Archive for April, 2005
ADDENDUM TO COGNITION SERIES
Some of you have asked some important questions in the comments section or in private email. I am not ignoring them, I just had a very limited time to get Part III up and online tonight and some fiddling with the visual was required that I had not expected. Rest assured that I will address all of them tomorrow ( I appreciate your patience !).
POSTSCRIPT: I would like to add, for my ” regulars” that Stuart Berman gets the credit for asking the original question that forced me to start thinking along these lines and I never would have made the connection to insight without his asking how Vertical and Horizontal thinking relate. My thanks,Stuart !
The blogosphere is nothing if not a mighty feedback loop !
The discussion of Horizontal and Vertical thinking brings us to one of the most intriguing questions of cognition which science is starting to answer, what is the nature of insight ? Can we do anything to ” trigger” or increase the frequency of our ” Eureka” moments of true discovery when the pieces of the puzzle abruptly slip into place ? My argument is that insight is a biological event and that is triggered not simply by the stimulus of Horizontal thinking alone but by a feedback loop between Horizontal and Vertical thinking that is mediated by a cognitive activity that theorist John Flavell termed “ Metacognition“. Awareness of this insight process should allow us to intentionally construct environments that will increase the probability of generating insight.
Mankind has been aware of the existence of insight for thousands of years and most educated people are familiar with the story of Archimedes leaping from his bath shouting ” Eureka !” ( ” I have found it !”) at his sudden discovery of water displacement. Nevertheless, formally defining insight has proved difficult though everyone seems to recognize insight when they see it, much like the Supreme Court does with obscenity. From the inception of psychology it was questionable whether insight was actually a tangible process happening within the brain or merely a clever concept that described a chance event of recognition. Thanks to modern research the evidence is leaning strongly toward insight being a physical and identifiable brain function.
For some time it has been anecdotally and clinically noted that insight is not a randomly distributed phenomenon throughout the population. It tends to occur more frequently at the upper end of the bell curve; secondly, there are subgroups within the population such as schizophrenics whose abnormal brain function correlates with significantly lower levels of insight yet even here the degree of insight is affected by the schizophrenic’s educational level.(2)
Even greater weight must given to brain imaging testing of insight that have demonstrated that moments of insight correlate with revealed increased activity in the right hemisphere anterior superior temporal gyrus for insight relative to noninsight solutions. (3) The insight event is measurable and reproducible. A physical process is something that we can intentional attempt to trigger in real-world ” applied” settings and not just a research lab.
John Boyd wrote a laboriously researched, epistemological theory he called ” Destruction and Creation ” where he advocated ” smashing ” the conceptual borders of domains – i.e. Horizontal thinking directed synthesis – as the key to learning and the discovery of new ideas and this process was a continuous cycle, a ” dialectic engine “. (4) I believe that Boyd, without benefit of any advanced brain research data, came very close to finding the actual process of insight.
Where Boyd fell short was primarily in developing the details of his cycle. Horizontal thinking does not occur in a void but against an established body of knowledge with which every individual frames their interpretation of sensory information and symbolic communication. In other words, the data provided by Horizontal thinking must be integrated with a person’s Cognitive Map – the repository of Vertical knowledge and past experiences – to become of use.
The act of integration is really a process by which a person engages in both Vertical and Horizontal thinking, simultaneously or in sequence along with a reflective monitoring of their own thinking ( metacognition). To use a spatial metaphor, the Horizontal data gets ” rotated” mentally, measured for validity and placement ( Vertical thinking) or pattern similarity or potential relationships ( Horizontal) with known phenomena (5). When the significance of the data is understood and its logical parameters discovered the thinking process has crystallized into a moment of insight – an insight that can be empirically or logically tested or in turn may suggest other alternatives ( though seeking proof or generating alternatives can also precede and lead to the moment of insight).
If the Horizontal and Vertical feedback loop does in fact result in insight then I would hypothesize that combining horizontal and vertical thinking techniques is the road to becoming more insightful. We can attack our Vertical frames by a forced change of perspective, reversing premises, counterfactuals, brainstorming, forced association and similar techniques. Likewise, I believe that Novelty – starting anew in a different domain from the ground up instead of ” smashing” across it looking for analogous concepts – is the most powerful stimulus that Vertical thinking can offer to complement Horizontal thinking.
Renaisssance men make themselves, they are not born.
2. R MacPherson, B Jerrom and A Hughes. ” Relationship between insight, educational background and cognition in schizophrenia ” The British Journal of Psychiatry 168: 718 -722 1996.
3. Mark Jung-Beeman1*, Edward M. Bowden1, Jason Haberman1, Jennifer L. Frymiare2, Stella Arambel-Liu1, Richard Greenblatt3, Paul J. Reber1, John Kounios “Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight” PLOS Biology Vol 2. issue 4 April 2004
4. John Boyd, ” Destruction and Creation”, 1976.
5. Larry Dunbar, private correspondence to Zenpundit:
“I see, vertical thought fills in the blank areas of the horizontal line that flows from the thinker. These blank areas contain the visions that the horizontal thinker “sees”. Once the areas are filled in, the vision or pathway is complete. Then we the vertical thinkers may walk the path of the horizontal thinkers. This would be kind of like an Autolisp program written for AutoCAD. The program would ask you the size, shape, and square distance of path, and the AutoCAD application would define and draw it for you. The application would be the vertical thinkers, and you, using the graphical interface of the computer, would be the horizontal thinker. The stepping-stones would be implicit laws that move the trail west“
I had intended to put up Part III. of the Cognition series this evening but the Son of Zenpundit desperately needs his elaboate birthday present assembled. So, instead, please check these fine, hand-selected, additions to the blogroll.
Modern society is organized around Vertical thinking, a condition implicitly understood as far back in time as Adam Smith ,in his Wealth of Nations, where he took note of the emergence of specialization and division of labor in manufacturing. Society is completely dependent upon highly specialized experts, spending their time working within relatively narrow domains, to run a technocratic state and create products and services for an advanced information age economy.
Howard Gardner has written about two types of “ extraordinairy minds” that he calls ” Masters” and ” Makers”. Masters are the Vertical thinking experts, they keep the system running and try to advance the knowledge base of their specialty. We literally have armies of them and though some are more adept than others, all are heads and shoulders above the average layman in terms of their command of information. Makers by contrast are relatively rare. They are the Horizontal thinking visionaries – Gardner uses Freud as his archetype – who create new fields of endeavor and new paradigms with which to view the world.
Young children by default, as anyone who has listened to a pre-schooler describe a sudden realization knows, are natural Horizontal thinkers. For most of us, this capacity falls into disuse during years of formal schooling as we train our brains to organize and manipulate knowledge in terms of categories of vertical hierarchies. While virtually anyone can re-learn Horizontal thinking skills, some of us retain and develop Horizontal thinking to an unusual degree and become the great creative intellects of history. Such people, like Aristotle, Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill or Albert Einstein often either become accomplished in multiple fields or tend to revolutionize those in which they concentrate.
It is the true world-shaking,Horizontal thinking, visionaries who benefit most from the assistance of top level, Vertical thinking, experts. The Visionary sees lines of connection – a pattern or perhaps an overarching principle – across domains that not only eludes most experts but goes far beyond the Visionary’s own disciplinary competence . Almost all great visionaries are also experts at something in particular – it is hard to have superior vision while operating without any reference points. They may not even be at the absolute top of their field – Einstein had his critics who condemned him on technical grounds, such as Schrodinger – but they see far beyond the normal constraints of their discipline.
The Vertical thinking experts measure the validity of the Horizontal thinker’s conceptual vision by either testing it empirically or extrapolating or interpolating the concept to see if it
” fits” harmoniously within the existing Rule-set of the expert’s field. If it does fit, the Vertical thinker usually can correct any mistaken aspects and take the concept far beyond what the Horizontal thinker had even realized to be possible.
It is this cognitive partnership that is driving human progress.
In Part III. we examine evidence that the combination of Horizontal and Vertical thinking is the catalyst of human insight.