Saturday, April 28, 2018

Metacognition: Thinking about Thinking – the dawn of creative thought

“There are no gods in the universe, no nations, not money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

                                             --Yuval Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind 


The cognitive revolution arose from the evolution of the human brain into our most important organ.  Artwork from European caves painted 40,000 years ago is often cited as the dawn of creativity through artistic effort and the use of symbols to communicate – indicating a new kind of intelligence that made us homo sapiens, thinking humans.  Our language skills—and the thinking that mobilized them—began to hone into abstract concepts and “fictive” capacity around 70,000 years ago—the inception of the Cognitive Revolution.

Recently, the discovery of an abalone shell workshop in South Africa containing iron oxide (ochre) pigment and dating to 100,000 YA (=years ago) points to an even earlier benchmark for creative awareness – meaning that the mind had to think very attentively to what and how it was creating, and to the social aspect: how that creativity would be received and understood.  This sets back the date of discovery of conscious thinking beyond the cognitive starting block of 70,000.  The date keeps receding as we learn more about the brain and how it developed.  Yuval Harari’s account in his best-selling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015) through culture, anthropology, and economics, puts the cognitive revolution at around 70,000 based on many clues about how human began to develop our giant brains.

About that time, human brains took a giant leap forward that ultimately made us lords of all other species on the planet.  While we had been tool-makers for far longer, and firemakers for 130,000, suddenly the brain size expanded beyond the confines of energy use, from 8% of our energy to 20%, transferring our body’s allocation from muscle-building to building up the 100 billion neurons that make up the brain’s huge capacity to form connections.  Human children build up to a thousand of these new neurons per second.  With homo erectus, our new upright posture freed our hands so that they became fine-tuned for developing tools and working them. And when humans started using fire for cooking, the time required for the body to process food drastically diminished, protein intake shot up, and the stage was set for the large brain that quickly came to rule the world. 

What happened then to our new capacity for thinking?  We could move beyond survival and coping with food procurement and defense, moving along the path from tool-making and fire wrangling to begin managing larger and larger social structures, building new kinds of architecture including religious shrines, developing clothing and textiles, domesticating animals, painting, sculpture, and later writing.  The ability to reflect on our own brains, to look inside the black box of those complex structures and ideas, images, and symbolic representations--which could be articulated for others to respond to and in turn think about--formed the early core of creativity, metacognition.  Without understanding completely what our own brains do and how they do it, this question of how thinking and consciousness operates is an ongoing project for science as well as philosophy; the 1990s were the Decade of the Brain.

But the search for meaning goes back well before fMRI research.  Philosophy since the Greeks and earlier was asking questions of how our thinking emerges from our search for purpose and meaning, as well as lower-level problem solving of finding our lost keys and following directions.  Existentialism is the branch of philosophy concerned with existence – to explore the question of how we are conscious of ourselves and our meaning to self and others. 

Further back, Buddhist meditation was about becoming conscious of our own consciousness.  Rather than being shunted around by our perceptions and our emotional reactions to them, the Buddhist mental review (as well as the Western adaptation) trains the mind to observe its own productions…the images, preoccupations, worries, cravings, and attachments streamed by the mind and mind-body connection at warp speed, generating scores of images and thoughts per second every waking moment and in dreaming.  Paying attention to our own consciousness is uniquely human and something that religion (especially Buddhism) has honed to a fine point.  Becoming aware of our own awareness is the key to understanding how the mind       -body works, and therefore how we can intercede in those workings to temper our thoughts, ignore them, put them aside or to sleep, or set them creative tasks. 

How does this cognitive history relate to creative thought?  Deliberate creativity, the kind we can learn to cultivate in our daily living to solve problems and create new ideas and concepts, depends on a conscious focus on how our own thoughts affect our perspective and outlook on problems and opportunities.  Foremost here is awareness of how and why we make opening assumptions about reality that actually limit the vision needed to approach and frame the issues.  Assuming that no one could run a four-minute mile, for example, regardless of athletic prowess, kept anyone from doing that until Roger Bannister’s May 6, 1954 sprint against  the stopwatch; that record stood until just 45 days later, when another runner, John Landy, did even better, breaking Bannister’s miracle record at 3 minutes 58 seconds.  “Impossible” is a powerful mindsetter against imagination. 

But it is that imagination, even more potent than our rational calculating abilities, that gives our thinking its incredible ability to make real anything we can dream up.  That is proven every time a breakthrough occurs in the way we look at what’s possible, starting with the scientific and industrial revolutions.  And human beings do something even better: invent and grow a shared imagination, the collective vision of the world we call culture.     

The master inventions took place in the ancient world – starting with the control of fire, the Ur-invention that led to every other, including our brain-size expansion.  The rope, knife, metalworking, wheel, ramp, calendar, crossbow, irrigation, navigation, mathematics, and language, followed by the written word, were the technologies of creativity that built civilizations and empires as an outcome of our unique ability to think about thinking.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

First, Check Operating Assumptions

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world.  Scrub them off every
once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”      -- Isaac Asimov

If you haven’t heard this one before, try to answer it: 

A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies instantly, and the son is taken to the nearest hospital. The doctor comes in and exclaims, "I can't operate on this boy."

"Why not?" the nurse asks.

"Because he's my son," the doctor responds.

How is this possible?

The “Why can’t the doctor operate?” riddle shows how assumptions can block answers.

Only by blocking the idea that the doctor has to be male (the father) can you get to the answer that the doctor must be female (and the boy’s mother).  This is a simple example of extinction: dismissing an unproductive idea masking the solution from being seen or developed.

What assumptions do we routinely make that create problems with problem-solving?  Usually our common assumptions serve us well.  They keep us from having to reinvent reality every time we wake up. This means that every day, we assume thousands of “facts”:  But in the case of open-ended problems, those that are new, unfamiliar, unsolved, or ongoing, preassumptions (as they are called in psychology—assuming you know basically what things are and how they work) can actually block or derail our efforts at understanding problems, imagining solutions for them, then working solutions into practical tools or fixes we can apply.

Take the mislaid keys problem, a common real-life conundrum.  When we look for our lost keys, we look in places where it’s easiest and most familiar and well-lit. Most of time we search around our home or office in the usual places—and most of the time, we find them.  But when they are hiding in an unusual or unaccustomed place–when ordinary assumptions don’t serve the purpose–we have to seek answers further afield, like our sports bag, notebook cover, refrigerator, under the dryer, or, sometimes, in the lock outside where we actually left them.  Extending perspective in this way is a quite normal form of creative idea-generation.

This leaving the familiar behind, or out-of-the-box thinking, is all the more important for solving persistent wicked-tricky problems with limited resources.    Think about it this way:  The best solutions aren’t obvious, or they would already be implemented everywhere.  Discover the problem-within-the-problem, the core problem lurking inside, through recognizing the solution (not the usual sequence).  But if we’re taking some concept or belief for granted, problem solving is all but impossible because it’s being very effectively blockaded—outside our awareness and knowledge. 

There is a connection between Intelligence and Creativity.  Intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills for general cognitive tasks – understanding what things mean, how they are related, what information might be missing, and how to fill it in, either to carry out actions or to plan for the future by making correct inferences about what things mean and the consequences of events.  Creativity takes intelligence a step beyond—by questioning information, ideas, and standing assumptions to generate new ones and forge new connections.  This calls for the act of destruction as well as generation of the new.

To quote physicist Nikola Tesla on creativity:  “The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention. It is the most important product of his creative brain.”  This is often a matter of redefining the territory in which to look for the most promising ideas.

A full 40 years were required for Englishman John Harrison, a carpenter and clockmaker, to solve the Longitude Problem, the age-old problem of east-west navigation that thousands of minds tried to crack without success over centuries of seafaring disasters.  As Dava Sobel explains in her 1995 history Longitude, once Harrison was able to determine that the solution was mechanical (the chronometer) and not astronomical (the lunar distance method), he was able to work out the solution.  After over four decades of daily frustration, and battles with everyone in authority in science and government, Harrison finally managed to win most of the 1714 Longitude prize.  The issue was deciding where to look, and stop looking, for the answer.  Once that territory was defined, he developed his sea clocks (H1, H2, H3, and H4, “The Watch”), the last completely different from the first, a seeming nonsequitor in evolving the most important time keeper ever built. 

Another example of defining the territory is the discovery of the missing planet Uranus. In 1781 William Herschel discovered Uranus under the assumption that it was a star or a comet.   Through a self-made telescope this astronomer instantly doubled the diameter of the solar system as the first to discover a planet since antiquity. Beyond inventing his original lens to extend humankind’s vision of the heavens, Herschel could show other astronomers where to train their focus.

How about these “truths” that “everyone knows”:  In a country with the world’s best water supply, no one would pay for water because this is a commodity that’s practically free (bottled water).  Americans don’t need a scientific computing instrument in their home (the personal computer and androids), nor do they need or want microwaves in their kitchen (microwave oven).  We don’t care much for raw fish and no such product would ever command a premium price (sushi).  And who would think of spending four years of their life working hard to master subjects they don’t understand and will probably never study or use again—for up to $60 K a year (college education), only to end up in decades of debt?  In addition, would anyone pay top dollar (over $130 a day) to walk through a collection of fake buildings (the theme park)? 

Assumptions are always worth checking against.  There’s a good chance we are all making a critical assumption that stands between us and the hunting grounds of a great discovery.  

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Theory as Practice

                                “Nothing is so practical as a good theory.”

             -        Kurt Lewin, social psychologist and Action Researcher

What is theory?

Theory is that insight for guiding educated guesses across complex and shifting conditions, a road map, or the central lens for policy and decision making.  Theory is background intelligence, the logic system that tells us what to do and why we are doing it, in any given situation.  Tell me why, and I’ll then understand what I need to do.  Simply, it’s the ruling premise of anything: person, place, philosophy, artifact, time period, culture.   Understand it, and you have the key to predicting its workings, history, and effects.  And in relationship to other concepts, an added plus. 

Then why does the term sound so forbidding, abstract, nonessential, or difficult? 

It shouldn’t be, because theory is “high concept” or theme, detailed as a holistic explanation of why things are, how they work, (or are designed to work), and how they can be expected to operate into the future, making theory immeasurably valuable as predictive as well as descriptive.  “Theory of mind” tells us how to read people’s thinking in order to know what to expect they will do as an outcome, and more important, why.  Theory of negotiation formulates the purpose of deal-making, as in MGA, the Mutual Gains Approach.  Theory of second-best deals with suboptimal systems or system parts to make decisions about how to upgrade effectiveness in a factory, economy, or organization.  As engineer W. Edwards Deming drew the equation, “Rational behavior requires theory.” 

Still – what is the problem people have with the theoretical?  Why is the term so off-putting rather than instantly welcome? 

Theory is comprehensive and systematic …so it’s not enough to explain one event or condition (“I have a theory about why everyone is so depressed today….”).  It must explain not just one occurrence but a whole series, and how each event relates to others as well as the larger environment.  Gravity, for instance, in Newton’s theory.  Evolution explains the origins of life and species development and diversification over time.  Quantum mechanics does the math to explain motion and interaction at the subatomic level, far from the intuitive physics experienced in daily life.  Creative problem-solving theory outlines the way ideas can be generated and selected by groups (primarily) to evolve optimal potentials that can produce workable solutions. 

The best sense of theoretical isn’t speculative – it’s comprehensive intelligence, systematically worked out to describe and explain how and why things operate.    

In another domain, detective fiction looks for a theory to explain how the crime was committed, and by whom, through absorbing clues that make sense within a larger view that will include all important persons, motives, and incidents.  Reviewing the narrative or action, the reader must work to construct and test this theory in parallel with the detective’s speculations and investigations, while forming his own ideas that might vary from the detective’s.  The crime theory provides the handle (grip, focus) that affords the ability to see what fits as well as what doesn’t belong in the solution universe.  Within the crime scene and world of motives and characters, the story weaves a matrix to understand the dynamics of the total system.  In this sense, theory is the discovered mind of any black box that can be reverse- engineered to crack the case.

Design theory acts like a well-conceived theme in bringing to life an environment.  It allows the artist to make optimal decisions for any aspect of that design, because it instantly tells you if things fit in or fail to fit.  Assuming a solid understanding of what you are trying to construct, and for what purpose, creates strategy and tactics.  If it’s a midcentury modern house, then Tudor detailing is out.  Good artistic direction operates by design theory that knows one style from another.  Does any given style or action fit into the theme?  Theory is useful to answering yes or no, seeing direction and where to go next, discerning if it’s on or off-track, working backwards from the mind of the design.  If you want a positive vision of the future, lose the dark dystopian spikey designs from Disneyland Paris; if not, then fine.  Without a good working theory, there is no strategy, no battle plan.  That means no way of relating stock buys, marketing moves, career direction, college choice, even time management must be informed in some way about what you want to accomplish in a day, a month, a year, or, as BF Skinner wanted to plan his life, the next ten years. 

In business, it’s not even enough to know your objective – you need theory to give you a working strategy and the tactics to work forward.  The company directive to “increase profits 20%” sounds good – but directives aren’t directions.  How will this happen, and how will it affect every other part of the system?  Is this a short-time goal that will act adversely against longer-term values, relationships, and objectives?  The adage of social science rules the dynamics of any system: you can’t just change one thing.  What must be measured against this 20% gain?  That depends on your theory of profitability versus success.  If the goal is not just profits but long-term value (as Disneyland proved to create in 1955), this theory approach requires strategies divergent from the most common quarterly guidance to cut costs, decrease risk, and tune up productivity.  And what you measure is what you get more of. 

In the study of culture, this adage couldn’t be more on the mark.  Culture is a master matrix of thousands of systems—run by a basic checklist of values.  Looking at it piecemeal won’t yield any insight.  It is the master idea that drives story-telling.  All parts relate to a major subject and theme, giving a design template for generating ideas and processing information.  Cultural analysts (like us) ask basic questions devised to elicit answers to clarify:  What is jewelry for?  Marriage, children, work, money, time, energy, profit, change, belief?  The research answers demonstrate the essence and power of theory—the thinking framework behind understanding where any culture has been, what it wants, and where it is headed led by its cultural credo, its value DNA. 

There are simply too many facts, choices, agendas, purposes, and goals active at any point to make sense of any of the big picture.  That means we need ways to clarify the big themes that make sense of the detail, to clarify the larger purpose.  Academic approaches tend to make things more complex, not more clearly simple.  We need a theory of culture to do that: arriving at organizing principles to sort out “unrelated” material to profile meaning, purpose, and direction, in culture at large as well as in design and creativity.  The alternative is random file folders without links or logic.  We have plenty of those already.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Creativity Is More than Imagination, It’s Evolution

 “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” 

                                       -        Carl Sagan, astrophysicist

 “Creativity is as important as literacy.”

-        Ken Robinson, education philosopher


A maxim in the world of applied creativity, attributed to Linus Pauling, is that “The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”
Steve Grossman thinks that’s the worst thing you can do. 

Cultural Studies colleague Steve Grossman has been working and consulting in applied creativity for decades. To the practice of consulting he brings far more than getting to original answers to solve inveterate problems.  He has spent his time with industrial clients in thinking carefully and consistently about the care and feeding of ideas—how to conceive and nurture them.  And surprising, also, how to kill them off when they aren’t serving a creative cause.   
As a result, Steve finds that he must constantly differentiate between the act of imagination and the act of true creativity.  When people talk enthusiastically about the wonders of being creative (how good it makes them feel, for example, to be in that elite league of the “creatives,”) his habit is to put up his hand in warning and caution them that “You mean that you are imaginative; that’s far different than being creative.”  Because creativity is more than generating free-form ideas, loosely connected, or vaguely envisioned.  It is finding brilliant solutions to problems – from small to overwhelming, from the annoying to the intractable. Or in inventing whole new ideas from which thousands of others can spring. 
Imagination with Purpose

This purposeful solution-finding means allocating time and focus and attention to cultivating “imagination with purpose.”  Rather than spending energy and attention on what is beyond our control, we can, with the right focus and knowledge, shift our energy to what can be created.  Inspirational writer Roy T. Bennett notes that “Change begins at the end of your comfort zone.” 

Allocation of effort means doing more thoughtful perceiving, and noting where you are in the domain of ideas in the process of doing that.  At its core, Grossman says, creativity is “much less a generative act and far more an act of recognition.”  The recognition skill “lies in the ability to look at something apparently unrelated to a problem and discover there an exciting connecting pathway to a solution.” 

And here we come to the killing-off phase.  This is difficult to countenance because ideas are difficult to come up with and work out; they seem too heavy an emotional and labor investment to just jettison.  But this is exactly the reason we have long-term unsolved problems, he claims: we keep trying to find our keys over and over in the places where things are easiest to find: out in the open, under a streetlight, or by the door—those places where we most commonly leave them.  The stroke of genius is to start looking in unexpected places more difficult to navigate and not as well lit – the garage, the back of the sock drawer, next to the curb, even in the trash.  By extinguishing (mentally roping off) the familiar and easy terrain where people are accustomed to thinking and operating, we open the mind and fancy to new hunting grounds where completely novel ideas have a chance of being recognized and taking hold of the imagination in the form of unexpected answers to long-term problems.  

Idea extinction

So first: kill off old ideas.  Why? So that the nonsense, irrelevant, stupid, crazy, impossible notions have a different place to land and take root, instead of rehashing the same old list of ineffective ones. Extinction is the first phase of Darwin’s process of evolution, followed by mutation and selection (survival), as the basis for new idea finding and deployment.

Creativity expert Robert Weisberg has said that novel solutions arrive as we move further away from the very concept of the problem we started with, and that withdrawal or extinction process begins with negative feedback about our first inadequate moves to solve that problem.  In other words, in order to come up with better ideas, the first batch must die off, and quickly. 

Extinction is absolutely essential to moving forward to ideas that will actually work.  But much group creativity, especially, is tied into simply trying to generate tons of ideas and then to somehow prioritize these simply by how attractive they appear out of the gate as potential solutions.  When such ideas are selected with sticky colored dots, put to work as implemented projects, and then fail to solve the initial problem, people are at a loss to explain why--or to come up with a next generation of very different ideas, because it feels like starting over.  But, as it turns out, admitting defeat is exactly the new opening move needed to go forward.

Assumption reversal

There is now far more work waiting even once lame ideas are dismissed.  Once they can concede defeat, the problem-solvers can then begin the next phase of assumption reversal, a concept Steve has been credited for.  In this process, primal assumptions are tested by asking the question:  “What beliefs are we acting on that we assume are so carved in stone that there is no way to even question them?” Hard to do, or even think about, because underlying pre-assumptions are always concealed beneath our conscious radar – we don’t even know we are making them.  This is the essential feature of all cultures, which over the course of long histories of commonly accepted beliefs, act as shared social contracts to honor basic truths about the world and social relations.  Cultural assumptions build mental castles difficult to find our way around and even harder to update, change, or challenge.  

However, once an assumption is reversed--the idea behind it challenged and nullified for the purposes of the extinction exercise--huge new domains are opened up and available for exploration.  At GEON, makers of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), the work group questioned the truth value of “coffins are used to bury people” to open their manufacturing up to plastic pet coffins.  They had been stuck on the horrifying notion of burying people in plastic; once liberated from that construct, they were suddenly able to see the application to pets rather than people.  Actually, the growing appeal of cremation challenges the Western taboo against burning bodies—when the burning is contained and sanctified.  An interesting new burial product is Irish home soil imported to the US designed for its large ethnic population.  The idea is to mix the soil of the mother country with the ashes, or inter in the coffin or grave.  The effect, of course, is to be metaphorically buried in ancestral ground. 

Getting to applied

Creativity is imagination purposefully and productively applied.  Getting to applied separates the intuitive act of imagination from the more demanding rigor of shaping up ideas into recognizable working solutions: first, under a clear definition of the process, then using tools and techniques to make the outputs of imagination real.  This is the mentality behind the magic.

Now the question to shape the future:  How many fixed assumptions are we making as problem-solvers, creators, or designers that just aren’t necessary or even true?  How can venturing outside the lines, then reversing assumptions, change the course of everyday thinking by a block-busting invention or intervention?
Website for Steve Grossman: