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B. ALLOW FOR SERENDIPITY
The brain is an instrument developed for making connections. It operates as a dual processing system, in which every bit of information that comes in is at the same time compared to other information. The brain is constantly searching for similarities, differences, and relationships between what it processes. Your task is to feed this natural inclination, to create the optimal conditions for it to make new and original associations between ideas and experiences. And one of the best ways to accomplish this is by letting go of conscious control and allowing chance to enter into the process.
The reason for this is simple. When we are consumed with a particular project, our attention tends to become quite narrow as we focus so deeply. We grow tense. In this state, our mind responds by trying to reduce the amount of stimuli we have to deal with. We literally close ourselves off from the world in order to concentrate on what is necessary. This can have the unintended consequence of making it harder for us to see other possibilities, to be more open and creative with our ideas. When we are in a more relaxed state, our attention naturally broadens and we take in more stimuli.
Many of the most interesting and profound discoveries in science occur when the thinker is not concentrating directly on the problem but is about to drift off to sleep, or get on a bus, or hears a joke—moments of unstrained attention, when something unexpected enters the mental sphere and triggers a new and fertile connection. Such chance associations and discoveries are known as serendipity—the occurrence of something we are not expecting—and although by their nature you cannot force them to happen, you can invite serendipity into the creative process by taking two simple steps.
The first step is to widen your search as far as possible. In the research stage of your project, you look at more than what is generally required. You expand your search into other fields, reading and absorbing any related information. If you have a particular theory or hypothesis about a phenomenon, you examine as many examples and potential counterexamples as humanly possible. It might seem tiring and inefficient, but you must trust this process. What ensues is that the brain becomes increasingly excited and stimulated by the variety of information. As William James expressed it, the mind “transitions from one idea to another…the most unheard of combination of elements, the subtlest associations of analogy; in a word, we seem suddenly introduced into a seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbling about in a state of bewildering activity.” A kind of mental momentum is generated, in which the slightest chance occurrence will spark a fertile idea.
The second step is to maintain an openness and looseness of spirit. In moments of great tension and searching, you allow yourself moments of release. You take walks, engage in activities outside your work (Einstein played the violin), or think about something else, no matter how trivial. When some new and unanticipated idea now enters your mind, you do not ignore it because it is irrational or does not fit the narrow frame of your previous work. You give it instead full attention and explore where it leads you.
Perhaps the greatest illustration of this would be the discovery by Louis Pasteur of immunology and how contagious diseases can be prevented by inoculation. Pasteur spent years demonstrating that various diseases are caused by microorganisms or germs, a novel concept for the time. In developing his germ theory, he expanded his knowledge into all different branches of medicine and chemistry. In 1879 he was researching chicken cholera. He had prepared cultures of this disease, but the cholera work got interrupted by other projects, and for several months the cultures remained untouched in his laboratory. When he returned to the work, he injected the cultures into chickens and was surprised when they all recovered easily from the disease. Figuring these cultures had lost their virulence because of the time factor, he ordered some new varieties, which he injected immediately into the same chickens and into some new ones as well. The new ones all died, as expected, but all of the old chickens survived.
Many doctors in the past had witnessed similar phenomena, but had not taken notice or had refused to contemplate its meaning. Pasteur had such wide and deep knowledge of the field that the survival of the chickens instantly caught his attention. In thinking deeply about what it could mean, he realized he had stumbled upon a whole new practice in medicine—the inoculation of the body against disease by injecting small doses of the actual disease. The wideness of his searches and the openness of his spirit allowed him to make this connection and “random” discovery. As Pasteur himself commented, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” Such serendipitous discoveries are extremely common in science and in technological inventions. The list would include, among hundreds of others, the discoveries by Wilhelm Röntgen of X-rays and Alexander Fleming of penicillin, and the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Perhaps one of the most illuminating of all such examples occurred with the great inventor Thomas Edison. He had been working long and hard on improving the mechanics of the roll of paper as it moved through the telegraph and recorded the various dots and dashes. The work was not going well, and what particularly bothered him was the sound the machine made as the paper passed through—it gave off “a light, musical, rhythmical sound, resembling human talk heard indistinctly.” He wanted to get rid of this sound somehow, but over the course of the next few months as he let go of the work on the telegraph, the whirring noise continued to haunt him. One day, as he heard it yet again in his head, an astounding thought occurred to him—he might have inadvertently hit upon a way to record sound and the human voice. He spent the next few months immersing himself in the science of sound, which led to his first experiments on creating a phonograph that would record the human voice, using a very similar technology to the telegraph.
This discovery shows us the essence of the creative mind. In such a mind, every stimulus that enters the brain is processed, turned over, and reevaluated. Nothing is taken at face value. A whirring sound is never neutral, never merely a sound, but something to interpret, a possibility, a sign. Dozens of such possibilities lead nowhere, but to an open and fluid mind they are not only worth considering, but are a constant pleasure to investigate. Perception itself becomes a stimulating exercise in thinking.
One reason that serendipity plays such a large role in discoveries and inventions is that our minds are limited. We cannot explore all avenues and imagine every possibility. Nobody could have come upon the invention of the phonograph in Edison’s time by a rational process of imagining rolls of paper that could record sound. Random external stimuli lead us to associations we cannot come by on our own. Like seeds floating in space, they require the soil of a highly prepared and open mind to take root in and sprout a meaningful idea.
Serendipity strategies can be interesting devices in the arts as well. For instance, the writer Anthony Burgess, trying to free his mind up from the same stale ideas, decided on several occasions to choose random words in a reference book and use them to guide the plot of a novel, according to the order and associations of the words. Once he had completely haphazard starting points, his conscious mind took over and he worked them into extremely well-crafted novels with surprising structures. The surrealist artist Max Ernst did something similar in a series of paintings inspired by the deep grooves in a wood floor that had been scrubbed too many times. He laid pieces of paper rubbed with black lead on the floor at odd angles, and made prints of them. Based on these prints, he proceeded to make surreal and hallucinatory drawings. In these examples, a random idea was used to force the mind to create novel associations and to loosen up the creative urge. This mix of complete chance and conscious elaboration often creates novel and exciting effects.
To help yourself to cultivate serendipity, you should keep a notebook with you at all times. The moment any idea or observation comes, you note it down. You keep the notebook by your bed, careful to record ideas that come in those moments of fringe awareness—just before falling asleep, or just upon waking. In this notebook you record any scrap of thought that occurs to you, and include drawings, quotes from other books, anything at all. In this way, you will have the freedom to try out the most absurd ideas. The juxtaposition of so many random bits will be enough to spark various associations.
In general you must adopt a more analogical way of thinking, taking greater advantage of the associative powers of the mind. Thinking in terms of analogies and metaphors can be extremely helpful to the creative process. For instance, an argument people used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to prove that the earth does not move was to say that a rock dropped from a tower lands at its base. If the earth were moving, they argued, it would fall elsewhere. Galileo, a man who habitually thought in terms of analogies, saw the earth in his mind as a kind of sailing ship in space. As he explained to doubters of the earth’s movement, a rock dropped from the mast of a moving ship still lands at its base.
These analogies can be tight and logical, such as Isaac Newton’s comparison of the falling apple from a tree in his garden to the moon falling in space. Or they can be loose and somewhat irrational, such as the jazz artist John Coltrane’s thinking of his own compositions as cathedrals of sound he was constructing. In any event, you must train yourself to look constantly for such analogies to reframe and expand your ideas.
C. ALTERNATE THE MIND THROUGH “THE CURRENT”
In 1832, as Charles Darwin voyaged around the coastline of South America and traveled into the interior, he began to take note of several strange phenomena—bones of animals long extinct, marine fossils near the top of mountains in Peru, and animals on islands that were similar and yet quite different from their mainland counterparts. In his notebooks, he began to speculate on what all this could mean. Clearly, the earth appeared to be much older than indicated in the Bible, and it became increasingly difficult for him to imagine that all of life was created at once. Based on these continuing speculations, he began to look more closely at the plant and animal life he was observing. In doing so, he took note of even more anomalies in nature and tried to find a pattern among them. When he visited the Galápagos Islands near the end of his voyage, he witnessed so much variety of life in such a small area that he finally saw the pattern—the idea of evolution itself.
For the next twenty years Darwin expanded upon the process that he started as a young man. He speculated on how variety within species might actually occur, and to test out his ideas he began to keep and breed different types of pigeons. The theory of evolution he was developing depended on the movement of plants and animals across wide expanses of the globe. This was easier to imagine with animals than with plants—for instance, how did such rich vegetation end up on relatively young volcanic islands? Most believed it was from an act of God. And so Darwin began a series of experiments, soaking various seeds in salt water to see how long they could survive in such an element and still germinate. The results proved they could last longer than he had imagined. Considering ocean currents, he calculated that many varieties of seeds could travel more than 1,000 miles in some forty days and still germinate.
As his ideas began to solidify, he decided to intensify his research by spending eight years studying many species of one type of crustacean, the barnacle, in order to prove or disprove his speculations. This research ended up validating his ideas and adding some new wrinkles. Certain that he had discovered something meaningful after all this work, he finally published his results on an evolutionary process that he called natural selection.
The theory of evolution as formulated by Charles Darwin represents one of the most astounding achievements of human creative thinking, and is a testament to the powers of the mind. Evolution is not something that can be seen with the eyes. It depends on a powerful use of the imagination—to imagine what could happen on Earth in the course of millions upon millions of years, a period of time that is so astoundingly long we have no way of really conceptualizing it. It also required the ability to imagine a process that could occur on its own, without the guidance of a spiritual force. Darwin’s theory could only have been deduced by looking at evidence and making connections in the mind about what his findings could mean. His theory of evolution, devised in this way, has stood the test of time and has come to have profound ramifications on almost all forms of science. Through a mental process that we shall call the Current, Charles Darwin made visible to us all what is completely invisible to the human eye.
The Current is like a mental electrical charge that gains its power through a constant alternation. We observe something in the world that strikes our attention and makes us wonder what it might mean. In thinking about it, we devise several possible explanations. When we look at the phenomenon again we see it differently as we cycle through the various ideas we had imagined to account for it. Perhaps we conduct experiments to verify or alter our speculations. Now when we look at the phenomenon yet again, weeks or months later, we see more and more aspects of its hidden reality.
If we had failed to speculate on the meaning of what we had observed, we simply would have had an observation that led us nowhere. If we had speculated without continuing to observe and verify, then we simply would have had some random idea floating in our heads. But by continually cycling between speculation and observation/experiment, we are able to pierce deeper and deeper into reality, like a drill that penetrates a piece of wood through its motion. The Current is a constant dialogue between our thoughts and reality. If we go into this process deeply enough, we come into contact with a theory that explains something far beyond the capability of our limited senses.
The Current is merely an intensification of the most elementary powers of human consciousness. Our most primitive ancestors would take note of something unusual or out of place—broken twigs, chewed leaves, the outline of a hoof or paw. Through an act of pure imagination, they would deduce that this meant that an animal had passed by. This fact would be verified by tracking the footprints. Through this process, what was not immediately visible to the eyes (a passing animal) became visible. All that has occurred since then is an elaboration of this power to increasingly higher levels of abstraction, to the point of understanding hidden laws of nature—like evolution and relativity.
Most often in culture we see people who short-circuit the Current. They observe some phenomenon in culture or nature that makes them emotional and they run rampant with speculations, never taking the time to entertain possible explanations that could have been verified by further observation. They disconnect themselves from reality and can then imagine whatever they want. On the other hand, we see many people, particularly in academia or in the sciences, who accumulate mountains of information and data from studies and statistics but never venture to speculate on the larger ramifications of this information or connect it all into a theory. They are afraid to speculate because it seems unscientific and subjective, failing to understand that speculation is the heart and soul of human rationality, our way of connecting to reality and seeing the invisible. To them, it is better to stick to facts and studies, to keep a micro view, rather than possibly embarrassing themselves with a speculation that could be wrong.
Sometimes this fear of speculation masquerades as skepticism. We see this in people who delight in shooting down any theory or explanation before it gets anywhere. They are trying to pass off skepticism as a sign of high intelligence, but in fact they are taking the easy route—it is quite simple to find arguments against any idea and knock it down from the sidelines. Instead, you must follow the route of all creative thinkers and go in the opposite direction. You then not only speculate, but are bold and audacious with your ideas, all of which forces you to work hard to confirm or disconfirm your theories, piercing into reality in the process. As the great physicist Max Planck put it, scientists “must have a vivid intuitive imagination, for new ideas are not generated by deduction, but by an artistically creative imagination.” The Current has applications far beyond science. The great inventor Buckminster Fuller was constantly coming up with ideas for possible inventions and new forms of technology. Early in his career, Fuller noticed that many people have great ideas, but are afraid to put them into action in any form. They prefer to engage in discussions or critiques, writing about their fantasies but never playing them out in the real world. To set himself apart from these dreamers, he created a strategy of forging what he called “artifacts.” Working off his ideas, which were sometimes quite wild, he would make models of things he imagined, and if they seemed at all feasible, he would proceed to invent prototypes of them. By actually translating his ideas into tangible objects, he could gain a sense of whether they were potentially interesting or merely ridiculous. Now his seemingly outlandish ideas were no longer speculations, but realities. He would then take his prototypes to another level, constructing artifacts for the public to see how they would respond.
One artifact he made was the Dymaxion car, which he unveiled to the public in 1933. It was meant to be much more efficient, maneuverable, and aerodynamic than any vehicle in existence, featuring three wheels and an unusual teardrop shape; in addition, it could be quickly and cheaply assembled. In making this artifact public he realized several faults in its design and reformulated it. Although it led nowhere, particularly as the auto industry put all kinds of roadblocks before him, the Dymaxion car ended up influencing future designers, and caused many to question the single-minded approach people had to the design of the automobile. Fuller would expand this artifact strategy to all of his ideas, including his most famous one—the geodesic dome.
Fuller’s process of making artifacts is a great model for any kind of new invention or idea in business and commerce. Let us say you have an idea for a new product. You can design it on your own and then launch it, but often you notice a discrepancy between your own level of excitement for your product and the somewhat indifferent response of the public. You have not engaged in a dialogue with reality, which is the essence of the Current. Instead, it is better to produce a prototype—a form of speculation—and see how people respond to it. Based on the assessments you gain, you can redo the work and launch it again, cycling through this process several times until you perfect it. The responses of the public will make you think more deeply about what you are producing. Such feedback will help make visible what is generally invisible to your eyes—the objective reality of your work and its flaws, as reflected through the eyes of many people. Alternating between ideas and artifacts will help you to create something compelling and effective.
D. ALTER YOUR PERSPECTIVE
Consider thinking as an extended form of vision that allows us to see more of the world, and creativity as the ability to expand that vision beyond conventional boundaries.
When we perceive an object, our eyes relay only a portion or outline of it to our brains, leaving our mind to fill in the rest, giving us a fast and relatively accurate assessment of what we are seeing. Our eyes are not paying deep attention to all of the details, but noticing patterns. Our thought processes, modeled after visual perception, use a similar shorthand. When an event occurs or when we meet a new person, we do not stop to consider all aspects or details, but instead we see an outline or pattern that fits into our expectations and past experiences. We fit the event or person into categories. As with vision, for us to have to think deeply about every new occurrence or perceived object would exhaust the brain. Unfortunately, we transfer this mental shorthand to almost everything—it is the main characteristic of the Conventional Mind. We might imagine that when we are engaged in solving a problem or realizing an idea that we are being highly rational and thorough, but just as with our eyes, we are not aware of how deeply our thoughts fall into the same narrow grooves and the same categorizing shorthand.
Creative people are those who have the capacity to resist this shorthand. They can look at a phenomenon from several different angles, noticing something we miss because we only look straight on. Sometimes, after one of their discoveries or inventions is made public, we are surprised at how obvious it seems and wonder why no one else had thought of it before. This is because creative people are actually looking at what is hidden in plain sight, and not rushing to generalize and label. Whether such powers are natural or learned does not matter: the mind can be trained to loosen itself up and move outside the grooves. To do this you must become aware of the typical patterns your mind falls into and how you can break out of these patterns and alter your perspective through conscious effort. Once you engage in this process, you will be astonished at the ideas and creative powers it will unleash. The following are several of the most common patterns or shorthands, and how you can subvert them.
Looking at the “what” instead of the “how”:
Let us say that something goes wrong in a project of some sort. Our conventional tendency is to look for a single cause or a simple explanation, which then reveals to us how to fix the problem. If the book we are creating is not working out, we focus on the uninspired writing or the misguided concept behind it. Or if the company we work for is not performing well, we look at the products we are designing and marketing. Although we think we are being rational when we think in this way, most often problems are more complicated and holistic; we are simplifying them, based on the law that the mind always looks for shorthands.
To look at the “how” instead of the “what” means focusing on the structure—how the parts relate to the whole. With the book, it may not be working out because it is organized poorly, the faulty organization a reflection of ideas that have not been thought out. Our minds are a jumble, and this is reflected in the work. Thinking in this way, we are forced to go more deeply into the parts and how they relate to the overall concept; improving the structure will improve the writing. With the company, we should look deeply at the organization itself—how well people communicate with one another, how quickly and fluidly information is passed along. If people are not communicating, if they are not on the same page, no amount of changes in the product or marketing will improve performance.
Everything in nature has a structure, a way that the parts relate to one another, which is generally fluid and not so easy to conceptualize. Our minds naturally tend to separate things out, to think in terms of nouns instead of verbs. In general you want to pay greater attention to the relationships between things, because that will give you a greater feel for the picture as a whole. It was in looking at the relationship between electricity and magnetism and the relativity of their effects that scientists created a whole revolution in scientific thinking, leading from Michael Faraday to Albert Einstein and the elaboration of field theories. This is a revolution that is waiting to happen on a more mundane level, in our everyday thinking.
Rushing to generalities and ignoring details:
Our minds are always hurrying to generalize about things, often based on the most minimal amounts of information. We form opinions quickly, in conformity with our previous opinions, and we do not pay great attention to the details. To combat this pattern we must sometimes shift our focus from the macro to the micro—placing much greater emphasis on the details, the small picture. When Darwin wanted to make sure his theory was accurate, he devoted eight long years of his life to the exclusive study of barnacles. Looking at this intensely microscopic glimpse of nature, he saw a perfect corroboration of his larger theory.
When Leonardo da Vinci wanted to create a whole new style of painting, one that was more lifelike and emotional, he engaged in an obsessive study of details. He spent endless hours experimenting with forms of light hitting various geometrical solids, to test how light could alter the appearance of objects. He devoted hundreds of pages in his notebooks to exploring the various gradations of shadows in every possible combination. He gave this same attention to the folds of a gown, the patterns in hair, the various minute changes in the expression of a human face. When we look at his work we are not consciously aware of these efforts on his part, but we feel how much more alive and realistic his paintings are, as if he had captured reality.
In general, try approaching a problem or idea with a much more open mind. Let your study of the details guide your thinking and shape your theories. Think of everything in nature, or in the world, as a kind of hologram—the smallest part reflecting something essential about the whole. Immersing yourself in details will combat the generalizing tendencies of the brain and bring you closer to reality. Make sure, however, that you do not become lost in the details and lose sight of how they reflect the whole and fit into a larger idea. That is simply the other side of the same disease.
Confirming paradigms and ignoring anomalies:
In any field there are inevitable paradigms—accepted ways of explaining reality. This is necessary; without such paradigms we would not be able to make sense of the world. But sometimes these paradigms end up dominating our way of thinking. We routinely look for patterns in the world that confirm the paradigms we already believe in. The things that do not fit the paradigm—the anomalies—tend to be ignored or explained away. In truth, anomalies themselves contain the richest information. They often reveal to us the flaws in our paradigms and open up new ways of looking at the world. You must turn yourself into a detective, deliberately uncovering and looking at the very anomalies that people tend to disregard.
In the late nineteenth century several scientists noted the strange phenomenon of rare metals like uranium emitting luminescent rays of an unknown nature, without any exposure to light. But nobody paid much attention to this. It was assumed that someday a rational explanation for this phenomenon would come up, one that fit with general theories of matter. But to the scientist Marie Curie, this anomaly was precisely the subject that needed to be investigated. She intuited that it contained the potential for expanding our concept of matter. For four long years Marie, with the help of her husband, Pierre, devoted her life to studying this phenomenon, which she eventually named radioactivity. In the end her discovery completely altered scientists’ view on matter itself, which had previously been seen as containing static and fixed elements, but now was revealed to be much more volatile and complex.
When Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, examined the search engines that existed in the mid-1990s, they focused exclusively on the seemingly trivial flaws in systems such as AltaVista, the anomalies. These search engines, which were the hottest startups of the time, ranked searches mostly based on the number of times the subject had been mentioned in a given article. Although this method sometimes produced results that were unhelpful or irrelevant, it was considered merely a quirk in the system that would eventually be ironed out or simply accepted. By focusing on this one anomaly, Page and Brin were able to see a glaring weakness in the whole concept and to develop a much different ranking algorithm—based on the number of times an article had been linked to—which completely transformed the effectiveness and use of the search engine.
For Charles Darwin, the crux of his theory came from looking at mutations. It is the strange and random variation in nature that often sets a species off in a new evolutionary direction. Think of anomalies as the creative form of such mutations. They often represent the future, but to our eyes they seem strange. By studying them, you can illuminate this future before anyone else.
Fixating on what is present, ignoring what is absent:
In the Arthur Conan Doyle story “Silver Blaze,” Sherlock Holmes solves a crime by paying attention to what did not happen—the family dog had not barked. This meant that the murderer must have been someone the dog knew. What this story illustrates is how the average person does not generally pay attention to what we shall call negative cues, what should have happened but did not. It is our natural tendency to fixate on positive information, to notice only what we can see and hear. It takes a creative type such as Holmes to think more broadly and rigorously, pondering the missing information in an event, visualizing this absence as easily as we see the presence of something.
For centuries, doctors considered diseases exclusively as something stemming from outside the body attacking it—a contagious germ, a draft of cold air, miasmic vapors, and so on. Treatment depended on finding drugs of some sort that could counteract the harmful effects of these environmental agents of disease. Then, in the early twentieth century, the biochemist Frederick Gowland Hopkins, studying the effects of scurvy, had the idea to reverse this perspective. What caused the problem in this particular disease, he speculated, was not what was attacking from the outside, but what was missing from within the body itself—in this case what came to be known as vitamin C. Thinking creatively, he did not look at what was present but precisely at what was absent, in order to solve the problem. This led to his groundbreaking work on vitamins, and completely altered our concept of health.
In business, the natural tendency is to look at what is already out there in the marketplace and to think of how we can make it better or cheaper. The real trick—the equivalent of seeing the negative cue—is to focus our attention on some need that is not currently being met, on what is absent. This requires more thinking and is harder to conceptualize, but the rewards can be immense if we hit upon this unfulfilled need. One interesting way to begin such a thought process is to look at new and available technology in the world and to imagine how it could be applied in a much different way, meeting a need that we sense exists but that is not overly apparent. If the need is too obvious, others will already be working on it.
In the end, the ability to alter our perspective is a function of our imagination. We have to learn how to imagine more possibilities than we generally consider, being as loose and radical with this process as we can. This pertains as much to inventors and businesspeople as it does to artists. Look at the case of Henry Ford, a highly creative thinker in his own right. In the early stages of the manufacturing of automobiles, Henry Ford imagined a whole different kind of business than existed at the time. He wanted to mass-produce the automobile, helping to create the consumer culture he felt was coming. But the men in his factories would average some twelve and a half hours to manufacture a single automobile, which was far too slow to achieve his goal.
One day, trying to think of ways to speed up production, Ford watched his men at work as they scrambled around as fast as they could to assemble an automobile as it stood still on a platform. Ford did not focus on the tools that could be improved, or how to get the men to move faster, or the need to hire more workers—the kinds of small changes that would not have altered the dynamic enough for mass-production. Instead, he imagined something completely different. In his mind, he suddenly saw the cars moving and the men standing still, each worker doing a small portion of the job as the car moved from position to position. Within days he tried this out and realized what he was on to. By the time it was fully instituted in 1914, the Ford factory could now produce a car in ninety minutes. Over the years, he would speed up this miraculous saving of time.
As you work to free up your mind and give it the power to alter its perspective, remember the following: the emotions we experience at any time have an inordinate influence on how we perceive the world. If we feel afraid, we tend to see more of the potential dangers in some action. If we feel particularly bold, we tend to ignore the potential risks. What you must do then is not only alter your mental perspective, but reverse your emotional one as well. For instance, if you are experiencing a lot of resistance and setbacks in your work, try to see this as in fact something that is quite positive and productive. These difficulties will make you tougher and more aware of the flaws you need to correct. In physical exercise, resistance is a way to make the body stronger, and it is the same with the mind. Play a similar reversal on good fortune—seeing the potential dangers of becoming soft, addicted to attention, and so forth. These reversals will free up the imagination to see more possibilities, which will affect what you do. If you see setbacks as opportunities, you are more likely to make that a reality.
E. REVERT TO PRIMAL FORMS OF INTELLIGENCE
As discussed in the introduction (see here), our most primitive ancestors developed various forms of intelligence that predated the invention of language, which aided them in the harsh struggle for survival. They thought mostly in terms of visual images, and became highly adept at noticing patterns and discerning important details in their environment. Roaming over vast spaces, they developed the ability to think spatially and learned how to orient themselves in varied landscapes, using landmarks and the position of the sun. They were able to think in mechanical terms, and became supremely skilled at coordinating the hand and eye in making things.
With the invention of language, the intellectual powers of our ancestors were vastly enhanced. Thinking in words, they could imagine more possibilities in the world around them, which they could then communicate and act on. The human brain thus developed along these evolutionary lines as a multiuse, immensely flexible instrument that is able to think on various levels, combining many forms of intelligence with all of the senses. But somewhere along the way a problem developed. We slowly lost our previous flexibility and became largely dependent on words for our thinking. In the process, we lost our connection to the senses—sight, smell, touch—that once played such a vital role in our intelligence. Language is a system largely designed for social communication. It is based on conventions that everyone can agree upon. It is somewhat rigid and stable, so that it allows us to communicate with minimum friction. But when it comes to the incredible complexity and fluidity of life, it can often fail us.
The grammar of language locks us into certain forms of logic and ways of thinking. As the writer Sidney Hook put it, “When Aristotle drew up his table of categories which to him represented the grammar of existence, he was really projecting the grammar of the Greek language on the cosmos.” Linguists have enumerated the high number of concepts that have no particular word to describe them in the English language. If there are no words for certain concepts, we tend to not think of them. And so language is a tool that is often too tight and constricting, compared to the multilayered powers of intelligence we naturally possess.
In the last few hundred years, with the rapid development of the sciences, technology, and the arts, we humans have had to use our brains to solve increasingly complex problems, and those who are truly creative have developed the ability to think beyond language, to access the lower chambers of consciousness, to revert to those primal forms of intelligence that served us for millions of years.
According to the great mathematician Jacques Hadamard, most mathematicians think in terms of images, creating a visual equivalent of the theorem they are trying to work out. Michael Faraday was a powerful visual thinker. When he came up with the idea of electromagnetic lines of force, anticipating the field theories of the twentieth century, he saw them literally in his mind’s eye before he wrote about them. The structure of the periodic table came to the chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev in a dream, where he literally saw the elements laid out before his eyes in a visual scheme. The list of great thinkers who relied upon images is enormous, and perhaps the greatest of them all was Albert Einstein, who once wrote, “The words of the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be voluntarily reproduced and combined.” Inventors such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford thought not only in visual terms, but also in three-dimensional models. The great electrical and mechanical engineer Nikola Tesla could supposedly visualize in minute detail a machine and all of its working parts, which he would then proceed to invent according to what he had imagined.
The reason for this “regression” to visual forms of thinking is simple. Human working memory is limited. We can only keep in mind several pieces of information at the same time. Through an image we can simultaneously imagine many things at once, at a glance. As opposed to words, which can be impersonal and rigid, a visualization is something we create, something that serves our particular needs of the moment and can represent an idea in a way that is more fluid and real than simply words. The use of images to make sense of the world is perhaps our most primitive form of intelligence, and can help us conjure up ideas that we can later verbalize. Words also are abstract; an image or model makes our idea suddenly more concrete, which satisfies our need to see and feel things with our senses.
Even if thinking in this way is not natural to you, using diagrams and models to help further the creative process can be immensely productive. Early in his research, Charles Darwin, who was normally not a visual thinker, came up with an image to help him conceptualize evolution—an irregularly branching tree. This signified that all of life started from one seed; some branches of the tree ending, others still growing and sending off new shoots. He literally drew such a tree in a notebook. This image proved extremely helpful, and he returned to it time and again. The molecular biologists James D. Watson and Francis Crick created a large three-dimensional model of the DNA molecule with which they could interact and alter; this model played an important role in their discovery and description of DNA.
This use of images, diagrams, and models can help reveal to you patterns in your thinking and new directions you can take that you would find hard to imagine exclusively in words. With your idea exteriorized in a relatively simple diagram or model, you can see your entire concept projected at once, which will help you organize masses of information and add new dimensions to your concept.
This conceptual image or model can be the result of hard thinking, which is how Watson and Crick devised their three-dimensional DNA model, or it can come in moments of fringe awareness—from a dream or a daydream. In the latter case, such visualizations require a degree of relaxation on your part. If you think too hard, you will come up with something too literal. Let your attention wander, play around the edges of your concept, loosen up your hold on consciousness, and allow images to come to you.
Early in his career, Michael Faraday took lessons in drawing and painting. He did this so he could recreate the experiments he had witnessed at various lectures. But he discovered that drawing helped him think in many ways. The hand-brain connection is something deeply wired within us; when we attempt to sketch something we must observe it closely, gaining a feel through our fingers of how to bring it to life. Such practice can help you think in visual terms and free your mind from its constant verbalizations. To Leonardo da Vinci, drawing and thinking were synonymous.
One day, the writer and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe made a curious discovery about the creative process of his friend, the great German writer Friedrich Schiller. Paying a visit to Schiller’s home, he was told that the writer was not in but would return shortly. Goethe decided to wait for him and sat down at Schiller’s writing desk. He began to be assailed by a strange feeling of faintness, his head slowly spinning. If he moved to the window, the sensation went away. Suddenly, he realized that some kind of weird and nauseating smell was emanating from a drawer of the desk. When he opened it he was shocked to see that it was full of rotten apples, some in an extreme state of decay. When Schiller’s wife came into the room, he asked her about the apples and the stench. She told Goethe that she herself filled the drawers with these apples on a regular basis—her husband delighted in the smell and he found he did his most creative work while inhaling the fumes.
Other artists and thinkers have devised similar peculiar aids to their creative process. When doing his deepest thinking about the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein liked to hold on to a rubber ball that he would periodically squeeze in tandem with the straining of his mind. In order to work, the writer Samuel Johnson required that he had on his desk a cat, which he would periodically stroke to make it purr, and a slice of orange. Supposedly only these various sensual cues could properly stimulate him for his work.
These examples are all related to the phenomenon of synesthesia—moments in which the stimulation of one sense provokes another. For instance, we hear a particular sound and it makes us think of a color. Studies have indicated that synesthesia is far more prevalent among artists and high-level thinkers. Some have speculated that synesthesia represents a high degree of interconnectivity in the brain, which also plays a role in intelligence. Creative people do not simply think in words, but use all of their senses, their entire bodies in the process. They find sense cues that stimulate their thoughts on many levels—whether it be the smell of something strong, or the tactile feel of a rubber ball. What this means is that they are more open to alternative ways of thinking, creating, and sensing the world. They allow themselves a broader range of sense experience. You must expand as well your notion of thinking and creativity beyond the confines of words and intellectualizations. Stimulating your brain and senses from all directions will help unlock your natural creativity and help revive your original mind.
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