What objects or “things” could you bring into play, to help you reach a fresh new view of what’s possible?

Source: Usien via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Usien via Wikimedia Commons

Asked where does thinking take place, maybe we’d answer “in our heads” –– within the internal reaches of our minds.

But is this the full and true story?  Or does it perhaps give too much credit to our mental prowess and powers?  And too little acknowledgment of the many sorts of concrete support that our thinking gets from our physical environment and our ability to physically move and tinker with things?

Does thinking depend not just on how we play with ideas, or thoughts, but also on how we interplay with physical objects — concrete tangible things — existing out there in the world?

—> For more see: Creative Thinking in Action: Sparking insights by using our hands — and things

Of Puppies, Play, and the Pursuit of Creative Insights

Puppy is to dog, as colt is to . . . .  Source: Jonathan Kriz via Wikimedia Commons

Puppy is to dog, as colt is to . . . . 
Source: Jonathan Kriz via Wikimedia Commons

Awakening our creativity with a few simple words. . . .

How much do you think creativity is something enduring and permanent that remains constant across time, that is, you either have it or you don’t?  Or how much do you think creativity depends on the situation or context you are in, and so fluctuates up and down?

This is the topic of Wilma’s latest Psychology Today blog post. For more please see.

When sometimes it helps to forget

Sometimes to make progress in our creative thinking we need to forge ahead in a new direction, setting aside and even forgetting what we’ve tried in the past. But just how intentional does that forgetting need to be?

Redirecting our focus to something entirely new will change our idea landscapes. It can make our previous ideas less accessible to us. This can be a good thing if those ideas were stale or were misleading us.

In a series of experiments, researchers provided participants with a list of several common objects (newspaper, spoon, paperclip, etc.). Each object was accompanied by a list of 4 alternative uses for that object that the participant was asked to study. Here, for instance, are the 4 alternative uses for “bucket”: music amplifier, seat, wear as a hat, small bathtub.

Asked a short while later to generate new uses for the same common objects participants often showed that they had unintentionally forgotten many of the alternative uses they had studied earlier. This “thinking-induced forgetting” was apparent even when participants were given specific cues to help them to remember the studied items.

When the researchers evaluated the creativity of the suggested alternative uses that the participants had generated they found something intriguing. The thinking-induced forgetting was greater for those who were the most creative.

As the researchers explained: “by inhibiting or in some way setting aside the studied uses, participants were able to explore a more diverse and original search space, leading them to generate more creative uses.”

In another experiment, though, the researchers found that if the participants were instructed to use the provided 4 uses as hints to generate additional alternative uses—then there was no thinking-induced forgetting. The same information, now used as hints, for possible uses for a bucket (music amplifier, seat, wear as a hat, small bathtub) was now no longer forgotten and acted to associatively cue ideas that were less creative.

The fate of the provided uses was different depending on how the participants were asked to treat them—either as something to avoid or as something to prompt their idea generation. In the hint condition there was less forgetting—but also less creativity.

conceptual search spaces

From a broader perspective, this illustrates ongoing and adaptive changes in our dynamic idea landscapes with some ideas becoming more reachable and others less accessible. In our idea landscapes thoughts are always forming and re-forming, with some ideas rising to peak awareness and others receding.

 

—> For more on the experiments described above see:

Benjamin C. Storm and Trisha N. Patel (2014). Forgetting as a consequence and enabler of creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, volume 40, number 6, pages 1594-1609. The quotation is found on page 1603.

Exploring at the edges of what we know

Sometimes when we are exploring for ideas or information online, using a search engine, we have a general sense of what we’re looking for—but we can’t put it precisely into words. Yet, we would readily recognize promising outcomes or directions if we saw them.

Some of our online searching goals are more open ended and multifaceted. Here, getting an answer quickly is not our top priority. We’d rather embark on a somewhat slower search that got us closer to where we ultimately would like to be. The journey itself is part of the learning. We make and find as we go along, with each step providing us with new pathways.

How might our search tools themselves better enable us to truly explore? What if our search tools allowed us to fluidly and rapidly express our changing sense of where we really wanted to go?

One recent example that actually registers and iteratively acts upon our search intent in an interactive fashion—repeatedly inviting our feedback—is called SciNet. Imagine you have a research question about gestures. You enter the search term “gestures” and, on a radar-like circular screen, you are presented with a range of alternative topics—a number of which you might not even have thought of, say, “immersive environment” or “accelerometer.” Suppose further, that you can then move those topics about on the screen. You can pull the most relevant topics into the center of the radar screen. Suggestions that seem more peripheral for your purposes, you can move away closer to the outer edge of the circular radar-like display. The system dynamically responds in real time with new suggestions as your expressed interests change.

Such “interactive intent” search has been shown in a study, using SciNet, to provide significantly improved quality of retrieved information, allowing users to access both more relevant and more novel information in an efficient way. The search tool allows us to deeply tunnel into a meaning space that is already familiar to us (exploitation) but also offers support for experimental forays into the currently less well known (exploration). In the words of the system’s developers: “The model and its environment (the user) form an online loop, and learning involves finding a balance between exploration (showing items from uncharted information space for feedback) and exploitation (showing items most likely to be relevant, given the current user intent model).”

This interactive visualization allows the searcher to capitalize on their natural ability to rapidly and largely effortlessly recognize—rather than recall from their memory—relevant information. With this visualization we can rapidly adjust where we are on our “cognitive control dial” as we cycle through moments of automatic recognition and more deliberate evaluation and goal setting. The interactive visual display maps to both our visual and motor capabilities—allowing rapid updating of our search intent without costly sidetracking of our thinking. In this way, the boundary line between what’s “inside” and what’s “outside” in our thinking/meaning space becomes more permeable and more fully integrated with our unfolding thought processes.

Developing such cognitively friendly and fluid interfaces for structuring and guiding our exploratory idea search and experimentation are examples of what we broadly call thinking scaffoldings. As we explain in Innovating Minds, thinking scaffoldings are a way of productively guiding our perception-action cycles. They are intentional queryings and quarryings of our idea landscapes that are meant to help bootstrap (that is, “scaffold”) our idea generation processes. Thinking scaffoldings include not only databases or tools for extracting and identifying promising ideas or directions but also many other modes of scaffolding our idea generation processes such as adopting design heuristics, engaging in reflective verbalization, and drawing on tools for analogical or biomimetic search.

Thinking scaffoldings assist us to transition and keep moving across ideas, prodding us to re-categorize and shake-up or unsettle creative objects or their configurations. They help us to see things we could try or attempt—without an assurance that what we are trying will work.  They prompt us to test and revise, look and revise, and test again.

 

—> For more on exploratory online search see:

Dorota Glowacka, Tuukka Ruotsalo, Ksenia Konuyshkova, Kumaripaba Athukorala, Samuel Kaski, & Giulio Jacucci. (2013) Directing exploratory search: Reinforcement learning from user interactions with keywords. Proceedings of the 2013 International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces, pp. 117-128.

Gary Marchionini (2006) Exploratory search: From finding to understanding. Communications of the ACM, 49(4), pp. 41-46.

Tuukka Ruotsalo, Giulio Jacucci, Petri Myllymäki, & Samuel Kaski (2015) Interactive intent modeling: Information discovery beyond search. Communications of the ACM, 58 (1), pp. 86-92.

Are you prompting yourself to be creative?

A recent large-scale experimental study used a simple computer task. In this task, college students are presented with a noun on a computer screen and asked to say a verb that could be associated with that noun. For example, the noun “dog” could be paired with a verb such as “bark” or with the less expected “rescue.”

This task was done for many different nouns and under two different conditions. In one condition participants were asked simply to produce the first word that comes to mind. In the second condition they were specifically asked to “think creatively.”

The experiment revealed that the prompt or instruction to be more creative made a significant difference in three ways:

(1) If we are specifically asked or cued to be creative we give responses that are less predictable, less conventional, and more creative. Setting the explicit goal of being creative enables us to be more creative.

(2) When we are under no specific goal to think creatively we tend to provide responses that are fast and efficient but that are less creative.

(3) The extent to which the students were more creative when prompted was significantly correlated with being more creative at types of drawing and story writing too, even after taking into account individual differences in on-the-spot problem solving and personality factors such as openness to experience. This suggests that creativity isn’t a single ever-present ability but is something we can boost in response to particular contexts and goals.

 

—> For the full text of the experiment see:

Ranjani Prabhakaran, Adam E. Green & Jeremy R. Gray (2014). Thin slices of creativity: Using single-word utterances to assess creative cognition. Behavior Research Methods, 46, pp. 641-659.

Beyond simple brainstorming: Emerging, without submerging, good ideas

Most everyone knows what brainstorming is—the group idea generation process where any and all ideas are welcomed, and ideas can be combined or built upon. Not being “judgy” is key, etc.

But how many of us know how to assess the effectiveness of a brainstorming session? And how to make what may be a good process even better?

Compared to what?

Individuals in a group brainstorming session may generate many ideas—but how do those ideas compare with the number and quality of ideas that would be produced by the same number of individuals working alone generating their own ideas?

Many research studies and meta-analyses show that typical interacting face-to-face group brainstorming sessions produce fewer unique (non-redundant) ideas than do the same number of individuals working alone. The ideas generated in the typical face-to-face group are also of lower average quality than if the individuals had worked independently.

Why might this be?

Hearing the ideas of others has the effect of associatively cuing our ideas in the same direction as what we are hearing. This can be helpful if it occurs at the right time by cognitively stimulating our thinking in new and useful directions. But such associative cuing can be a big drawback if it occurs at the wrong time, or too soon, preventing us from reaching and articulating ideas we otherwise would have formed.

Another factor is that ideas compete with one another for emergence in our awareness and “bottlenecks” may be created while we wait our turn to speak.

As we observe in Innovating Minds: “Verbally expressing our ideas to the group too soon may lead to a single shared idea landscape—without the beneficial input of each individual’s contributions and successive reworkings. Variations on simpler face-to-face group brainstorming are attempts to avoid the drawbacks of jumping into a single idea space too soon.”

Brainstorming variants

So what should we do?

We might try brainwriting. Here we each individually and silently write down our ideas and place them on idea sheets in the center of a table. People in the group, when they feel they are ready, can select and read the ideas of others, adding to or elaborating on those ideas if they choose. Another approach is to pass the idea sheets along. In the 6-3-5 method: 6 people each generate and write down 3 ideas on their own. Then they pass them along 5 times, silently and in parallel building on the ideas of others, until the idea sheet returns to where it started.

Sketches rather than words could also be circulated this way or later displayed as a “gallery” of ideas. Or ideas could be generated individually and then selectively shared and later broadcast more widely electronically via a computer network.

Each of these are potential ways of maximizing the diverseness of our idea landscapes, reaping the cognitively stimulating benefits of encountering the ideas of others without incurring creativity costs. Such “pairs of pairs of pairs” methods allow varied contributions and intermeshing of the contributions of others in a way that can optimize both individual and group idea generation.

 

–> For a recent extensive review see: Wolfgang Stroebe, Bernard A. Nijstad, & Eric F. Rietzschel, “Beyond Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: The Evolution of a QuestionAdvances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 43, 2010, Pages 157–203.