#290 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 8          August 1997

The Machinery of Creative Thinking
by Steven M. Smith, Ph.D.

Dr. Smith is a founder of the Creative Cognition Research Group at Texas A&M University, and is co-author of Creativity and the Mind: Discovering the Genius Within (Plenum Press, New York,1995). people.tamu.edu/~sms6285/

Although the equipment you use may not be your primary interest, it can be useful to understand the nature and functioning of the tools of your trade.  A truck driver whose job is to deliver cargo doesn't need to be a full-fledged mechanic; still, a driver can do the job more effectively by knowing something about the equipment he or she is using.  Likewise, one whose job is to think creatively doesn't need to be a cognitive scientist to be innovative.  Nonetheless, a basic understanding of the workings of the human mind can be a great advantage for the creative thinker. 

Creative thinking is at once both special and ordinary.  Only humans create art and literature, comprehend and harness the sciences, even creating our own artificial tools and environments.  Because these abilities are so extraordinary, we tend to think that only a handful of geniuses are able to make important creative contributions, but thats not so.  Creative thinking is the norm for humans, and can be seen in nearly all of our mental activities, ranging from visualization to memory and our use of language. 

The mind works in naturally creative ways, allowing us to instantaneously recognize objects weve never seen before, to reconstruct and reconsider memories of events long past, and to smoothly produce novel sentences to suit every new conversation.  These are examples of personal creativity, which may not be novel and valuable to the world at large, but which can benefit you personally.  To obtain truly innovative products from this mental engine of creativity you must learn to use your cognitive machinery in ways that emulate the methods used by creative geniuses. 

We are now beginning to understand how you can use ordinary mental operations to produce genuinely creative innovations.  We refer to this as the study of creative cognition, a discipline that explores the creative nature of thought.  Many people do not understand the distinction between the terms mind and brain.  The brain is a physical organ, whereas the mind is the system of thoughts created by the brain.  The analogy to computers here is useful; the brain is analogous to the hardware system, whereas the mind is analogous to software, such as the programs you might store on a disk drive.  The term cognition refers to the software-like structures and operations of the mind. 

Cognitive psychologists subdivide the mind into perceptual systems, which provide us with mental representations of stimuli in our immediate environments, working memory, which houses all conscious thought, and long-term memory, a repository of personal experiences, factual knowledge, and well-learned procedures.  For example, if you were given a problem to solve, you would use your perceptual systems to construct your idea of what the problem is asking, retrieve relevant memories and factual knowledge from long-term memory, and use your working memory to consciously apply that retrieved knowledge to the problem. 

This interactive cognitive system has numerous implications for creative thinking.  For example, because creative problems are notoriously ambiguous, the first representation of the problem that your perceptual system provides might not lead to a solution.  Different contexts bias people to perceive the same problem in different ways.  Another implication this system has for creative thinking is that the more knowledge on a subject that is stored in long-term memory, the more mental tools one has to bring to bear on the creative problem solving carried out in working memory. 

The creative cognition approach to innovative thinking has been applied to a number of important phenomena related to creativity, including recovering from mental blocks, combining and extending concepts, and using mental imagery to discover and develop ideas.  Cognitive scientists now have the means to study these mental operations.  The ultimate goals of creative cognition studies are to learn how creative thinking is carried out, how to train individuals in the use of creative cognition, what pitfalls to avoid in creative thinking, and how to augment human creative abilities with artificial systems. 

Since people have studied creativity, the importance of combinations of ideas has been emphasized.  In brainstorming groups, for example, participants are encouraged to generate as many ideas as possible in order to increase the potential for combinatorial play.  The creative cognition approach is beginning to shed some light on why new ideas sometimes emerge from combinations of existing concepts, and which combinations are most likely to produce novel ideas.  We have learned, for example, that combinations are more likely to produce emergent new properties if concepts from different domains are combined (e.g., computer and mouse), rather than concepts from the same domain (e.g., dog and mouse).  Furthermore, it appears that concepts that are in long-term memory can be creatively extended by using analogy.  The concept to be extended, such as the structure of the atom, is first aligned with a second concept, such as the solar system, in this case by seeing that the atom's nucleus is like the sun, and that electrons are like the orbiting planets.  A new idea might emerge when you consider the effect of comets on the solar system, and imagine what similar effects might occur if a subatomic particle were to enter an atomic field. 

Using and extending your long-term knowledge can solve a lot of problems, adding incrementally to creativity.  Although this is the way that creative work usually proceeds, there are also times when using methods you already know leads you directly into a trap.  Trying harder to generate creative solutions to problems by using old inappropriate knowledge may just dig you deeper into a mental rut.  When you find yourself in a mental rut, its necessary to reject the inappropriate methods you are using.  One way to do this is simply by putting the problem aside for a while; when you return to the problem the solution may suddenly pop into your head, a phenomenon called incubation. 

Although some have postulated that incubation allows a sort of unconscious work on the problem to proceed, there are simpler explanations that fit better into our conception of the human cognitive system.  In this case an incorrect approach has become associated with the original problem-solving context.  The so-called period of incubation weakens this association.  By letting this negative association weaken over time, you may stop blocking your creative thinking.  Most important in recovering from these mental ruts is that you shift contexts, allowing you to perceive and interpret the problem in a new, potentially creative way.  Accounts of great historical insights show that creative geniuses were often outside of typical work contexts when they made their discoveries. 

Another concern of creative cognition has been the use of mental imagery to support creative thinking.  Mental images are novel constructions with visual properties.  The images are created in working memory, but they are derived from bits of knowledge stored in long-term memory.  There are many historical examples of mental imagery used by creative geniuses to make their important discoveries.  For example, Einstein pictured himself riding astride photons during his development of the theory of relativity.  Kary Mullis pictured tinker-toy structures to create the Nobel Prize winning polymerase chain reaction (PCR). 

Another use of mental imagery in creative thinking departs from the traditional approach in which you begin with a problem and search for creative solutions.  In creative visual synthesis, you begin with a basic form and interpret the form, not in terms of a problem youre working on, but in terms of some randomly chosen area, such as an invention, a piece of furniture, or a theory.  For example, you might visualize some combination of a rectangle, a crescent, and the letter V.  You may interpret this combination as a new type of surgical instrument, a beach chair, or an idea for a jet propulsion system.  This method exercises a less restrained type of creative thinking, and resembles methods sometimes used by artists, musicians and writers to generate new ideas.

The few subjects covered here constitute only small pieces of the creative cognition puzzle.  Its important to see that everybody possesses each of these cognitive abilities, and that anyone can improve their creative abilities.  The first step, however, is to learn about the cognitive machinery you must rely upon to create and develop important innovative ideas. 

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