Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tennis of the masters

You are faced with a problem and you try to come up with a solution. From the moment you decide that you want to solve, till the exact moment that you solve it, what really happens? When you say that "I'm thinking", what are you really doing?
It seems like there are several things going on. In fact it's like a tennis match between two major players... between critical thinking and creativity. These two players have other forms and looks which I'll describe soon.

Critical thinking is about reasoning. Putting together the pieces of data (information) that we have and concluding. It is talking about convergence. Creativity on the other hand is finding new theories and information, lateral thinking. It is talking about divergence. A very nice article can be found here which talks about their differences.

So it thought process goes something like this, you see the problem ... try to see if you have the basic rules to apply to it and come up with a solution (Critical Thinking). If you have it, then everything is done, a lot of times these basic rules are what you know and hence considered part of your knowledge. (Related to the memory of your brain)

This would be what an expert could do very well, having domain specific knowledge and applying it for solving problems.

Although in many cases, problems will not be solved this way, there could be many reasons for that and a simple one being the problem is just too complex and using the normal rules that we know is not going to work. This is the time for creativity and it goes something like this: You shoot a method for solving or a seemingly unrelated rule and see how you can get closer to the solution, then you evaluate what you did, if you were not successful, you'd go to the first step again, so what we have here is a repeating loop of firing ideas and testing them. This process is not very much sequential like critical thinking.

Lets go a under the hood now. The left brain is known to take care of logical deductions and language and the right brain for holistic and simultaneous understandings. Critical thinking is powered by the left brain and creativity seems to be based in the right brain. Critical thinking is a conscious behavior and you can even talk about its steps but in creativity a lot of times something happens which we are unconscious about, an example would be : "you can't exactly describe how you came up with a piece of code."

The left brain being the source of language is known to be responsible for conscious behavior too so it seems to be the reason critical thinking is a conscious process for us but for creativity we have to dissect it a little more.

In fact creativity has been described as a four or five step process:
  • Preparation
  • Incubation
  • Illumination
  • Evaluation
First you gather information about the problem and also generally about the domain. Basic knowledge. In Incubation your mind is working on alternative solutions for the problem. Illumination is the "Aha" moment where you've find a possible solution and during evaluation you test and make sure that is a good design.

The first and last part are conscious behaviors, you can talk about them and they are rather sequential activities, however the big unknown is the second and third parts. It has even been said that Incubation happens while you are not directly thinking about the problem, under a shower, during sleep or while walking home. So actually the full creativity process should start from the left brain, followed by the right brain and then again the left brain.

One of the conclusions of this article is that the reason Einstein was such a creative person was because of the strong connections between the left and right hemispheres of his brain. This has been experimented.

Still going under this layer and into the brain module layers, the firing of ideas happens in our frontal lobes and the assessment and domain specific knowledge exists in the temporal lobes of our brains. So in creative thinking, the frontal lobe is firing and the temporal lobe is evaluating what has been fired. The faster new ideas are fired, the faster evaluation has to be done.

You might have seen some people that come up with a lot of different ideas but never actually follow one .. well maybe the frontal lobe is firing too much and the temporal is not capable of handling it.

Some might be able to reason very well but don't come up with new ideas much, in which case indicates a quiet frontal lobe.

Interesting thing is that these two regions inhibit one another so you can suppress (naturally or by drugs) one to increase the other, this is why incubation and illumination in creative thinking can happen while you are doing something else, which means your temporal lobes are resting and not inhibiting the frontal lobe, the frontal lobe can dance in the infinite possibilities of the indeterminate world.

Too much new ideas from the frontal lobe makes you lose attention and focus and too much processing in the temporal lobe prevents you from looking at the problem from other angles, so what really needs to be done is a cooperation and collaboration by these two different masters that we all have in our heads. The faster both of them work, the better we can be at problem solving, which is the major activity related to thinking.

So let them play their tennis, as hard as they can, and we'll get nice solutions to our problems as a result.


Some notes to my future said...

"You might have seen some people that come up with a lot of different ideas but never actually follow one .. well maybe the frontal lobe is firing too much and the temporal is not capable of handling it." Aha!

Amir H. Fassihi said...

Frontal is Sampras probably ;)...

Anonymous said...

That was perfect pal, great ;)