I’ve always been proud of my ability to focus. In many situations, I can quickly distinguish between what’s relevant and what’s not. I can then block out irrelevant information and focus, for long periods of time, on what’s important. It’s a handy skill for a manager.
Like most skills, however, it comes at a price. First, it makes me a bit of an absent-minded professor. I may lose track of “irrelevant” details like anniversaries and birthdays. However, the more costly price may be a loss of creativity.
When I focus intently on something, I’m doing what a neuroscientist would call “cognitive inhibition.” In simple terms, I’m blocking out. I’m inhibiting information from entering my consciousness. I block out a lot of irrelevant stuff but I may also block out information that could lead to a creative solution.
We often think of creative people as being uninhibited. We use the term to describe their behavior rather than their thinking processes. They may dress unfashionably, behave eccentrically, write strident manifestos, and generally seem at odds with the mainstream culture. This is not a new phenomenon; Plato commented about the odd behavior of poets and playwrights.
We use the term uninhibited to describe behavior, but we should also apply it to thinking processes. In fact, a neuroscientist would call it “cognitive disinhibition”. Essentially, it means that we loosen the filters and allow a variety of thoughts to float to the surface. Fewer thoughts are inhibited or blocked out. Some people seem naturally to have fewer filters.
According to Shelley Carson in her article “The Unleashed Mind”, cognitive disinhibition is the basis of both eccentric behavior and of creativity. Carson defines cognitive disinhibiton as “…the failure to ignore information that is irrelevant to current goals or to survival.” Sometimes, this simply leads to bizarre thoughts and psychosis. For people with high IQs and large working memories, on the other hand, it can lead to creative eccentricity. Carson proposes a “shared vulnerability model” that underlies creativity, eccentricity, and high functioning “normal” performance.
The way we talk about creativity gives a clue to Carson’s model. When we have an “aha” moment, we often describe it as a “breakthrough”. We have literally broken through something – in this case, our cognitive inhibition. If we can lower the resistance to a breakthrough – by reducing our inhibitions – we can become more creative … and, perhaps, more eccentric.
Some moths ago, I wrote a brief article about sleep and creativity. We’re more creative when we’re sleepy. Carson’s model explains why: when we’re sleepy our cognitive inhibitions are lower. I’ve also written about caffeine and creativity. Caffeine keeps us focused. By doing so, it also reduces our creativity.
As it happens, I’m a huge consumer of caffeine. Perhaps that’s why I can focus intently on relevant information. Maybe it’s time to take a caffeine break to see if I can be more creative … and maybe a bit more eccentric.
I used to teach research methods, which is about creating knowledge. Now I teach critical thinking, which is about assessing knowledge. How do we know what we know and how can we assess knowledge in an objective, fairminded way?
It’s a fun course because we think about thinking. We discuss everything from egocentrism to reason, logic, ethics, media bias, and unfair ways to win an argument. Many of the students challenge their own beliefs and we all challenge each other. It’s a stimulating way to learn to think clearly and to avoid getting bamboozled.
What surprises me about the class is how surprised the students are. Even though much of the course is applied common sense, they’ve rarely thought of this before. That concerns me because these are Master’s students. All of them have at least four years of undergraduate study. Yet they haven’t thought about how to think. Here are some quotes from recent student papers:
I never thought to think about thinking
It is revolutionary for me to understand that there is an analytical process called critical thinking that I can [use] to systematically develop clearer thinking…
… while I practiced some critical thinking basics, I had really only scratched the surface
This class taught me that I was unconscious of the connection between my thoughts and emotions.
It was not required in my undergraduate program and I have never taken a class similar to it.
So, I’ve been asking myself, why aren’t we teaching college students how to think? My Mom always told me that the purpose of college was to learn how to think. Was she wrong or have we given up on that objective?
When I was in undergraduate school, the first two years of our four-year curriculum were given over to “general education”. We didn’t start to specialize in our major – finance or engineering or anthropology – until the third year. Today, it seems that general education has simply evaporated. Students start specializing as soon as they land on campus.
So when do they learn to think? If a finance major takes four years of accounting courses, what do they really gain, other than an exceedingly narrow view of the world? I wonder if we haven’t gone too far in the direction of preparing students for the job market. We identify the technical skills the market requires – accounting, programming, etc. – but not the thinking skills.
Do companies really want ace spreadsheet jockeys who don’t know how to evaluate whether an assumption is logical or not? As someone who hired several hundred people in my career, I would say no. I preferred hiring people who can think clearly and communicate effectively. The rest is trivial.
So, I’m all in favor of bringing back general education and teaching students how to think. I’m not sure how to go about it but I’m developing a theory that the MOOCs will help get us back to basics. That may be the silver lining in the coming wave of MOOC disruption.
In February, I wrote about premature commitment. According to Paul Nutt in his book, Why Decisions Fail, premature commitments all too often lead to debacles — decisions gone spectacularly and publicly wrong. The process is fairly simple: 1) we have a problem; 2) a beguiling solution is proposed; 3) we jump on the solution with undue haste and without considering our options or searching for alternatives. After all, we have a solution, don’t we? Why bother looking for another one?
As we read Nutt’s book in my classes, I can tell that students are grasping the general concept intellectually. It’s clear — intellectually and academically — that you shouldn’t commit too soon. Step back, look around, ask questions, survey the possibilities — then make a decision.
That’s all well and good in the classroom but will my students actually be patient when the pressure is on and everyone wants to be a hero? I’m not so sure. So, I’ve been looking for ways to show students what it feels like to make a premature commitment. By experiencing the process — rather than just reading about it — I’m hoping to imprint something on them. When you’re under pressure and a crisis is looming, it’s hard to think clearly. It’s easier to remember an experience than it is to organize your thoughts and respond to a novel situation.
I’ve discovered a video that helps students make the connection. Actually, I’ve known about the video for some time but I used to use it for a different purpose. Then it dawned on me that the video provides a good demonstration of a premature commitment. So, I’m re-purposing the way I teach it. Perhaps that’s an example of mashup thinking.
The video requires you to concentrate your attention for about 90 seconds and count the number of times a specific action happens. Here’s what I’d like you to do: Watch the video twice. The first time, focus intently on the task at hand (the video will explain what to do). Count the number of times the specified action happens and record the number. There is one (and only one) correct answer. Then watch the video a second time and don’t bother to count. Just observe what goes on. Don’t read on until you’ve watched the video twice. You can find the video here.
Watch the video (twice) before proceeding
Did you miss anything the first time you watched the video? Did you notice it the second time? (I’m not going to give it away here but, if you find this confusing, send me an e-mail and I’ll explain it).
About two-thirds of the people who follow the instructions miss an important element of the video the first time they watch it. Perhaps the key phrase here is “people who follow the instructions”. Basically, I conned you into making a premature commitment. I convinced you that — to get the right answer — you needed to pay close attention to the action and count carefully. You decided that it was important to get the right answer, so you played by the rules I imposed. Because you played by the rules, you missed something important in the environment.
What’s the message here? It’s easy to get caught up in the situation. It’s easy to buy into the “rules” that a situation seems to impose on you. It’s easy to let other people rush you to judgment. It’s easy to con yourself. The next time you’re at work and a problem arises and everybody is rushing to find a solution, just ask yourself: “Am I missing the gorilla?”
Want to be more creative? How do you get started? What are the best exercises to stimulate creativity? It all sounds very serious. As it turns out, it may not be so serious after all. The basis of creativity may simply be unstructured play.
That’s the argument that the International Play Association (IPA) makes. According to the IPA white paper Children’s Right to Play, when children play, they “…rearrange their worlds to make them either less scary or less boring.” They also learn how to negotiate, the importance of rules, and a general notion of fairness. It’s not so much rehearsal for adult life (as I had thought). Rather, it’s “about creating a world in which … children are in control and can seek out uncertainty in order to triumph over it — or, if not, no matter, it is only a game.”
The IPA notes that unstructured play can enhance a child’s “…adaptive capabilities and resilience” and “changes the architecture of the brain, particularly in systems to do with emotion, motivation, and reward.” For all these reasons (and more), the IPA concludes that “… play is no mere indulgence; it is essential to children’s health and well-being.” (By the way, the IPA was established in 1961 in — where else? — Denmark. Those pesky Scandinavians again!)
Note that we’re talking unstructured play, which is different than, say, playing baseball or the piano. As Melinda Wenner points out in Scientific American, structured games “… have a priori rules — set up in advance and followed. Play, on the other hand, does not have a priori rules, so it affords more creative responses.” So, taking up all your kid’s time in sports leagues or music classes may actually impede rather than develop their creativity. It’s also important to let kids play with kids. Among other things, kids use more sophisticated language when they play with each other than when they play with adults.
That’s all well and good for kids but what about those of us who are well past our prime playing days? Wenner writes that “Adults who do not play may end up unhappy and exhausted without understanding exactly why.” How should adults play? Wenner makes three suggestions:
Wenner concludes that, “Ultimately, it’s not how you play but that you play.” So enough with this website. Let’s go out and play.
(By the way, IPA next triennial conference will be in Istanbul in 2014. Anyone want to go play?)
When driving home from a party, I may ask Suellen a question like, “Why did Pat make that cutting remark about Kim?” Suellen will then launch into a thorough exegesis about relationships, personal histories, boyfriends, girlfriends, children, parents, gardening, the nature of education, and the tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. In the end, it will all make sense — even to me, a socially challenged kind of guy.
Suellen is great at answering questions like these. It’s often referred to as social or emotional intelligence. It’s about people and relationships and empathy. I’m generally better at academic intelligence and questions like how do you calculate the volume of a sphere? (I don’t mean to say that I’m better at academic intelligence than Suellen is … but that I’m better at academic intelligence than I am at social intelligence. I hope that’s clear… I wouldn’t want my lack of social intelligence to lead me to insult my own wife.)
For me, two intelligences — academic and social — have been quite enough. But not for Howard Gardner. In Five Minds for the Future, Gardner suggests that there are five different intelligences and, if education is to succeed in the future, we need to teach them all.
I’m fairly well versed in the tenets of critical thinking. Now I’m trying to understand Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Why? Because I’d like to mash up critical thinking and multiple intelligences. I’m wondering if critical thinking works the same way in each intelligence. Can you think critically in say, academic intelligence, while thinking uncritically in social intelligence? That’s certainly the stereotype of the absent-midned professor.
To mash up critical thinking and the five minds, let’s first look at Gardner’s theory. The five minds are:
Disciplined mind — to master the way of thinking associated with a specific discipline — say, economics, psychology, or mathematics. I think (hope) it’s also broader than that. I’m certainly trained in the Western way of thinking. I categorize and classify things without even thinking about it. I’m now looking at Zen as a different way of thinking — one that destroys categories rather than creates them. That’s certainly a different discipline.
Synthesizing mind — the ability to put it altogether. Gardner points out that memorization was important in times characterized by low literacy. In today’s era of Big Data, synthesis is much more important and memorization much less important.
Creating mind — proposing new ideas, fresh questions, unexpected answers. As I’ve noted before in this blog, a new idea is often a mashup of multiple existing ideas. To propose something that doesn’t exist, you need to be well versed in what does exist.
Respectful mind — “… notes and welcomes differences between human individuals and between human groups….” This is very similar to the concept of fair mindedness as used in critical thinking. This could be our first mashup.
Ethical mind — how can we serve purposes beyond self-interest and how can “citizens…work unselfishly to improve the lot of all.” Again, this is quite similar to concepts used in critical thinking, including ethical thinking and the ability to overcome egocentric thinking.
Today, I simply want to introduce Gardner’s five minds. In future posts, I’ll try to weave together critical thinking, Gardner’s concepts of multiple intelligences, and the Hofstedes’ research on the five dimensions of culture. I hope you’ll tag along.
By the way, the volume of a sphere in 4/3∏r³.