If Pigs Could Fly…

In the late 80s, researchers studying logical learning in children gave a group of 4 year olds the premise that ‘all pigs can fly’ and that ‘John is a pig’. Most of the kids had trouble reaching the conclusion that ‘John can fly’, until the researchers changed the instructions a little.

When the researchers first told the kids ‘let’s pretend that [all pigs can fly]…’, their performance on this task improved significantly. Somehow, transferring the rule to a pretend world helped the children in reasoning abstractly about that world.

The exact mechanism of why pretending helps with reasoning is not fully clear, but research in the last couple of decades has shown that pretend scenarios play an important role in cognitive development.

Psychologists, Weisberg and Gopnik, have proposed that unrealistic pretend scenarios don’t just help with counterfactual reasoning – they are also important for causal learning which can in some cases be harder to do with real-world scenarios. As they explain about Einstein’s theories, “Einstein’s thought experiments are a good scientific example of how unrealistic counterfactuals can help to distinguish potential causal structures. Both relativistic and classical theories of physics make similar predictions in commonly observed cases. Considering very unlikely possibilities, such as a world where the speed of light is different, can help discriminate between these theories.

Unrealistic pretend scenarios are also an integral part of creative thinking and utilize, among other things, associative thinking. For instance, comprehending the statement, ‘If dogs had gills…’, requirescreation of an unusual conceptual combination (‘dogs’ and ‘gills’) with potential consequences that go beyond what is literally stated.

Torrance, also known as the father of creativity, included two tasks (‘Just Suppose’ and ‘Consequences Task’) around improbable situations in his Torrance Test of Creative Thinking.

Our newest category of brainteasers at MindAntix, ‘What Would Happen If…’, present unrealistic scenarios and ask users to come up with as many reasonable consequences as possible. Our goal is to build the cognitive processes underlying logical and creative thinking like disengaging with reality, making inferences and associative thinking.

So, the next time you are bored try making up a new world where the usual rules don’t apply. How would things be different in that world? What would happen as a consequence of those strange new rules? And maybe while thinking about that you might even discover a new insight about our own world!

Complete the Picture

We often get compliments and questions about our homepage graphics, so we figured we’ll explain the inspiration behind the design, and also announce our fun summer challenge!

The design is a riff on the Picture Construction Task, from the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, or the TTCT. The TTCT was developed in the 1960s by Ellis Paul Torrance, a psychologist who pioneered research in Creativity in the United States, and has become the most widely used Creativity test in the world. Prof. Kyung Hee Kim, who first documented the decline in Creativity in the US has found that the TTCT predicts creative achievement better than any other creativity or divergent thinking test.

The TTCT contains open ended tasks grouped as verbal (using either verbal or non-verbal stimuli) or figural. As Torrance explains, “Each of the tasks is based on a rationale developed from some research finding concerning the nature of the creative process, the creative personality, or the conditions necessary for creative achievement. The tasks are designed to involve as many different aspects of verbal creative functioning as possible.”

Coming back to the Picture Construction Task, which helps to measure a few creative factors like Originality, Elaboration and  Abstractness of titles. In this task, you are given an initial part of drawing (a squiggle or a simple shape) and the goal is to draw a picture where this initial drawing would play an integral part. Below are the instructions that accompany the task:

At the bottom of this page is a piece of colored paper in the form of a curved shape. Think of a picture or an object in which this form would be an important part. Then lift up the piece of colored paper and stick it wherever you want it on the next page, just like you would a postage stamp. Then add lines with pencil or crayon to make your picture.

Try to think of a picture that no one else will think of. Keep adding new ideas to your first idea to make it tell as interesting and as exciting a story as you can.

When you have completed your picture, think up a name or title for it and write it at the bottom of the page in the space provided. Make your title as clever and unusual as possible. Use it to help tell your story.

It’s easy to see how our design ties to the Picture Construction Task. We used each letter in the word “creative” as a stimulus for another picture, like the letter “a” is part of a snail’s body or the letter “v” is part of a star. That brings us to our creative summer challenge.

Can you think of a new way to write “Creative” using each letter as a starting point? Use your summer break to think of a clever idea and send it for a chance to win an Amazon gift card! 

As you start working on the challenge, try to think of ideas no one else would come up with it. Be sure to include an explanation of your design when you send it to us. And don’t worry about your artistic skills – what we are looking for is how creatively you use each of the letters in the design, not necessarily how well you can draw. 

Happy Creative Thinking!

Email your entries (.jpg, .png format) to hello@mindantix.com by Aug 31, 2016 to be eligible for the contest. Gift card value is $25. Contest open to US residents only.


Evaluating Divergent Thinking

From the Greek Daemons to Galton’s historiometry, human creativity has been a subject of fascination for many centuries. Formal scientific inquiry into this space, however, is considered to have started after J.P. Guilford’s Presidential Address for the American Psychology Association in 1950 where he stressed the importance and need for research into Creativity. That led to a spate of research in different aspects of Creativity and finally some consensus on what Creativity means.

Creativity, by most definitions now, means coming up with ideas that are both novel and useful. Psychologist, Dean Keith Simonton, expressed Creativity as

Creativity = Originality x Appropriateness

In other words, if an idea is original, but it doesn’t solve any problem or isn’t appropriate in that context, then it is not creative. Similarly, if the idea is useful and appropriate but isn’t new, then again it isn’t creative.

This focus on both originality and appropriateness is what makes Creativity tricky. And what’s the most recommended way of coming up with a creative idea? Coming up with lots of ideas!

In fact, Guilford believed that divergent thinking, or the ability to generate many ideas to a solution, was an important subset of creative thinking. While he did not think that divergent thinking alone could be equated with creativity, it has become one of the more well-known aspects of creativity.  

Guilford’s model of divergent thinking has turned out to be a useful way to evaluate individual creativity, and it’s the model we are now using for teachers to evaluate student responses on MindAntix. In his model, divergent thinking includes 4 different components, explained using an Alternate Uses Task (possible uses of a leaf):

Fluency: Fluency is the ability to generate lots of ideas. If Ann comes up with 20 uses for a leaf while Ben comes up with 7, then Ann shows more fluency than Ben.

Flexibility: Flexibility is the ability to come up with different categories of ideas. Suppose Ben thought of using the leaf as a placemat and as a shelter for a bug, and Ann thought of using the leaf as a paintbrush and as a quill. Ann’s ideas fall in the same category of writing/drawing instrument whereas Ben’s ideas fall in different categories. In this case, Ben shows higher flexibility than Ann.

Originality: Originality is the ability of generating unique or unusual ideas. Using the same example as above, if no one else thought of Ben’s idea of using the leaf as a bug shelter, then that idea is original. Practically, responses given by 5% or 1% of the respondents are considered unique.

Elaboration: Elaboration refers to the ability to add details and fill in the gaps. For instance, if Ann responded with “hold the leaf from the stem and dip the tip into paint to use as a paintbrush” instead of “use as a paintbrush”, she would score higher on elaboration.  

Torrance, psychologist most famous for his work on creativity, lamented that “Children are so accustomed to the one correct or best answer that they may be reluctant to think of other possibilities or to build up a pool of ideas to be evaluated later.” Guilford’s model of divergent thinking provides a handy way to help move children move past the one-right-answer mindset.


Computational Thinking and Creativity

In the decade between 2002 and 2012, the number of Bachelor degrees awarded in Computer and Information Sciences fell by more than 17%, the largest decline for any field in that time period. While graduation rates in Computer Science have been ticking up more recently, we still do not produce enough graduates to fill the growing demand for STEM jobs prompting Obama to comment: “Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job.”

One reason for the low number of STEM graduates is the high attrition rate (~50%) due to students who switch their major. Students whose first exposure to a programming language is in college find the coursework and getting good grades challenging. Researchers studying this phenomenon found that, “due to the difficulty experienced in learning to program, some students drop from the major all together instead of continuing and learning a different programming language or choosing an alternative technology track.” One clear solution is to start introducing computer science fundamentals, or computational thinking, earlier in schools. Computational thinking is an approach to formulating problems in a way that computers and other tools could be used to solve them.

Proponents of introducing computational thinking in K-12 point out, “All of today’s students will go on to live a life heavily influenced by computing, and many will work in fields that involve or are influenced by computing. They must begin to work with algorithmic problem solving and computational methods and tools in K-12.” That leads us to the next problem – how do you introduce a kindergartner to algorithms and programming concepts?

One approach that is gaining traction worldwide is the Computer Science Unplugged project. Initiated at the University of Canterbury, it uses games and activities to expose children to the kind of thinking that is expected of a computer scientist, all done without using any computers. One reason that the Unplugged approach is becoming popular is that it requires less commitment and resources to introduce children to computational thinking. But what exactly does computational thinking involve?

Mitchel Resnick, professor at MIT whose group created the Scratch programming language for kids, and his collaborator identified three dimensions of computational thinking – computational concepts (the concepts designers employ as they program), computational practices (the practices designers develop as they program), and computational perspectives (the perspectives designers form about the world around them and about themselves).

In our newest after-school program, currently in pilot, we are using the unplugged concept to not only introduce children to computational thinking concepts (like sequential logic, conditionals or flowcharts) but also creative thinking (changing perspectives, associational and analogical thinking) and storytelling. During this program children will create a puppet show that incorporates some programming and creative thinking elements, to make a fun and interactive final show.  

Both computational thinking and creative thinking are now considered critical 21st century skills. In fact, merging creative thinking exercises in computer science education has actually been shown to improve learning of computational thinking. Our goal with this program is to help children grow into more effective problem solvers.

How to be an Original

Our world is rapidly becoming more complex. The kinds of challenges we face today, like the effects of technological advancement and global warming, will require unprecedented levels of innovation and ingenuity to solve. So what can we do now to ensure that we eventually overcome these challenges and move the world forward in a healthy direction?

The key might lie in developing people who not just excel at traditional academics (what most gifted programs focus on exclusively), but who can also think creatively and get their ideas adopted. Or, as the renowned organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, likes to call them –  “Originals”.

In his latest book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant notes that “Although child prodigies are often rich in talent and ambition, what holds them back from moving the world forward is that they don’t learn to be original. As they perform in Carnegie Hall, win the science Olympics, and become chess champions, something tragic happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies and beautiful Beethoven symphonies, but never compose their own original scores.

Using surprising insights sprinkled throughout the book, Grant shows how anyone can learn to be an Original. While his insights cover the gamut from coming up creative ideas to championing them effectively in the workplace, here are three learnings that would be useful to adopt even as early as elementary school age.

Generate Lots Of Ideas

The best way to find that creative, game-changing idea, is to have lots of ideas. In fact, that’s what the eminently creative people in all fields do. Mozart composed more than 600 pieces before he died at the age of thirty-five, but only a handful of them made it into London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 50 greatest pieces of classical music. Similarly, Edison, one of the most prolific inventors known, had over a thousand patents over his lifetime. While most people know him as the inventor of the lightbulb and the phonograph, few know that many of his ideas, like a creepy talking doll and concrete beds, completely failed. 

Oftentimes, a truly creative idea is lurking behind the less creative ones, and can only be seen after the other ideas have gotten out of the way. In a study done on the Alternate Uses Task, researchers found that participants arrived at more novel responses after the initial wave of obvious ones (after 9 responses, in their case). The researchers recommend that “To get more original solutions, one must push past and build upon the ideas generated first to arrive at the less obvious ideas and associations.

Even in an area like Mathematics, not typically considered a creative field, coming up with more than one solution to a problem has been shown to improve and deepen understanding in that topic.

Start With The Unfamiliar And Make It Familiar

One powerful technique to come with original ideas is to use an unfamiliar or novel starting point.  Justin Berg, a creativity expert at Stanford, asked people to design some novel products to help job interviewees as part of an experiment. When he gave them a familiar starting point of a 3-ring binder, most of the ideas that people could come up with were fairly obvious. But when he gave them a starting point of inline-skates for roller blading, the group generated ideas that were rated 37% higher in originality.

Starting with an unfamiliar or random stimulus helps people break free of the typical associations and forces them to find new ones, generating more unusual ideas. This is the underlying mechanism for the “Wacky Inventions” brainteaser and the Japanese art of Chindogu.

Develop An Artistic Hobby

A fascinating study that Adam highlights in his book, compared Nobel Prize-winning scientists to typical scientists who were equally technically proficient in their fields. The researchers found one surprising correlation –  the Nobel Prize winners were significantly more likely to be involved in arts than their less accomplished peers.  If the artistic hobby was drawing or painting, the likelihood of being a Nobel winner went up to 7x, and for performing arts like theater, dance or magic the odds were as high as 22x!

So why does that happen?

One reason is because an interest in arts is a reflection of a curious mind. But more importantly, the artistic hobby itself can help build new associations and spur new creative insights. The reason that Galileo was the first astronomer to discover mountains on the moon, was because he recognized the tell-tale zig-zag pattern of dark and light regions, due to his training in an artistic technique called chiaroscuro. As Adam Grant explains, “…it’s not just that a certain kind of original person seeks out exposure to the arts.  The arts also serve in turn as a powerful source of creative insight.

To learn more about originals, check out Adam’s insightful TED talk.