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.


  1. My mother (degree in psych and inordinate quantities of wisdom) observed that the brightest students tended to act & look younger than their age-mates.

  2. SiouxGeonz -- Thanks. This is very interesting. Sorry for the delay. Tom