Sunday, August 30, 2009

Thinking Like a Child

It is often observed that one of the essential characteristics of creativity is the "childlike" view of the world, full of freshness and plasticity. As they grow older, most children gradually lose this view. Most children appear to shift their thinking to a more rigid left-hemisphere dominance at a given age, as is expected. But it seems that some children cannot shift to the usual one-sided dominance so readily; they are delayed in the maturing process; they grow up using both sides of their brain or mature with a greater facility with their right hemisphere than is usual. This may lead to some degree of confusion, ambivalence, and awkwardness, but the intellectual resource may be profoundly richer thereby -- and that makes all the difference.

Maturity is a key concept here. Maturity suggests responsibility, conventional education, having children, understanding the adult world and finding a place in it -- making one's way or doing one's duty. A small child cares little for these things. He or she is too busy discovering the world, examining things closely, seeing how they behave, trying to figure out how things work, how people respond when you do different things -- touch, sounds, smells, tastes, images -- and all of this starts well before words or numbers. All of this is play -- learning and discovering. While maturity is, of course, necessary to make one's way in the adult world, we are aware that it is good to preserve something of the child, especially if we desire the freshness of view that seems to promote real creativity. This is generally known and understood. However, what is not generally known is that it may be a good thing when the maturing process takes a little longer than usual.

Parents are usually pleased when their children mature quickly, becoming more independent, more organized and more self-directed in advance of their peers. What is not generally known is that late maturation can serve a useful function, although it seems to contradict conventional belief. The neurological evidence indicates that the onset of puberty stops further neurological development. That is, neurological development is not speeded up by early puberty. Rather, early puberty appears to arrest neurological development at an earlier and less fully developed stage. One neurologist notes: "The studies show that on the average . . . quick development means you sort of 'gel' earlier and you don't develop as fully. It is not just true for brain development; it is true for growth also. People who grow slowly tend to grow taller."

Accordingly, it is possible that the early developer may be good at what they can do, but they may be able to do less than the child or adult who has developed over a longer period. Thus, later maturity may be seen as desirable in at least three ways: First, the plastic, absorbent world of the child may be experienced longer, giving the adolescent and adult a deeper store of real seeing and feeling experience of the world to draw on -- and build intuition on -- before the adult world of fixed, literate, learned knowledge takes over. Second, there is a real possibility of significantly increased neurological capacity, at least in some cases and in certain areas, which may more than compensate for earlier awkwardness and some lingering areas of relative disability. And third, the later developer may be able to retain some aspects of the child's view throughout life -- such as a sense of wonder, or, a comparative freshness and lack of preconception -- making the expression of real creativity much more probable. Although the clock of maturation follows its own beat, it is good to know that a slower pace may have, under the right circumstances, notably positive consequences.

With respect to creativity, the freshness of the child's view is not to be underestimated. When the world of the small child is properly understood, then perhaps it is no surprise that Einstein said he was led to his discoveries by asking questions that "only children ask." This view of himself is clearly evident in the following curious passage: "I sometimes ask myself . . . how did it come that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things he has thought of as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up. Naturally, I could go deeper into the problem than a child with normal abilities." Is it possible for us to think of Einstein as "retarded"? But, of course, this paradox helps us to gain deeper understanding, we are told. Indeed, relative to other mammals, all human beings are "retarded" -- more helpless longer, safe inside social structures, allowed to build greater brain capability with a broader knowledge base.

Also, Einstein was willing to continue to play. If delayed development is acknowledged as one major factor, then the child-like playfulness of this strong visual thinker may have been another. Einstein referred to the source of his ideas as "playing" with "images." When he describes the process in his own words, the fresh, childlike plasticity of the ideas and the interplay of the two hemispheres and two modes of thought seems clearly evident: "The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be 'voluntarily' reproduced and combined. There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought -- before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others. The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will."

It is of no small significance that Einstein's words so clearly describe a two-mode process that corresponds so closely with the findings of those who have been investigating the roles of the two hemispheres. He first "plays" with "images" in the visual right hemisphere mode, the apparent source of new ideas or perceptions of order, possibly relatively independent of conventional thought, current scientific understanding and education. He plays until he arrives at the desired result. And then, "only in a secondary stage" does he have to seek "laboriously" for the right words and mathematical symbols to express the ideas in terms of the verbal left hemisphere mode, in terms of the world, in terms that fit within the structure of scientific thinking, in terms that "can be communicated to others."

It should be pointed out that these observations are not entirely unusual, nor should they be expected to be. Such observations as Einstein's occur frequently in the literature of creativity. Also, the concept of two modes of thinking has been cropping up in the medical literature, in one way or another, for a century or two, particularly with reference to artists and musicians and composers. What was new in the 60s, 70s and 80s was that research on the two hemispheres of the brain yielded such substantial evidence that serious investigators were forced to reverse major trends of the time and not only recognize, once again, the concept of consciousness, but also to entertain the concept that there are, not one, but two major modes of consciousness, each fundamentally different from the other -- one that we knew a little about, the other that we knew almost nothing about.

Based on excerpt from chapter one, In the Mind's Eye; second edition released September 4, 2009.

Friday, August 28, 2009

News on Second Edition

Today, I received a message from my publisher, Prometheus Books, saying that they had received, this morning, the printer’s shipment of the second edition of In the Mind’s Eye.

They are shipping out now (Friday afternoon) and the books should be available at bookstores and online by the end of next week, Friday, September 4 -- this includes, according to their list, noted previously, Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Borders, BooksaMillion and others. Some booksellers are still taking advance orders at significant discounts.

I was also delighted to learn that seven publishers or agents from overseas had expressed interest in obtaining rights for translations of the revised book -- three from Europe, one from the Middle East and three from Asia, so far. At this point, one cannot be sure of what will happen, but I am really pleased with this kind of interest in the second edition of In the Mind's Eye -- and I hope that the ideas set forth in the book may still have impact in many additional languages and cultures.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Second Edition Out Soon

I note that my publisher, Prometheus Books, says the second edition of In the Mind's Eye will be available in stock on Friday, September 4, 2009. They list these booksellers, among others:, Borders, Barnes&Noble, and Just 14 days from today, August 21. Not long now!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Einstein's Cloakroom Ticket

Robert Frost believed that a creative work must be in some sense be a revelation to be really valued -- it must be a surprising and unexpected discovery “as much for the poet as for the reader.” But for this revelation to come there must be the “greatest freedom of the material” to move through it and establish relations “regardless of time and space, previous relation, and everything but affinity.”

The power of metaphor and analogy is widely recognized among creative people, although this power is probably more readily acknowledged among poets and writers than among scientists. Yet when we look deeply, we might find more pervasive evidence of this power than might be expected. In very different spheres of science and art, the fundamentals of the creative process may be strikingly similar, at least for certain kinds of people. Antonina Vallentin, who knew Einstein and his second wife quite well, provides an illuminating story about his use of analogies:

“At one time Einstein tried to describe the processes of scientific work and in doing so he exposed the workshop of his mind. Starting with primary concepts directly linked to sense experiences and with theorems which are interdependent, the scientist tries to discover the logical unity in the image of the universe. He goes beyond what Einstein calls the ‘secondary layer’ to arrive at a system of the greatest conceivable unity. He considered it an error to designate these superimposed layers of thought as ‘degrees of abstraction.’ ‘I do not consider it right to conceal the logical independence of a fundamental concept from the sense experiment.’ And he adds, in that picturesque language which he frequently uses: ‘The connection is not comparable to that of soup to beef, but more to that of the cloakroom ticket to the overcoat.’”

It seems that we might be getting rather more in this passage than we might have expected. The analogies are so unexpected and seemly out of context that we are startled and somewhat thrown off track. However, it seems clear that Einstein was not providing these far-fetched analogies for effect, but rather because they came readily to his own mind in just this form. It is as if there existed in his mind an array of generic relationships (represented by concrete objects) to be selected from -- the fitness of the general relationship being far more important than the apparent strangeness of the comparison.

On closer examination these analogies may not be as strange as they might appear at first. In the first instance, we might presume that what Einstein is referring to is that when soup is made from beef it retains the essence of the beef flavor even after the meat itself has been removed. In the second instance he gives a similar but different form of the relationship: a cloakroom ticket is a representation of the ownership of the overcoat and can be used to obtain the actual overcoat when needed. The first analogy (the beef) is sufficiently similar to what is wanted to be worth mentioning, but is not really quite right. However, the second analogy (the ticket) fits and is seen as more appropriate. Thus, the relationship is almost mathematical in the clarity of its form: “the logical independence of a fundamental concept” is to “sense experiment” as the “cloakroom ticket” is to the “overcoat.”

Is all of this just playing games with words? Why does he not just say what he means, we might ask. Well, we might well consider that we are seeing, not a flourish or embellishment of his thought, but a close representation of what is actually going on in his mind -- that the relationships being considered are, in fact, made up, possibly, of the combinations of two sets of very concrete images in his own mind. That is, it is possible that he is actually revealing the terms that he is thinking in, not images representing words as a kind of additional layer, but just words used to describe the images that are actually being employed -- concrete images which are used to represent certain abstract ideas -- and the ways they are categorized, sorted and stored.

When Einstein is quoted as saying he thought in images, we may well have wondered what exactly were the specific images that he used in various cases. It may be regarded as probable, in some cases, that he was thinking in terms of the trains or elevators or light beams that he frequently refers to in his writing -- the rather obvious representations of physical things that were, in turn, representations of the concepts in his thought experiments. But other times, as in the above example, we may ask whether he may have been thinking in terms of his own private notation of concrete images -- one like any private notation of images that might grow up through experience and continuous use. Even in the most technical and basic of scientific debates, the most heated and enduring controversies may well rest primarily on the hidden power of a metaphor or an analogy.

Sources: Robert Frost, “The Figure A Poem Makes” in Complete Poems, 1951 (1967), p. 20, and Antonina Vallentin, The Drama of Albert Einstein, 1954, p. 54.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Thinking in Pictures: Einstein and Faraday

The predisposition to thinking in pictures appears to be a factor that spans the ages and produces a special affinity between those with this same predisposition -- not because they were physicists or mathematicians or musicians (for there are many forms of each) but because of the special correspondence in their ways of thinking.

In his study in Princeton, Einstein had pictures of three scientists on the wall: Newton, Faraday and Maxwell. It was the work of Faraday and Maxwell that most interested Einstein when he was a student -- although this work was largely ignored by Einstein's professors. Indeed, Einstein's knowledge of Faraday's and Maxwell's work was so great that it impressed Einstein's future employer and got him his first job at the Swiss Patent Office, after his long unsuccessful search for a secure position.

To a friend who had given him a book about Faraday, Einstein (employing a poignant image worthy of a poet) wrote: “You have given me great joy with the little book about Faraday. This man loved mysterious Nature as a lover loves his distant beloved. In his day, there did not yet exist the dull specialization that stares with self-conceit through horn rimmed glasses and destroys poetry. . . .”

In his Autobiographical Notes, Einstein breaks abruptly into a passage describing the development of his own scientific thought to address Isaac Newton (as if he were alive and in the room), explaining that his own work does not refute Newton's -- rather that his work extends Newton's into realms that Newton did not deal with. Other instances of this special affinity can be cited, but it is sufficient to point out that the visual mode of thought may lead to immediate recognition of an extraordinary rapport, regardless of time, place, or area of knowledge.

Based on excerpt from In the Mind’s Eye, chapter 1.