Wednesday, February 27, 2008


I'm thinking of giving a talk to our local philosophy club. The topic will be creativity and imagination. The subtopics will be as follows. What is your definition of creativity? Is creativity inborn or learned, or a mixture of the two? If it's at least partly learned, can it be taught or enhanced? What part does visualization (or imagination) play in creativity? Can visualization be taught?

Historically there are three sources of creativity that we might consider. For the Greeks creativity was a mystical process that required the intervention of a supernatural Muse. David Hume and John Locke thought that creativity was nothing more than the ability to rearrange previous ideas or perceptions. Others see creativity as the fortunate application of pure chance.

I taught what might be called "psuedo creativity" for a few years. If we use the Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary definition for creativity, it would be the ability to transcend traditional rules, ideas, patterns, etc. in order to generate meaningful new ideas. Pseudo creativity is the application of methods that will generate unnatural thinking paths that will generate new ideas. For example, most people have unconscious censors in their minds that will eliminate thought paths that are illegal, immoral or violate the laws of physics. This constraining of the the process at a very early stage leads to narrow thinking. If we consciously eliminate such constraints we may come up with ideas or problem solutions that are not physically or legally or morally realizable, but they may have distant cousins that are achievable.

I would appreciate your ideas on the subject. With respect-Joel


Ira Glickstein said...

Great topic - Creativity!

One of my favorite and most creative Professors at Binghamton University, and a member of my PhD committee, was Don Gause. He had many techniques to encourage creativity in solving problems. One I remember with particular fondness was: HOW CAN I MAKE IT WORSE?

As Joel said in his initial posting creativity is the ability to "transcend traditional rules, ideas, patterns, [and] generate unnatural thinking paths that will generate new ideas. ... most people have unconscious censors in their minds that will eliminate thought paths that are illegal, immoral or violate the laws of physics. This constraining of the the process at a very early stage leads to narrow thinking."

If you have a tough problem and consciously think about what could be done to make it worse, that may trigger new thought patterns to overcome those "mind censors" with thinking patterns that are not natural. If you come up with an interesting way to make something worse, you can sometimes reverse that idea and come up with a way to make it better!

Another technique a colleague of mine suggested was to take what he called an "orthogonal" approach. Instead of going at the problem head on, or tail on, try a different direction. For example, if you separate a chicken from food by a short section of fence, it will repeatedly charge into the fence. A dog will try that once or twice and then will go to the right or left and seek another path.


Howard Pattee said...

My favorite single reference is Brewster Ghiselin, ed. "The Creative Process" (U. Calif. Press, 1980). It is a collection of essays by about 40 creative people (e.g. Poincare, Mozart,Einstein van Gogh, Henry James, Kipling, Nietzsche, Jung, et al) trying to explain how they think.
Check for reviews.

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Howard for the reference. Here it is in clickable form: reviews of
The Creative Process: Reflections on the Invention in the Arts and Sciences


joel said...

Thanks to you folks I think I have a better idea of the theme for my talk. I checked out some of the references that Ira and Howard suggested and see that there is a serious gulf between what I might call the Hume or materialist approach versus the Miller or magical approach. Creative people in engineering and science tend to have an approach which can be reduced to a "formula." There is a problem to be solved and there are various techniques that can be used to explore the entire solution space, as Ira suggested with his "How can I make it worse." (Which doesn't mean that people don't come up with surprising solutions.) Henry Miller, and others in artistic creative pursuits, seem to see the process as more magical. Ideas come from nowhere when the mind is opened with the help of meditation, drugs, alcohol and deprivation.

Maybe what I'll do is ask the audience if there aren't two different types of creativity, one conscious and the other intuitive. Maybe I'll stir the pot by suggesting that engineering creativity is not creativity at all. Design or problem solving comes with a primitive problem statement, constraints and an objective function to be optimized. They aren't served up on a silver platter, but we know they're there. There are solutions to be found by whatever means. A blank canvas or blank sheet of paper are more challenging in that there are an infinite number of possibilities. There are no physical constraints and "solution space" is so vast that one cannot begin to explore it. With respect -Joel

Stu Denenberg said...

I think creativity is all about connections. The more connections we have between our concepts the more imaginative we can be about them. If this is true, then it may be mostly wired in but perhaps can be taught by developing connection exercises similar to the mnemonics used to remember chores by associating them with easily remembered objects. For example, if we memorize the ditty, "one is the sun, two is a shoe, three is a tree" we can easily remember 3 tasks by visualizing them attached to each of the objects associated with the numbers 1,2, and 3. So if I have to go to the store to buy milk, pick up the dry cleaning and stop by the post office, I form three visual images that are easy to recall because they're so weird; ie: a carton of milk in the middle of the sun, a muddy shoe on my white shirt, and a tree with letters hanging from the branches.

I agree with the comments that liken creativity to problem solving and I think it's better to conceive of it that way as the term "creativity" is much too rich to work with while problem solving narrows the scope considerably.
Serendipitously, I'm writing a piece on problem solving below which while incomplete gets at most of my ideas:

How to Solve Problems

Unfortunately, there is no known single technique that will solve every problem. The solution to a particular problem depends on many variables including whether it’s emotional or rational, and your current state of mind --- you can’t solve a problem if you’re not ready to hear the solution. Fortunately, there are some time-tested techniques that I have discovered in my thirty years of teaching college students.

Emotional Problems

If you have an emotional or psychological problem, a good first step is locate where it hurts. Focus your attention on that part of your body which hurts. Pay attention to, attend to the pain, don’t run from it. After a short time, the pain should lessen and even fade away. If it comes back, start again by locating the pain and then watching it. It is possible to have pain without suffering if you are able to step back and just watch without judging or attaching to the pain.
If this doesn’t work try talking to a friend and if that doesn’t work, seek professional help.

Rational Problems

These are all problems other than psychological ones such and can range from math problems to choosing a computer to picking a mate, a job or a vacation spot. Here is a list of methods that can help you solve these types of problems:

Sit right down and write yourself a letter describing the problem. Writing it down helps you to clarify your thinking --- you can’t get away with muddy thinking, you can’t fake it when you write like you can when you speak, besides, why would you want to fool yourself? You’ve got this problem to solve. Writing also acts to “prime the pump” of your creative juices. You start to get ideas as you write, ideas you didn’t know you had and these ideas help become solutions to your problem.

Another way to pump up your creativity is to get up and walk around. There seems to be a psycho-motor component to problem solving. I know that when I get stuck on a problem I actually experience a need to get up and walk around, make myself a cup of tea, take a shower and by the time I sit back down, I’ll have a solution to my problem. This is not avoiding the problem so long as you eventually come back to it. Listening to music seems to help in the same way if the problem solving process is mechanical --- I remember as a college freshman solving calculus problems faster to Handel’s “Water Music” than without it.

Many problems have solutions that can be solved with a technique developed by businessfolks and engineers called, “Top-Down Design” which is a fancy way of saying that when a problem is too hard to solve in your head, you break it down into pieces and work on each smaller piece separately; if any of the pieces is still too hard just apply Top-Down Design to it. Repeat this process until all of the pieces can be easily solved. This method works on gardening projects as well as on software development. However it is not always possible to identify the pieces or when it is, to be sure that the breakdown is optimal. Still, it’s just common sense in many situations: I can’t swallow the whole apple so I bite it to death!

George Polya suggests that we solve a simpler, similar problem and apply the insights gained from that process to our original problem if possible. This method gets the creative juices flowing and is very effective in finding solutions.

Characteristics of Good Problem Solvers

Not afraid to use “childish” methods: count on fingers, draw diagrams, talk out loud

Percieve the pain of problem solving as fun…for example playing Volleyball is a lot of work and millions of cells are dying but it's perceived as fun.

Are persistent, even stubborn. Once they sink their teeth into a problem, they can’t let go until it’s solved. Being obsessive can be a great boon to solving problems.

Have a positive, explorer attitude toward the problem. I learned long ago that if I think I'm going to fall down as I stand on the top of a hill on my skiis, the chances are pretty good that I will. On the other hand if I think, "Oboy this is going to be fun" then my chances of arriving at the bottom in an upright position are vastly increased.

Ira Glickstein said...

Joel, Howard, and Stu: Thanks for starting and keeping this thread going!

I agree with all you have posted. There is no single solution methodology - "one size does not fit all"!

Looking back on my career - I was considered a very creative engineer and have several contribution awards and patents to prove it - each of my "great" ideas seems to have had a different source.

1) Pick a Bit, Any Bit

For example, one of my first recognized creative ideas was a solution to what was called the "bit pick" problem. Our airborne computer had a memory of some quarter million bits (large at the time but trivial now :^). The problem was, every tenth flight or so, a random bit that should have been a "0" flipped to a "1". I came up with a quick nd simple way, using a machine language routine of only 128 words of memory, to detect which bit had been "picked" and fix it in a second or so, so the flight test could continue.

I though of the method while in bed home with a bad cold. It is based on the riddle of the king who had 10 goldsmiths and one of them was making his gold bars an ounce light. The king came up with a way to figure out which goldsmith was cheating by making a *single* weight measurement (see below for answer).

I applied that idea to what I called a "weighted checksum" and, with a single calculation, figured out the address of the "picked" bit out of the quarter million bits in the computer!

The method was implemented and, since that simple routine also recorded the time the pick occurred, we figured out it occurred on the first flight at high altitude for a given memory module. It turned out to be due to air trapped under a coating on memory cores.

2) Long Ranger and Tonto

Another idea, for which a patent was awarded last year, was based on the joke about Tonto and the Lone Ranger. It seems they are up on a high peak and the bad guys are after them.

"There are two paths up this peak," says Tonto, "East and west. Which way do you think they will come?"

"Well," says the Lone Ranger, "The eastern approach is easier, so they will come from the east."

"No," replies Tonto, "They know you will think they are coming by the easier eastern direction. Now which way do you think they will come?"

"Well," says the Lone Ranger, "You are right, they think I will think they will come from the easier eastern direction, so, to fool me, they will come from the west."

"No," replies Tonto, "They know I am up here with you and I will tell you they think they know what you will think they will think."

Based on that riddle, and the fact that digital computers are totally deterministic (which I love because of my dedication to Spinoza and Einstein :^) I came up with a method for allied agents to all come up with the same coordinated decision despite lack of communications between them. The decision will appear somewhat random to the bad guys but all the separated computers of the good guys will come up with the same coordinated plan. (See Patent Issued Jan 09, 2007


3) Invention and Humor

A common thread to these two ideas seems to be applying a joke or riddle solution to an analogous problem, where the analogy is quite far fetched. This ties in to what Stu said about "connections".

When we make connections between things that are not normally connected we may get great inventions - or great humor. Why is it funny to see a distinguished gentleman with a high top hat slip on a banana peel? It is the unusual connection between disgrace and distinction. The two examples above make connections between: a king's goldsmiths and computer memory; and Tonto/Lone Ranger and a tactical military problem.


ANSWER TO KING'S GOLDSMITHS: The king numbered his goldsmiths 1 to 10 and took one one pound gold bar from goldsmith #1, two from #2, and so on. The total should have been 55 pounds. If it was one ounce short, goldsmith #1 was the crook, if two ounces short #2, etc.

joel said...

You've all made useful comments that open further questioning. Here's an interesting article about what's creative and what's not. I've included the web site and abstract. The author doesn't think that problem solving is creative although it may contain "sparks" of creativity. Is there a real distinction between creativity in the arts and creativity in engineering and science? What Ira described is a spark followed by a lot of dog work or a series of sparks as each problem is encountered and solved. He isn't alone. Edison talked about 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Does a painter create 100% of the time when he's painting? Is each stroke of the brush creative? Monet was said to contemplate each brush stroke. Does a fiction author create every time he writes a sentence? Some writers know the general outlines of their plot and then labor at finding the right words. Others say that they don't know where the plot is going. It simply unfolds before them as if the characters have an existence of their own. As Stu said "It's all about connections." Some may have a burst of signal others while others cruise over many possibilities over a considerable time. With respect -Joel


Creativity may be a trait, a state or just a process defined by its products. It can be contrasted with certain cognitive activities that are not ordinarily creative, such as problem-solving, deduction, induction, learning, imitation, trial-and-error, heuristics and "abduction," however, all of these can be done creatively too. There are four kinds of theories, attributing creativity respectively to (1) method, (2) "memory" (innate structure), (3) magic or (4) mutation. These theories variously emphasize the role of an unconscious mind, innate constraints, analogy, aesthetics, anomalies, formal constraints, serendipity, mental analogs, heuristic strategies, improvisatory performance and cumulative collaboration. There is some virtue in each, but the best model is still the one implicit in Pasteur's dictum: "Chance favors the prepared mind." And because the exercise and even the definition of creativity requires constraints, it is unlikely that "creativity training" or an emphasis on freedom in education can play a productive role in this preparation.

Stu Denenberg said...

Joel's last comment sparked another (creative?) connection about creativity. One important characteristic of the creative process (for me at least) is loss of self awareness and the sense of time passing. During my productive days of writing software, I would emerge from the process tired and happy and having no idea how much time had passed (and sometimes having to pee really badly). My guess is that this phenomenon is common to most creative processes.
PS: here's another website of interest that ties together creativity and critical thinking:


PPS: this editor sucks; I should have a clickable icon to make text a web link without having to remember or look up the html.

joel said...

In preparation for my talk I've been cruising around the net looking at other views of the subject. I came across this. Does anyone know if the experimental results have been substantiated?

"Neuro-Linguistic Programming has created a way to model the cognitive strategies of great thinkers through the ages. NLP had its beginning in the mountains of California. In 1976, at UC Santa Cruz, two communications professors determined that when you ask people to remember a picture, they look up. If they were trying to create a picture they usually looked up and to their right, and if they were trying to access an actual memory picture, they looked up and to their left. Also, if people were trying to remember the spoken word, they looked sideways and if they were trying to remember an emotion or feeling, they looked down and to their right. People's eye movements gave observers information about how they stored and accessed information. This gave communications a neurological base. This, and a number of other discoveries about our neurology and communication, led to the science of NLP."

Ira Glickstein said...

Joel - Good to hear you continue your research! (And, you've added a photo to your profile. We all smile when we look at our photo on our driver's license until we realize that is what we really look like :^)

When we think we see images in that great movie theater in our minds. Sleep research has proven that "rapid eye movement" (REM) is indicative of dream activity. Awaken a sleeper during REM and you greatly increase the odds he or she will relate a dream.

Put two and two together and it makes sense that involuntary eye movement is tied to cognitive effort. Different sequences and directions of eye movement would most likely indicate the nature of the cognitive activity.

"Body language" experts claim to be able to discover things like nervousness, guilt, lying, confidence, dominance, and so on by involuntary hand, facial, and eye motions.

Tying that to creativity of what you call "great thinkers" would be more difficult.

Say we had a video of Einstein at the moment he came up with his theory of general relativity. Does that mean if I sat the same way and assumed his facial expression and eye movement I would come up with some great thought?

Ira Glickstein

PS: A couple of posts ago you complained about the poor editor provided by Blogspot for composing Comments. I agree with you it could and should be better.

However, if you learn a few simple HTML commands, you can compose clickable links and dress up your postings with italic and bold text.

QUICK TUTORIAL - Please note you must substitute "<" and ">" for "{" and "}" in the following examples:

Clickable link - to link to this Blog:

{A href=""} Virtual Philo Blog {/A}

will get you:

Virtual Philo Blog

{I}italic{/I} or {B}bold{/B} or {I}{B}both{/I}{/B}.

Will get you:

italic or bold or both.