Why We Keep Getting the Same Old Ideas

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Synopsis

When you change your thinking patterns, your brain makes new connections which give you different things to focus on and different ways to interpret what you are focusing on.

Read the following:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabridge Uinvervtisy, it deosnt mttaer in waht oredr the litteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a ttoal mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is besauae ocne we laren how to raed we bgien to aargnre the lteerts in our mnid to see waht we epxcet tp see. The huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. We do tihs ucnsolniuscoy.

Amazing, isn't it? This paragraph of jumbled words has circulated around the internet. It refers to a research study done at Cambridge University. To my knowledge, that reference is fiction. What is not fiction is how easily we can read the paragraph. These are jumbled letters, not words, yet our minds see them as words. How is this possible? How do our minds do this?

Think of your mind as a bowl of butter with a surface that is perfectly flat. Imagine gently pouring hot water on the butter from a teaspoon and then gently tipping the bowl so that it runs off. After many repetitions of this process, the surface of the butter will self organize into ruts, indentations, and grooves. New water will automatically flow into the existing grooves. After a while, it would take only a tiny bit of water to activate an entire channel. Even if much of the water is out of the channel, the existing channel will be selected.

When information enters the mind, it self-organizes into patterns and ruts much like the hot water on butter. New information automatically flows into the preformed grooves. After a while, the channels become so deep it takes only a bit of information to activate an entire channel. This is the pattern recognition and pattern completion process of the brain. Even if much of the information is out of the channel, the pattern will be activated. The mind automatically corrects and completes the information to select and activate a pattern.This is why you can read the jumbled letters above as words. The first and last letters of the words are correct. For example, in the word "According" I kept the "A" and "g" and mixed up the rest into the nonsense word "Aoccdrnig." Just this tiny bit of information (the first and last letters) is enough to activate the word pattern in your brain and you read "According."

This is also why when we sit down and try to will new ideas or solutions; we tend to keep coming up with the same-old, same-old ideas. Information is flowing down the same ruts and grooves making the same-old connections producing the same old ideas over and over again. Even tiny bits of information are enough to activate the same patterns over and over again.

These patterns enable us to simplify and cope with a complex world. These thinking patterns give us precision as we perform repetitive tasks, such as driving an automobile, writing a book, teaching a class or making a sales presentation. Patterns enable us to perform routine tasks rapidly and accurately. When we see something that we have seen before, we understand what it means immediately. We don't have to spend time studying and analyzing it.

Habits, thinking patterns and routines with which we approach life gradually accumulate until they significantly reduce our awareness of other possibilities. It's as if a cataract builds over our imagination over time and its effects slowly become obvious, because the accumulation goes almost unnoticed until the cataract reduces our awareness significantly.

How then can we change our thinking patterns? Think again about the dish of butter with all the preformed channels. Creativity occurs when we tilt the dish in a different direction and force the water (information) to create new channels and make new connections with other channels. These new connections give you different ways to focus your attention and different ways to interpret whatever you are focusing on. Nature gets variation with genetic mutations. Creative thinkers get variation by conceptually combining dissimilar subjects which changes our thinking patterns and provides us with a variety of alternatives and conjectures.

For example, suppose you want to improve the flashlight. If you sit down and think about flashlights and will yourself to get ideas, you will likely create mostly the usual ideas and the improvements will be marginal.

However, if you conceptually combine flashlight with a garage door opener in the same mental space, you will change your thinking patterns which will ignite your imagination. Combining flashlight with a garage door opener this inspires the idea of a "Superman" flashlight which is an X-ray flashlight using simple microwave technology. The flashlight emits radiation about the same strength as a garage door opener. Like the door sensors, the beam detects motion, including breathing. It can even detect people hiding by a data display on a screen. You cannot get this kind of idea using your conventional way of thinking.

Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.  See more here.

Tags: creative thinking, creativity, imagination, psychology, thinking

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