An often overlooked but important aspect of Creativity

One of the earliest people to recognize that posing questions and finding problems can be an invaluable tool in learning was Socrates. Almost 2,500 years ago, Socrates developed an approach of asking questions (elenchi) to reach a state of contradiction (aporia) to help discover new insights for the concept under study. Even though he was eventually found guilty of “corrupting the minds of the youth” and sentenced to death by drinking poison hemlock, his ideas survived and influenced the present-day scientific method.

Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, leading figures in the field of creativity, have explored the role of problem discovery in creativity. In a landmark experiment, they brought in art students who were given the task of drawing still life from a selection of objects. They found that students displayed one of two behaviors – problem-solving students spent less time choosing and manipulating an object they painted, while problem-finding students spent considerably longer examining and manipulating their objects. What they learned next was quite interesting.

The problem-finding artists generated paintings that were judged to be more original by a panel of independent experts. What was even more fascinating was how these artists fared in the long run. Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi measured the success of these students seven years after the experiment and again after another eleven years. They found that problem-finding students were the most successful in their careers as artists compared to problem-solving students, many of whom had abandoned art altogether!

Problem posing isn’t just relevant in the art domain – it extends to even mathematics, a field conventionally not considered creative. In a study conducted on creativity and mathematical problem posing, researchers asked high school students in US and China to come up with as many mathematical problems in different tasks. An example task was a figure of a triangle with an inscribed circle where the participants had to make up problems related to the figure. Researchers then evaluated the responses on the fluency, flexibility and originality – key dimensions of creativity. They found that the more mathematically advanced students were also more creative in posing problems compared to their peers. Professors Singer, Ellerton and Cai, who study mathematical education in the different parts of the world, summarized as follows: “Problem posing improves students’ problem-solving skills, attitudes, and confidence in mathematics, and contributes to a broader understanding of mathematical concepts and the development of mathematical thinking”.

Creativity flourishes when problem finding meets problem solving. Professor Edward Silver, who conducts research related to teaching and learning of mathematics, observes, “The connection to creativity lies not so much in problem posing itself, but rather in the interplay between problem posing and problem solving. It is this interplay of formulating, attempting to solve, reformulating, and eventually solving a problem that one sees creative activity”.

Problem finding is at the core of MindAntix – users not only solve creative problems but are encouraged to find new problems that they have observed or discovered in the process. Problem finding, while often overlooked, is a meta-skill applicable to many different domains and is an indicator of both creativity and excellence.


MindAntix Brainteaser: Wacky Inventions

What’s the best way to spread butter on toast? It turns out that people have pondered this problem at length and have come up with many solutions, including a recently funded Kickstarter project for a ButterUp Knife . But did you know about this little known “invention”, Butterstick – butter that comes in a stick just like a glue stick or a lipstick? You simply twist the bottom and start applying the butter – simple, easy and no dirty knives!

The inventor of Butter Stick and hundreds of other such creative inventions is Kenji Kawakami, the progenitor of Chindogu, the Japanese art of “unuseless” inventions. The word Chindogu, translates to “strange tools” or tools that seemingly solve a problem, but as Kawakami explains, “chindogu have greater disadvantages than precursor products, so people can’t sell them. They’re invention dropouts.“ Nevertheless, Kawakami finds making Chindogu “an intellectual game to stimulate anarchic minds” and pursues this art with an almost spiritual devotion.

The art of Chindogu has spread all over the world since Kawakami created it in the late 1980s. Tina Seelig, professor at Stanford University and author of InGenius: A Crash Course in Creativity, considers Chindogu to be an indispensable tool to spur innovative thinking (the Imagination component in her Innovation Engine model) and routinely uses it in her courses. Chindogu, as Dr. Seelig describes, is about  “putting things together in surprising ways – they are not useful, they are not useless but when you put them together interesting things happen.”

Chindogu is the inspiration behind the MindAntix brainteasers, “Wacky Inventions”. But there is a twist – instead of identifying a problem and then building a gadget to solve the problem, you have to combine the two random objects in the brainteaser in a meaningful way to solve some problem.

At a recent Creative Thinking session, I gave a group of 4th and 5th graders an additional task – not only did they have to make an invention using two random objects, they also had to make an infomercial to sell their neat gadget to their classmates! It didn’t take long for the creative juices to start flowing. We soon had impressive ideas from different teams like Jumbrella Skiing using an umbrella and a jump rope (because water skiing while standing is hard, so why not sit down and relax while you are being pulled?), and a Hold-a-Loon using a balloon and a paper clip (you never have to worry about carrying heavy books again). Not only did all teams accomplish their goal of creating something novel, they were all amazed at having created something useful out of completely random elements.

Connecting and combining ideas from different domains is the essence of creativity. Fun exercises like Wacky Inventions and Chindogu are a great way to build associative thinking skills. Nurturing such little-c and mini-c creative adventures is an essential element in paving the way for groundbreaking innovations later.

MindAntix Brainteaser: Opposite Day

One of the oldest known examples of cryptography was found on a Babylonian cuneiform tablet that contained a secret formula for pottery glaze. The inventor of the secret recipe jumbled up the figures defining the ingredients to prevent people from stealing the recipe. More than a thousand years later, Julius Caesar started using the shift cipher to encrypt his private messages. For the next two thousand years, people used increasingly more sophisticated systems for encrypting messages. Yet, all of them were based on one fundamental premise – that in order to encrypt and decrypt a message both parties must have the same key.

In the early seventies, Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, along with Ralph Merkle, reversed this basic assumption and completely changed the cryptography landscape. Their invention of public key cryptography enabled Internet commerce to take off dramatically by allowing people to encrypt credit card transactions without having to first establish a common key between the seller and the buyer. As Frans Johansson describes in his book, The Medici Effect, “By reversing this assumption, Diffie and Hellman found the intersection between the field of cryptology and a particular, curious brand of mathematics involving so-called one-way functions.

Reversing assumptions is a powerful way to break free from preconceived notions. Michael Michalko, who outlined his assumption reversal technique called “False Faces” in Thinkertoys, explains, “Reversals destabilize your conventional thinking patterns and frees information to come together in provocative new ways.” Reversing well-established assumptions is the inspiration behind the “Opposite Day” category of brainteasers on MindAntix. The goal here is to reverse a commonly held assumption and then find ways in which the reversal is meaningful. Let’s take an example.

Suppose, you were to reverse the assumption that “Doors have handles”. If you imagine a door that doesn’t have the typical handle, you might think of a door that is perhaps operated by a foot pedal. In what situation might you need this kind of a door? Perhaps, when it’s inconvenient to use your hands, like when your hands are full from carrying grocery bags. That might trigger the idea of making a garage door that uses a foot latch to open the door allowing you to bring in your shopping bags more conveniently.

Of course, there are many different ideas you can come up with that reverse the assumption in the above example. The point of this exercise is to allow you to gain fresh insights by breaking free from conventional patterns of thinking. It would be much harder to come up with novel ideas if you simply asked yourself to make a better door. But by asking a more specific (and powerful) question, it’s easier to trigger a more novel response.

The next time you are stumped with a challenging problem, try to examine your assumptions and reverse them. You might be surprised by what you discover. As Isaac Asimov, the famous science fiction author said, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.

MindAntix Brainteaser: Many Uses

One of the most common divergent thinking tasks is the Alternate Uses (AU) Task where you take an everyday object and think of different uses it can be put to. For example, a cup could  be used as a flower vase or as a hat or even as a toy. Designed by psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1967, the Alternative Uses Task is used as a standard creativity task to evaluate fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration of responses. But coming up with creative ideas is tricky because most people find it hard to move beyond their first strong associations. So, how can you jumpstart your brain into thinking of novel ideas?

In a study done on the Alternate Uses Task, researchers found that participants arrived at more novel responses after listing more obvious ones (typically after 10 or more responses). In a different study on divergent thinking strategies, researchers analyzed how participants responded to alternate uses and discovered some interesting patterns. They found four underlying mechanisms that people use to trigger new ideas: Memory Use (pull pre-known responses from memory), Property Use (pick a property and search for functions using that property), Broad Use (review the object against a broad use like “transport”), and Disassembly Use (pick a component of the object and find a use for it).

We can apply the three step process for creative thinking to our cup example to discover novel ideas in a more structured way. As the first step, we dissect the object into its properties (glass, metal, round), function (drink liquids from), or assumptions (hold liquids, kept open side up). In the next step, we can try and change one or more of these properties and then see if the resulting object could be used for something else. For instance,

  • instead of holding liquids, it could hold solids (vase, piggy bank, pencil holder).
  • if it was inverted it could be used as hat or a lamp shade.
  • if it was made of paper, you could cut the circle at the bottom and use that as a coin.

Once you dissect in many dimensions, you get many more starting points to modify things and come up with neat uses. In fact, the responses deemed most creative (property use) in the divergent thinking study fit neatly into the dissect and manipulate approach. You could also include the third step, associate, to increase your idea fluency. For example if you attach a string and a ball to the cup you could make a new kind of paddle ball or kendama.

So, when you attempt the “Many Uses” brainteasers (a loosely constrained version of Alternate Uses) on MindAntix, or similar problems elsewhere, try to dissect and change things to trigger more unusual connections. And remember, your best ideas will likely come in the second wave – after the more obvious ones.

Top 3 Creativity Myths

When someone says the word “creative” what is the first image that springs to your mind? Do you imagine a lonely, long-haired, and somewhat eccentric artist toiling away in his dingy studio? If so, you are the victim of one of the most common stereotypes associated with creative people – that they all tend to be artists. Such stereotypes and misconceptions extend not just to creative people but also to what creativity means. So here are our top three misconceptions about creativity that just don’t seem to go away.

Myth 1: Creativity = Art

Most people equate creativity with art. In fact, the top images for a google search on “creativity kids” show children busy making art, with paints of different colors covering their hands and faces. But creativity isn’t just about making some pretty artwork – it’s about making something original and useful. Some of the most creative people weren’t artists – they were scientists, engineers and doctors who pushed the boundaries of what was possible in their fields. For example, Sergey and Larry’s idea to combine citations with websearch, was highly creative and led to a groundbreaking new search engine.

Myth 2: Children are more creative than adults

This myth arises from two erroneous beliefs. First, that children are naturally creative and as they grow older they learn to suppress their creative instincts. But that’s not really true. Lev Vygotsky, the famous Russian psychologist, notes that “everything the imagination creates is always based on elements taken from reality, from a person’s previous experience.” Children’s imagination lacks the sophistication of an adult’s imagination because they don’t have a similarly extensive and diverse experience to fuel it. As a result, children’s imagination is not richer – it just leans towards fantasy because it has fewer elements to combine in meaningful ways. The second flawed view is that creativity is really the same as imagination. Imagination is a precursor to creativity, but imagination by itself can result in many impractical and outlandish ideas. To be truly creative, ideas need to be novel and useful.

As children mature, not only does their imagination improve, because they have more experience to rely on, but their ability to critically analyze ideas and discard impractical ones increases as well. And as they move into adulthood, they become a more creative version of their younger selves.

Myth 3: Creativity arrives spontaneously

Most people believe that creativity comes in sudden bursts of insights.  David Burkus in his book, The Myths of Creativity, points out that “Eureka” moments don’t occur in isolation – instead they fall into a larger five-stage process of preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation and elaboration. It’s incubation, the stage that precedes an insight, where people briefly step back from the problem that gives an illusion of spontaneity. So Archimedes’ famous eureka moment, when he  found a way to measure the purity of a gold crown, was really only possible because he had been mulling on the problem for a while before he decided to relax and take a bath. In fact, in some areas like science, major breakthroughs in insight come after years of working on problems. As Keith Sawyer, remarks in his book, Explaining Creativity, “scientists have discovered that creativity is mostly conscious, hard work.