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Cognitive Tools for Creative Thinking

Friday, May 15th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

It has been some time since I have touched upon this topic. Recently though, I initiated a discussion at work on ways to enhance and stimulate creativity and  creative thinking and presented a suite of methods for generating and refining ideas. I didn’t get into the insight-based aspects of creativity, nor the high-level kinds of synthesis you see with people who have genuine mastery over a field or domain. My focus was more on developing people’s ability to think divergently, generate or recognize novel ideas and then refine or develop them.

Therefore, many of these are active, intentional exercises or strategies. They tend to be productive but their creativity is not quite the same as what is produced, say, when a skilled musician is “jamming”, an inventor is tinkering or a painter or scientist is experimenting in the “flow“.  The following are also not an exhaustive list:

Creative Problem Solving (CPS)

Developed by Alex Osborn and Sidney Parnes, CPS seeks to harness Divergent and Convergent thinking in a holistic, multi-step, learning process. In essence, the students are sequentially alternating between Generating ideas and Focusing on refining, evaluating, applying them until the “problem” is solved. This is one of the older models of instilling creative thinking and has been widely used, particularly for well-defined or technical problems.

Edward DeBono Lateral Thinking Exercises

DeBono developed a system of forced choice and association exercises that are well suited to promoting critical and creative thinking at the same time as students address a concept or activity. Lateral Thinking exercises lend themselves naturally to being made into graphic organizers or as leading questions in class or group discussion. Some examples:

PMI – “Plus, Minus, Interesting”                             OPV – “Other People’s Views    

ADI – “Agreement, Disagreement, Irrelevant”  APC – “Alternatives, Possibilities, Choices”

EBS – “Examine Both Sides”                                      CAF – “Consider All Factors”

HVLV – “High Value, Low Value”                             AGO – “Aims, Goals, Objectives”

TEC – “Target, Explore, Conclude”                          PISCO – “Purpose, Input, Solutions, Choice”

Related to Lateral Thinking, but not the same, is Horizontal Thinking. While the former are concrete exercises, horizontal thinking is using a familiar area of knowledge to look for analogies and patterns in less or unfamiliar fields. Both Lateral and Horizontal thinking differ from the traditional model of analytical-reductionist Vertical Thinking associated with critical thinking done within a subject matter field. Vertical thinking and Lateral/Horizontal thinking complement one another




Variations on “Brainstorming

We all have used brainstorming. There are some ways to make brainstorming more productive.

Ideational Pools – Ask a series of open-ended questions to a group that creates a much richer, single “pool” of ideas than simple brainstorming

Uses, Instances, Similarities – this is usually about a physical object and the purpose is to generate as many alternatives as possible – i.e. “How many different uses can you think of for a piece of rope?”. It is both divergent and lateral thinking as an activity.

Synectics – Extends brainstorming by taking the results and developing metaphors, similes, metonymy/synedoche that describe/explain them

Group Roles (or stages)

  1. Generator: Comes up with ideas
  2. Conceptualizer: Organizes, categorizes, renames ideas
  3. Optimizer: Refines ideas with a view to action – the “How”
  4. Implementor Takes action


Morphological Synthesis

Morphological synthesis works through decomposition and forced association, There are several variations but it works best with well-defined problems. Examples.

  1. Define the problem or identify a thing. List all of the attributes.
  2. Combine and re-configure attributes in new ways


  1. Divide problem into parts
  2. Develop a solution for each part
  3. Combine solutions


Critical Question Mapping

A system of fast learning, developed by friend of ZP Dr. Terry Barnhart, discovers the “what” of a situation by having everyone brainstorm all of the critical questions that must be answered to find a solution. No declarative statements may be made, only questions asked. After the group has exhausted the potential questions, the questions can be organized into clusters, a learning strategy, divided for research, etc.


Scenario Exercises

The use of imaginative but realistic premises for a thought experiment and discussion. Popular in the fields of futurism, alternative history and physics, they allow the students to explore reasons behind making decisions, constructing hypothetical, framing problems or as an allegorical experience before exploring the real situation or problem. Scenarios come in different forms and draw on both critical and creative thinking:

Counterfactual: Ex- “What if the South won the Civil War?”

Futurist: Ex- Imagine a world entering a new ice age – how would Illinois ecosystems be impacted by the climate change?”

Physical: Ex- “Schrodinger’s Cat”

Paradoxical: Ex – “Could a man travel through time and kill his own grandfather? Could you drown in the fountain of eternal life?”



Juxtaposing opposing or incompatible authoritative views to encourage synthesis or reflective choice. This is a favorite technique of Charles Cameron in his Hipbone method of analysis that he employs regularly here at ZP.



Moral Reasoning

Like Scenarios, moral reasoning and ethical dilemmas push people to think both creatively and critically. Example:

“A madman who has threatened to explode several bombs in crowded areas has been apprehended. Unfortunately, he has already planted the bombs and they are scheduled to go off in a short time. It is possible that hundreds of people may die. The authorities cannot make him divulge the location of the bombs by conventional methods. He refuses to say anything and requests a lawyer to protect his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. In exasperation, some high level official suggests torture. This would be illegal, of course, but the official thinks that it is nevertheless the right thing to do in this desperate situation. Do you agree?”

Many ethical dilemmas and student solutions can be analyzed according to Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development but the value for creative thinking is in creating the conditions of a forced choice requiring a resolution.



What techniques do you use for creativity?


Camera angle: the place of aesthetics in analytics

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — suggesting that the ability to make “creative leaps” falls within the aesthetic realm ]

Kiefer Sutherland asleep towards the beginning of the movie Dead Heat:

Kiefer Sutherland in Dead Heat ca 8.30

And Mantegna‘s Lamentation over the Dead Christ



I don’t think there’s much doubt that the film-maker Mark Malone, was influenced by Mantegna’s mise-en-scène.

What interests me here, however, is not the diference between the two narratives, one secular, one sacred, nor the question of influence, but the opportunity this juxtaposition provides for me to stress that resemblance, or more generally, pattern (as in “pattern recognition”), is an aesthetic skill, with the corollary that the richest and most illuminating congruences between items of cognition across disciplines or media are those in which the parallelisms or oppositions are most exact.

It is the exactness of the formal correspondance between two thoughts, images, or events that permits their divergences to become salient to us, and in our search for insight, it will be precisely those correspondences which most richly illustrate this principle that will offer us the greatest possibility of fresh insight — which can then be explored with all the rigors our critical faculties can contrive.

Happy New “Creative Leap” Year

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — wondering whether a von Kármán vortex street might be a good place to take a Paul Lévy walk one of these days — when I’m out and about, foraging for new ideas ]

"Named after French mathematician Paul Lévy, a Lévy walk is characterized by many small moves combined with a few longer trajectories."


M’friend Bill Benzon of the New Savanna blog posted two paras out of an NYT blog piece, Navigating Our World Like Birds and Bees, today:

What they have found is that when moving with a purpose such as foraging for food, many creatures follow a particular and shared pattern. They walk (or wing or lope) for a short time in one direction, scouring the ground for edibles, then turn and start moving in another direction for a short while, before turning and strolling or flying in another direction yet again. This is a useful strategy for finding tubers and such, but if maintained indefinitely brings creatures back to the same starting point over and over; they essentially move in circles.

So most foragers and predators occasionally throw in a longer-distance walk (or flight), which researchers refer to as a “long step,” bringing them into new territory, where they then return to short walks and frequent turns as they explore the new place.

I can’t help but think that this may give us a closer approximation to the way minds can think than our usual terms, linear and lateral, or on a wider scale, disciplinary and interdisciplinary thinking, with the short walks involving thoughts that require investigation but not analogy, and the long steps being leaps by analogy into new territory — the familiar hop, skip and jumps we also call creative leaps.

From my POV, seeing both linear and leaping thoughts this way allows for the fact that what we’ve been calling linear thoughts aren’t so much linear as local, while analogical thoughts by their very nature take us from one thought domain to another — via parallelism or opposition — leaping conceptual distances.

Which is why I can wish you a Happy New “Creative Leap” Year! — even though 2014 isn’t divisible by 4 and there will still only be 28 days this February.

Concerning four flags and two tees

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — a brief meditation on word and image ]

Flags have been in the news quite a bit recently. There were the Marine Corps and Confederate flags carried by the protester outside the White House in the upper panel below:

and the flag some protesting Native American (Lakota?) grandmothers took from the white supremacists who hoped to establish a community of the like-minded in the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota — in what one account called an improv “game” of “capture the flag”.

So that’s two protests, right there. But the title of this post suggests it will concern “four flags and two tees” — and thus far I have mentioned three flags. The fourth is the flag worn as a tee-shirt decoration by one of the Grandmothers, and as shown below (upper panel) it is in fact the flag of the American Indian Movement:

while by way of contrast, the tee worn by the confederate-and-marine-flags chap is a logo rather than a flag — it’s a Southern Thread Men’s Special Deluxe Art Tee to be exact. As the ad says:

Alone or under a snap front shirt or a button down, you can show your southern roots or the vintage inspired western look.


My mind is a side-winder, as you know, so all this thinking about flags and logos got me thinking too about the Logos (or Word of God) and his standard.

When the Emperor Constantine, for better or worse, co-opted Christianity or converted to it or both, his battle cry in hoc signo vinces (or in this sign you will conquer in late Barbarian, in case that’s your maternal tongue) raised the chi-rho as the sign, ensign, or battle flag — the logo if you will — of the newly baptised Roman Empire. The chi-rho — ☧ — combining the first two letters of the Greek word Christos, and meaning the Anointed One.


Flags and mottos are consequential things. Which comes first: the image, or the word?

Glass Beads and Complexity

Monday, May 27th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — achieving something like closure on a post I started for Adam Elkus here, with a side dish along the way here ]


It’s astonishing to me how closely complexity science is related to Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game.

Adam Elkus recently pointed those who follow him to Cosma Rohilla Shalizi, Methods and Techniques of Complex Systems Science: an Overview, and just a quick dip there gave me the graphic I’ve put at the head of this post, together with this quote about “patterns” as Shalizi understands that term:

I mean more or less what people in software engineering do: a pattern is a recurring theme in the analysis of many different systems, a cross-systemic regularity. For instance: bacterial chemotaxis can be thought of as a way of resolving the tension between the exploitation of known resources, and costly exploration for new, potentially more valuable, resources (Figure 1.2). This same tension is present in a vast range of adaptive systems. Whether the exploration-exploitation trade-off arises among artifcial agents, human decision-makers or colonial organisms, many of the issues are the same as in chemotaxis, and solutions and methods of investigation that apply in one case can profitably be tried in another. The pattern “trade-off between exploitation and exploration” thus serves to orient us to broad features of novel situations. There are many other such patterns in complex systems science: “stability through hierarchically structured interactions”, “positive feedback leading to highly skewed outcomes”, “local inhibition and long-rate activation create spatial patterns”, and so forth.


Let’s start with patterns. The “people in software engineering” Shalizi mentions gleaned their use of the term “pattern” from the architect Christopher Alexander, author of the extraordinary, seminal book A Pattern Language, which in turn has hugely influenced computer science. Alexander distilled the essence of his thinking in his “Bead Game Conjecture”:

That it is possible to invent a unifying concept of structure within which all the various concepts of structure now current in different fields of art and science, can be seen from a single point of view. This conjecture is not new. In one form or another people have been wondering about it, as long as they have been wondering about structure itself; but in our world, confused and fragmented by specialisation, the conjecture takes on special significance. If our grasp of the world is to remain coherent, we need a bead game; and it is therefore vital for us to ask ourselves whether or not a bead game can be invented.

Manfred Eigen, Nobel laureate in Chemistry, called his book with Ruth Winkler-Oswatitsch Laws of the Game — and it deals with molecular biology, cellular automata, game theory, and games. But not just that — it is specifically written with Hesse’s concept in mind:

We hope to translate Hermann Hesse’s symbol of the glass bead game back into reality.

While we’re on about cellular automata, what about Stephen Wolfram? I don’t know that he talks about the Glass Bead Game himself, but at least three people talk about Wolfram’s book, A New Kind of Science, and/or his search engine, Wolfram Alpha as being strongly analogous to Hesse’s game — Jason Dyer, Graeme Philipson, and most recently, Mohammed AlQuraishi. Here’s a key para from Quraishi’s piece:

I think the Game is an intriguing concept, and I think it may one day be realized. In fact I think we are already on our way toward realizing it. In the simplest and most general sense, mathematics and programming languages allow us to formalize all knowledge. Contenders for the language of the Game already exist, at least in principle. But we are further along than that. Search engines like Wolfram Alpha have already begun the process of formalizing diverse pieces of knowledge, unifying them in a single medium, and providing the means to connect and reason about them. A repeated example in the book, the mapping of musical compositions to mathematical formulas or even historical events, is eminently doable within Wolfram Alpha. Much remains to be done of course, and there is no “game” yet that can be played across the vast sea of all human knowledge, but some enterprising individuals have already gotten started on creating it.

And then there’s John Holland, the “father of genetic algorithms”. Holland told an interviewer:

I’ve been working toward it all my life, this Das Glasperlenspiel. It was a very scholarly game, starting with an abacus, where people set up musical themes, then do variations on it, like a fugue. Then they’d expand it to where it could include other artistic forms, and eventually cultural symbols. It became a very sophisticated game for setting up themes, almost as a poet would, and building variations as a composer. It was a way of symbolizing music and of building broad insights into the world.

If I could get at all close to producing something like the glass bead game I can’t think of anything that would delight me more.


I’ve been working on a playable variant on the Glass Bead Game too, for twenty years quite consciously, and more if you count subterranean stirrings. And I don’t think glass beads, or stones, or chess or go pieces, or beads on an abacus, or strings of ones and zeros, or cells in an agent-based model for that matter, are the way to go. Which is not to say those approaches shouldn’t be tried, or don’t have remarkable things to teach us. I just don’t believe they give us quite what Hesse envisioned:

a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.

I think what’s important in Hesse’s game is that concepts that humans can grasp should reveal their stunning interrelations to heart and mind. And for that reason, the “moves” in my games [Hipbone, and more recently Sembl] consist of concepts — musical, verbal, visual, mathematical — and the links, the analogies, the “semblances” between them.


And thus the game is a search for analogies.

The human mind must inevitably perform what Shalizi calls the “trade-off between exploitation and exploration”. Some thoughts are proximate to others, they can be developed without any special insight by regular “linear” thinking. We do this every day, every minute — but it is not particularly revelatory. It doesn’t solve thorny problems, much less create beauty. There is another mode of thinking, however, that leaps between thoughts that are not so “close” but are nevertheless deeply related. To leap the apparent distance between such deeply related thoughts, we deploy analogy and creative thinking, and that is where the aha! of revelation occurs.

So I would suggest there is a close analogy here with the point Shalizi is making with the diagram atop this post. The human mind, to slightly paraphrase Shalizi’s caption, will “exploit the currently-available patch of food” for thought by linear, inside-the-patch thinking, but at full stretch it will also “explore, in hopes of ?nding richer patches elsewhere” — the “elsewhere” being attained precisely by “creative leaps” — by seeing semblances, patterns, analogies.

And to return to my earlier post, Thinking outside the cocoon, of which this post is a continuation, and perhaps the completion….

Shalizi’s “random walk” is thus also the archangel’s “zig-zag wantonness” in that great poem, Tom O’Roughley — when William Butler Yeats asks, “how but in zig-zag wantonness / could trumpeter Michael be so brave?” and writes, “wisdom is a butterfly / and not a gloomy bird of prey”…

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