What Helen Keller Taught Us about Creative Thinking

What Helen Keller Taught Us about Creative Thinking

Create September 24, 2012 / By Michael Michalko
What Helen Keller Taught Us about Creative Thinking

Conceptually blending separate experiences together creates emergent new ideas.

You may have heard the story of Helen Keller. She was blind, deaf, and mute from an early age and could not communicate. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, realized that the key was to somehow teach her a communicable concept. Sullivan taught her a kind of Morse code with finger play and would scratch the alphabet on her palm to form words. For a long time, Keller could not grasp what this was all about. She said later that she did not know Sullivan was scratching words on her palm; in fact, she did not even know words existed. She would simply imitate the scratches, making her fingers go in a monkey-like fashion.

One day Sullivan, as if in a game, caused Keller to come in contact with water in a wide variety of different forms and contexts, such as water standing still in a pail, water flowing out of a pump, water in a drinking glass, raindrops, a stream, and so on. Each time, Sullivan scratched the word water on the palm of Keller's hand.

Suddenly Keller realized that all these different experiences referred to one substance with many aspects and that it was symbolized by the single collection of letters — the word water — scratched on the palm of her hand. This means she organized the many different experiences of water into a pattern of equivalence by blending them with the word water that she felt on her hand.

Keller conceptually blended the different experiences with the word water by mentally bouncing back and forth and comparing the separate experiences with each other and with the word on her hand. Here we have the undiluted act of conceptual blending, the sudden synthesis of the universe of signs and the universe of things. This discovery of the essence of water initiated a fantastic revolution in Keller's life and the lives of hundreds of others. To further appreciate Keller's achievement, think of how many ages must have passed before humans discovered that a brace of pheasants and a couple of days were both instances of the number 2.

Many people have a fundamentally mechanistic view of the world. They believe the world has rules, and that the rules are knowable. Anything that violates the rules is not possible. For example, we're told the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. As an experiment, draw a straight line on paper. Mark A on the left side and B on the right. Take the page and fold it over, placing the B directly over the A. This makes the shortest distance between two points placing one point over the other.

In effect, when you do this you are creating a "wormhole," which is a passage in space-time connecting the separate points. This is the same principle as the wormhole in space that connects widely separated parts of the universe. It's called a wormhole after the hole a worm makes in an apple. The worm could crawl over the surface of the apple to get from A to B, but instead, it bores a hole through the center of the apple, creating a shortcut. This violates one of the rules recognized by those who subscribe to the mechanistic view of the world. Yet we see that it can be done.

In contrast to products of mechanistic formulas, the creative product is the result of a process of discovering possibilities in a very large space of possibilities. This large space includes the freedom of thought necessary to conceptually blend dissimilar and even paradoxical subjects into a single entity. An original idea is not the sum of combined thoughts but depends on how their patterns are fitted together.

What is the connection between playing a piano and writing?

Christopher Sholes, while watching a pianist performing, noted that each key of the piano produces one note. He thought “What else can each key produce?” Why not a “writing machine” in which each key writes one letter? He then went on to arrange a set of keys attached to levers that would strike a roller, creating the first typewriter.

His blend of writing and playing piano recognized only those counterparts of each concept that were interesting to him as a result of his unique set of circumstances. The blend then released a bubble in his mind, an idea for a writing machine.

The laws of disciplined thinking demand that we stick to a given frame of reference and not change universes. Pianos are musical instruments. A pen is for writing letters. These are two totally different universes. There is no connection between playing piano and writing with pen and paper. But creative thinkers like Sholes open all the doors of the specialized compartments in their brains — much like our ancient ancestors did — to allow bits of information and thoughts from different universes to freely intermingle and combine.

Think of the similarities between conceptual blending and music. You cannot appreciate the music of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir by listening to its members sing sequentially. You have to listen to the whole group perform together as they coordinate their voices and movements in rhythm with each other.

Similarly, it was not enough for Sholes to think of writing and playing piano as two separate entities. He had to blend the two together in the same mental space so he could find similarities, differences, and similar differences.

Artificial surprise

Think of all the wonderful opportunities to combine existing technology with everyday products. An LED (light-emitting diode), for example, emits light when a voltage is applied to it. It is used primarily in electronic devices. Can you think of ways this type of light could be incorporated into household products?

One example is the ingenious combination pillow and sunrise invented by Eoin McNally and Ian Walton. Embedded with a grid of LEDs, the pillow uses nothing but light to wake you up. About forty minutes before your alarm is set to go off, the programmable foam pillow starts glowing, gradually becoming brighter, to simulate a natural sunrise. This helps set your circadian rhythm and ease you into the day. The blend developed an emergent new idea not contained in either of the two inputs, the pillow or sunrise.
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. Read more here.

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