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In Search of the "Ah Ha" Moment
Have you ever had an “ah ha” moment? It’s what you feel when you get a vision, when you suddenly come up with a solution to a difficult problem, or when a great idea comes to you seemingly out of the blue. Behavioral scientists have been studying this phenomenon for over a century. Recent research indicates that this creative insight is more positively influenced by “unexpected connections” than by deep knowledge of a particular field.
Previous studies suggested that knowledge and experience within a given domain are the most necessary ingredients for insight. These researchers theorized that the more knowledge an individual possesses in a given topic, the more likely they are to recognize relationships between different ideas, leading to an increasingly strong ability to create reliable patterns and thus meaningful insight into the topic. in question. . However, this knowledge alone does not produce insight.
In fact, more recent studies show that the level of experience an individual brings to a field can inhibit creative problem solving. This is due to what creativity experts call “functional fixation.” You’ve seen functional fixation before: it’s when an expert can only see an object used for its intended purpose. People who have solved problems in a particular way many times before form problem-solving mechanisms that prevent them from developing creative solutions. Experts usually understand the answers to problems by looking for well-defined solutions. This type of problem solving is more likely to lead to small, incremental solutions than the “ah ha” response of vision.
Unexpected connections = “ah ha”
Several behavioral scientists, working in the 1990s, argued that understanding occurs when a person’s mind is able to unconsciously review random combinations of ideas that are eventually synthesized. This theory explains why many of the most remarkable scientific advances occurred through a process of free association. Free association is when a person generates as many unusual combinations between the different knowledge they have, then examines the results, keeping only the best combinations. William James wrote about this process a century ago, a Principles of Psychology (1890):
Instead of thoughts of concrete things patiently succeeding each other in a well-trodden path of ordinary suggestion, we have the abrupt crossings and transitions from one idea to another, the rarest abstractions and discriminations, the combination of ‘most unheard of elements, the most subtle. associations of analogy; in a word, we seem suddenly to enter a seething cauldron of ideas, where everything moves and moves in a bewildering state of activity, where associations can be fastened or loosened in an instant, the routine of the tape is unknown and the unexpected seems only Law. (p. 456)
The role of chance, then, is crucial to insightful discovery. One researcher, Melissa Schilling, writes: “This random recombination seems consistent with illustrative anecdotes from some of the great discoveries of the past.”
Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson puts it another way. In his 2006 TED talk on how schools are killing creativity, he offers this definition of creativity: “The process of coming up with original ideas that have value.” Creativity, he tells us, “is born from the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.”
How can we develop “different disciplinary ways of seeing things?” It’s one of those mandates, like “be creative” or “think outside the box” that sounds so easy, but tends to leave a person scratching their head, wondering where all their innovation is. I think we need to create the means to make connections, and I think the place to start is reconnecting our brains with our bodies.
Cartesian division repair
Since the 17th century, Westerners have operated under the unconscious assumption that our brains and bodies are separate entities. This separation of our heads from our bodies — defining ourselves as having a “body” as distinct from a “mind” — has caused a myriad of problems, from obesity to lack of mental agility , global warming and violence against women, to the focus of this. role: decreased creativity. In Brain rules, a book about what scientists know about how the brain works, author John Medina demonstrates how exercise improves all aspects of brain function. The body and mind are so connected, Medina tells us, that “aerobic exercise, just twice a week, cuts the risk of Alzheimer’s in half by 60 percent.” So if you want your brain to function at peak capacity, first connect it to your body. My best ideas come when I’m in the shower or walking. Sitting at your computer, you’re much less likely to hit on an idea worth exploring than if you’re swimming or staring at the same computer while riding an exercise bike.
“Fill the box”
Begin to see your life and your work as one big “assemblage”. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s online definition of assemblage: “an artistic composition made of scraps, scrap, and obsessions.”
Whatever artistic impact an assemblage has, be it moving, insightful, beautiful, disturbing, whatever, that impact results from the juxtaposition of different elements, selected and arranged to create something new for their association
Take for example the work of assemblage artist Joseph Cornell. It’s the way Cornell associates his materials that makes the work fresh, gives it meaning, and gives the viewer that “ah ha” feeling. Many examples of Cornell’s work can be found through the simplest of web searches.
“Filling the box” means picking up those odds and ends that appeal to you, for whatever reason. Collage artists do it all the time. They create a “morgue” of interesting papers, pictures, scraps of fabric, broken tools, etc. His “morgue” is a storehouse of materials for future projects. Sometimes just tossing an artifact into the box sparks an idea: the old bell from a cat toy rolls into the metal tag of a high school ball trophy and — “ah ha” – I’m creating a piece. about the meaning of toys and games.
You can “fill the box” in your life. Do not edit. Whatever touches you, keep it: like a cheeky postcard a friend sends from their trip to Big Sur that made you roll your eyes, or a short story you read in a seventeen a magazine while waiting for your child at the dentist’s office that made you cringe, or an old photo of your uncle with someone you’ve never met that made you curious, or the worn-out Oshkosh overalls he lived through your child for a summer. about to go to Goodwill that made you cry. Everything that makes sense, holds mystery, attracts attention, awakens a memory, delights, disgusts, angers or surprises. collect it You never know when the juxtaposition of one thing with another will yield an insight.
Isn’t this the most used term of our decade, next to “entrepreneur?” Well, I say use it for your own connection. Collaboration involves connecting with other people; this part is pretty obvious. It should also mean connecting with other domains of knowledge. If you want to gain insight into your own domain, bring in people from outside. How others interpret the things you’ve already categorized and become an expert on will push you out of patterns and assumptions. Find the people you least expect to inspire you and put them on an innovation team. I cannot stress this enough.
Father: Son, put down that stick!
Son: It’s not a staff, it’s a sword.
That’s what I mean. I once directed an original Bronte production stormy peaks. Before casting the show and rehearsing it with actors, I gathered a creative team to read the book, discuss it, and discover surprising ways to stage it. The team consisted of a clinical social worker, a lawyer, a chiropractor, a designer, another director, an actor and a real estate agent. This team met monthly for almost a year. By the end of that time I had an outline for an outrageously original, movement-based play that catapulted our small company into one of the best-funded experimental theater companies in our city, and invited us to establish- us the residence in an established theater place. , and increased the number of board members. We also got some pretty cool artists to sign up with us for our next show, because they wanted a piece of what we were doing. I would never, never, never, never, never have created that show without forcing myself to encounter the ideas and viewpoints of those people who possessed deep stores of knowledge in domains other than my own.
Chances are you were brought up in a system that placed artistic training at the bottom of the hierarchy. If you’ve excelled in this system, you’re probably pretty focused on a particular area of expertise. If you are successful in your current job, there is a real danger that you are not moving your body much. The popular business press keeps publishing stories about the need for innovation, for creative solutions to our problems, for new ways of looking at the world. Design thinking is the next big wave in MBA pedagogy. In order to meet the demands made by these trends, the demand to, in Sir Richard’s words “have an original idea that has value”, we must begin to value and use diversity of viewpoints, create opportunities to confront- us to random stimuli. , and appreciate the fact that our brain is a bodily organ that depends on exercise to function well. In other words, we need to connect.
James, W. (1890). Principles of psychology (Volume 1). New York: Henry Holt.
Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
Schilling, M. (2005). A “small-world” network model of cognitive information. Journal of creativity research. 17, 131-154.
Simon, HA (1973). Does scientific discovery make sense? Philosophy of Science40, 471-480.
Simonton, DK (1995). Forecast in vision? A Darwinian answer. In RJ Sternberg and JE Davidson (Eds.), The nature of vision (pp. 465-494). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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