#290 from Innovative
Leader Volume 6, Number 8
Machinery of Creative Thinking
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).
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.
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
these abilities are so extraordinary, we tend to think that only a
handful of geniuses are able to make important creative
contributions, but thatís 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 weíve 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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, itís 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.
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
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.
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
creative visual synthesis, you begin with a basic form and
interpret the form, not in terms of a problem youíre 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 ďV.Ē
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. Itís
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