At this very moment, you are actually moving your eyes over a white page dotted with black marks. Your mind recognizes and transforms the marks into patterns which we call words and sentences. Our minds created the patterns when we first learned to talk and read. Now we no longer see the words as patterns of black marks and lose ourselves in what we are reading.

The patterns are so hard wired in our brains that we no longer can imagine the black marks being anything else but letters, words, and sentences. Look at this page and try not to see the words and letters, but only black shapes on white paper; that is, try to see the original input that you had when you were a two-year-old. You’ll find that it’s impossible because of the word patterns stored in your brain.

We learn from new experiences, spot resemblances in those experiences, and translate those resemblances into patterns. Imagine if you had to relearn each day how to tie your shoelaces, how to read, how to drive to work, or how to do your job. We couldn’t function the way we do as human beings if our minds were not able to recognize and respond to patterns.

When we learn something, we program it into our brain and stop thinking about or looking for alternatives. Over time these thinking patterns become stronger and stronger, not only cognitively but physiologically as well. Habitual pattern recognition provides us with instant interpretations and enables us to react quickly to our environment. Though pattern recognition simplifies the complexities of life and makes it easier, it also limits our perception of the world and our ability to create new ideas and unique solutions to problems.

The dominant factor in the way our minds work is the buildup of patterns that enable us to simplify the assimilation of complex data. These patterns are based on our reproducing our past experiences in life, education, and work that have been successful in the past. These patterns enable us to perform routine tasks rapidly and accurately. When confronted with a problem, the information self-organizes into thinking patterns that are based on our past experiences. Then the mind analytically selects the most promising approach and applies it to the problem.

For example, when asked what is 6 X 6, 36 automatically appears. These number patterns rapidly produce answers for us without conscious thought. For example, to demonstrate how quickly these patterns produce answers, add up the following numbers in your head as quickly as you can. Take 1000 and add 40 to it. Now add another 1000. Now add 30. Add another 1000. Now add 20. Now add another 1000. Now add 10. What is the total?

Our confidence in our ability to add according to the way we were taught in base ten encourages us to process the information this way and jump to a conclusion. If your total is 5,000, then you are wrong. 96% of people who add these simple numbers get the wrong answer. The numbers are arranged in such a way to set people up to get the wrong answer when adding using base ten. The correct answer is 4,100.

The mind was imagined as a collection of programs based on fixed knowledge transferred from sources of people and institutions regarded as authorities (i.e., parents, teachers, experts, pundits, gurus, etc.) to you. When confronted with a problem, your mind analytically selects the most promising program, excluding all other approaches, and works within a clearly defined direction towards the solution of the problem.

According to this model of the brain, neurons replace transistors. And just as most of us are unaware of the architecture of a computer that manipulates the colorful pictures and symbols we see on a computer screen, we are equally unaware of how our brains operate. It’s like you know that two plus two equals four, not because you worked through the solution; but because the answer appears automatically without conscious thought.

It’s almost as if our education has hard wired our brains to circumvent deliberative and creative thinking wherever possible through rote memorization and robotic learning of formulas and principles. We have been trained to seek out the neural path of least resistance, searching out responses that have worked in the past first, rather than approach a problem on its own terms.

Read the following:

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

Amazing, isn’t it? These are jumbled letters, not words, yet our minds see them as words. How is this possible? How do our minds do this?

Think of your mind as a bowl of butter with a surface that is perfectly flat. Imagine gently pouring hot water on the butter from a teaspoon and then gently tipping the bowl so that it runs off. After many repetitions of this process, the surface of the butter will self-organize into ruts, indentations, and grooves.

New water will automatically flow into the existing grooves. After a while, it would take only a tiny bit of water to activate an entire channel. Even if much of the water is out of the channel, the existing channel will be selected.

When information enters the mind, it self-organizes into patterns and ruts much like the hot water on butter. New information automatically flows into the preformed grooves. After a while, the channels become so deep it takes only a bit of information to activate an entire channel. This is the pattern recognition and pattern completion process of the brain. Even if much of the information is out of the channel, the pattern will be activated. The mind automatically corrects and completes the information to select and activate a pattern.

This is why you can read the jumbled letters above as words. The first and last letters of the words are correct. For example, in the word “According” I kept the “A” and “g” and mixed up the rest into the nonsense word “Aoccdrnig.” Just this tiny bit of information (the first and last letters) is enough to activate the word pattern in your brain and you read “According.”

This is also why when we sit down and try to will new ideas or solutions; we tend to keep coming up with the same-old, same-old ideas. Information is flowing down the same ruts and grooves making the same-old connections producing the same old ideas over and over again. Even tiny bits of information are enough to activate the same patterns over and over again.

These patterns enable us to simplify and cope with a complex world. These thinking patterns give us precision as we perform repetitive tasks, such as driving an automobile, writing a book, teaching a class or making a sales presentation. Patterns enable us to perform routine tasks rapidly and accurately. When we see something that we have seen before, we understand what it means immediately. We don’t have to spend time studying and analyzing it. For example, we automatically know that the logo below represents the Coca Cola Company.

coca cola

Habits, thinking patterns and routines with which we approach life gradually accumulate until they significantly reduce our awareness of other possibilities. It’s as if a cage is built up around our imagination over time and its effects slowly become obvious. Because the accumulation of thinking patterns goes almost unnoticed until the cage reduces our awareness significantly. Have you noticed, for example, that the logo is not a logo for coca–cola? It reads coca–coca.

How then can we change our thinking patterns and escape the cage? Nature creates many possibilities through blind “trial and error” and then lets the process of natural selection decide which species survive. In nature, 95% of new species fail and die within a short period of time. Over time, the gene pool for the surviving species stabilizes and thrives, but eventually seeks variation. In nature, a gene pool totally lacking in variation would be unable to adapt to changing circumstances, with consequences which would be fatal to the species’ survival. In time the genetically encoded wisdom would convert to foolishness.

How does nature provide for variations? Nature creates genetic mutations to provide the variations needed for survival. A genetic mutation is a variation that is created by a random or chance event which ignores the conventional wisdom contained in parental chromosomes. Nature then lets the process of natural selection decide which variations survive and thrive.

A comparable process operates within us. Every individual has the ability to create ideas based on his or her existing patterns of thinking which are based on past education and experience. But without any provision for variations, ideas eventually stagnate and lose their adaptive advantages. In the end, if you always think the way you’ve always thought, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. The same-old ideas.

Look at the two lines of dots below.  Can you will yourself to see one line longer that the other?


You cannot. You cannot will yourself to look at things in a different way, no matter how inspired you are to do so. Think again about the dish of butter with all the preformed channels. Creativity occurs when we tilt the dish in a different direction and force the water (information) to create new channels and make new connections with other channels. These new connections give you different ways to focus your attention and different ways to interpret whatever you are focusing on.

Creative thinkers get variation by using creative thinking techniques which provoke different thinking patterns and provides them with a variety of alternatives and conjectures. From this variety of alternatives and conjectures, the intellect retains the best ideas for further development and communication. The majority of ideas, like the majority of new species in nature, fail and are discarded.

Johannes Guttenberg researched and experimented for years trying to find a better printing process. He studied the existing process and worked tirelessly to improve it without much success. It was Guttenberg’s chance visit to a winery where he observed a wine press in operation that provided the idea he needed to revolutionize the way we communicate information.

In the illustration, I add another variable (two straight lines). The lines of dots are still the same length (go ahead and measure them) but now the top line appears longer. The two lines provoked a different thinking pattern and gave you a different way to focus on the information and a different way to interpret what you are focusing on.


In a similar way, the screw mechanism Gutenberg observed in a wine press gave him a different way to focus on his printing problem. He combined “transferring of juice from grapes” with “transferring ink from moveable type to paper.” His insight was that he could use the screw mechanism found in a wine press in a printing press to mechanize the transfer of ink from moveable type to paper.

This simple innovation allowed for an assembly line-style printing production process that was much more efficient than pressing paper to ink by hand. For the first time in history, books could be mass-produced — at a fraction of the cost of conventional printing methods. His chance visit at a wine press permitted him to conceptually blend the “pressing grapes” process with the “printing process,” two totally unrelated subjects in two unrelated fields.

The quintessential activity of perception is the discovery of some abstract connection that links and does not separate parts of complex wholes. The essence of creative thinking is a complex blending of elements of two or more different subjects, all of which involve guesswork rather than certainty. Perception is far more than the recognition of members of already-established categories–it involves the spontaneous manufacture of new categories.

To get a unique perspective on your problem, try this creative thinking technique.


Gillette scientists were tasked with creating a better toothbrush.

  1. First determine the essence of the problem. What is the universal principle? Gillette scientists determined the essence of their problem was “cleaning.” How are things cleaned?
  2. Secondly, look in other worlds to observe how things are cleaned. The Gillette scientists generated a list of things in other worlds that incorporated the major principle of cleaning. Their list included such items as:
  • a. How is hair cleaned.
  • b. How are cars cleaned.
  • c. How are fish cleaned.
  • d. How are ears cleaned.
  • e. How are stoves cleaned.
  • f. How are waterways cleaned.
  • g. How is polluted air cleaned.
  1. Then select the most promising ones and describe in detail. The scientists focused on how cars were cleaned in car washes which have multiple soaping and brushing actions in different directions.
  2. Create an idea. The scientists conceptually blended how cars are cleaned with how teeth are cleaned and created the Oral B toothbrush which contains multiple brushes brushing in different directions and it became the bestselling toothbrush on the market.

Michael Michalko is the author of books on creative thinking including THINKERTOYS, CRACKING CREATIVITY and CREATIVE THINKERING. For more information visit


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