. Put a tick against the words that were in the first two. Now go back and check your answers.

LIST ONE

APPLE, VEGETABLE, ORANGE, KIWI,

CITRUS, RIPE, PEAR, BANANA, BERRY

CHERRY, BASKET, JUICE, SALAD, BOWL,

COCKTAIL

 

LIST TWO

WEB, INSECT, BUG, FRIGHT, FLY

ARACHNID, CRAWL, TARANTULA, POISON

BITE, CREEPY, ANIMAL, UGLY, FEELERS, SMALL

 

SCROLL DOWN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LIST THREE

 

SPIDER, FEATHER, CITRUS, UGLY, ROBBER,

PIANO, GOAT, GROUND, CHERRY, BITTER,

INSECT, FRUIT, SUBURB, KIWI, QUICK,

MOUSE, PILE, FISH

 

 

Michael Michalko’s books about how to become a creative thinker can be reviewed at http://creativethinking.net/#sthash.SXV5T2cu.dpbs

 

 

ARE WE GETTING DUMBER?

 

 

sign.8THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: Solve this problem: Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?

  1. A) Yes.
  2. B) No.
  3. C) Cannot be determined.

 

SCROLL DOWN FOR ANSWER

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The problem is taken from the work of Hector Levesque, a computer scientist at the University of Toronto. More than 80 percent of people choose C. But the correct answer is A. Anne is the only person whose marital status is unknown. You need to consider both possibilities, either married and unmarried, to determine whether you have enough information to draw a conclusion. If Anne is married, the answer is A: she would be the married person who is looking at an unmarried person (George). If Anne is not married, the answer is still A: in this case, Jack is the married person, and he is looking at Anne, the unmarried person.

To solve this you have to approach the problem on its own terms and think inclusively which means to consider all possibilities. Most people are educated to think exclusively which means to reduce possibilities. This kind of thinking also requires less effort. The fact that the problem does not reveal whether Anne is or is not married suggests to people that they do not have enough information, and they give the easiest inference (C).  This is an example of how easily we robotically default to the mental processes that require the least effort.

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Michael Michalko

http://www.creativethinking.net