Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The 3B's of Creativity: Bed, Bath, and Bus

Wittgenstein said (according to Roger Schank) that the key to thinking is the three B's: bed, bath, and bus.  In other words, we think when we're unfocused, un-concentrated, or even semi-conscious.

Let's unpack this idea.  First, its often in these states that we conceive of fresh and creative ideas.  Second, semi-consciousness is most beneficial after a period of intense thinnking.  You must get out of your bed  before you get into it.

Matthew E. May takes up the theme of thinking as not-thinking in In Pursuit of Elegance.  The thesis of Elegance is that humans create better, more elegant products--houses, painting, music, books, computer algorithms, even traffic controls--when they "stop doing,"--when they subtract and limit rather than continue to add, add, add.  May quotes writer and business consultant Jim Collins:
A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally important, what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit — to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort — that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company or, most important of all, a life. (blog)
In the last chapter of the book, May makes a final riff on "not doing"-- as "not thinking."  When we stop thinking after a period of intense thinking, we can experience Eureka!  He cites several examples.

Archimedes discovered volume displacement during a BATH.

Einstein thought of general relativity in a day DREAM.

Television.  The idea of projecting moving images line-by-line came to Philo Farnsworth when he was PLOWING a field and gazing out over the rows of corn.  He subsequently invented the first television.

Quantum mechanics.  Richard Feynman was watching someone throw a plate in the air and its wobbly motion  sparked a Nobel Prize-winning idea.

Kary Mullis was DRIVING along a California highway when he gained insight into the chemistry behind the polymerase chain reaction.

Harry Potter.  J.K Rawling was traveling on a TRAIN from Manchester to London when the character of Harry Potter came to her.

Shell Oil engineer Jaap Van Balegooijen's idea for a snake oil drill came to him while watching his son turn his bendy straw upside down to get sip up the last of his malt drink.

There's a pattern in these examples.  First, the insights happened when the creators were doing something other than thinking.  Presumably something relaxing, in other words, the three B's.  Most of the above cases involve either bed, bath, or bus.

In some of the cases, there is a metaphoric relationship between the non-thinking activity and the idea:  bath and water displacement, a drinking straw and an oil drill, wobbling plates and electron orbits.  Does this suggest one should physically experience situations that are metaphorically similar to the domain in which one wants to achieve breakthrough?

Relaxation is not without prior intense effort.  When the inventor is relaxing, part of the brain is still working on the problem and projecting onto whatever is being experienced.  So what should be the content of the relaxation experience?

Even something random will do.  In his Notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci writes:
I cannot forbear to mention among these precepts a new device for study which, although it may seem but trivial and almost ludicrous, is nevertheless extremely useful in arousing the mind to various inventions. And this is, when you look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones, if you have to devise some scene, you may discover a resemblance to various landscapes, beautified with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement; or again you may see battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes, and an endless variety of objects, which you could reduce to complete and well drawn forms. And these appear on such walls confusedly, like the sound of bells in whose jangle you may find any name or word you choose to imagine.
To the inventor, the world is a spotted wall upon which he projects his breakthrough.

1 comment:

  1. the idea of the spotted wall makes me think of the old movie posters on the buildings in Rome which get torn and weather worn, so much that you can only see bits and pieces of art and text