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Thinking Out of the Box: The Projected Mind

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” —Albert Einstein

“For three weeks, the Huygens probe had coasted, dormant, after detaching from the Cassini spacecraft and being sent on its way to Titan. Those of us watching anxiously felt a deep personal connection with the probe. Not only had we worked on the mission for a large part of our careers, but we had developed its systems and instrumentation by putting our minds in its place, to think through how it would function on an alien and largely unknown world.” So wrote Ralph Lorenz and Christophe Sotin, systems designers for NASA, in the Scientific American about their great space adventure.

These space scientists nailed it: to make new theories, new inventions, and other great creations, we have to do better than adjusting existing theories and designs. We must forcefully move our mind beyond the existing thinking about the subject. We must move out of our conscious world and focus our mind in a new place occupied only by the new creation.

Abstract Thinking and Refocusing the Mind

Truly novel ideas or insights, most often occur after an inventor has been exploring relationships, patterns, and associations and then discovers a productive interplay of ideas, images, and data.. 

Einstein placed himself in speeding trains, moving clocks, and elevators in space. This was more than metaphorical thinking; it was a mind transforming itself to another place. Einstein’s strength came from his imagination and creativity. For the most part his mathematics is a precise description of the relationships he discovered rather than the way he arrived at those relationships.

Peter Kilham invented a phenomenally successful bird feeder that is the very familiar plastic tube with metal perches. He started by imagining himself to be a bird on a perch. Then he envisioned a geometry that would be most accommodating to the bird. Only after the bird was satisfied did he select the materials and manufacturing processes to make an attractive and economical product.

Creativity, Cognition, Language, and Imagination

How the projection of the mind to a uniquely productive imagination space happens is a subject of a lot of  conjecture. One school of thought says much more information is stored in our unconscious mind than our conscious mind. In the intensive imagination and invention process, the unconscious memory is searched for clues and ideas and promising ones are resurrected from time to time, thinking about an unsolved problem just before going to sleep and awaking with the idea in full sound and color. The mind had been rummaging around its archival memories overnight, probably while dreaming.

Dialoging with themselves is a common way for creative people to force their minds into creative spaces that normal thinking wouldn’t bring them to, and language finds new importance in sophisticated use of the Internet, which is increasingly being used as a creative design partner. This emerging research and development model allows the inventor to dialog with people of similar mind all over the world and with all kinds of data sources.

Experts say that human intelligence is much superior to animals because of language. While it is generally accepted that many animals recognize dozens of words, there is no evidence that they can learn expansive vocabularies or use grammars. For humans, however, language certainly is important to evoke images to aid communication and thought.

Many very creative people say that thinking in pictures and images is most important for them. A lot of the new software for design engineers is to facilitate visualization of complex mechanisms and to allow computations based on visualized components.

Imagination gets us beyond the here and now. It gives us the ability to ask questions in a new spirit of discovery. It facilitates seeing ahead and exploring the best way to go. This is an essential step to go from imagination to creativity to invention. This puts us in a class distinct from very smart animals and super intelligent computers.

The Emotion Factor

Emotion is very important in high-level thinking, but its exact relationship to the thinking process has not been precisely defined. A heightened emotional environment may cause the thinking person to switch into a higher or lower level of mental activity. This may be particularly true for the creative thinker.

One emotional influence is the socioeconomic pressures of a given era. Times of tension and danger often seem to foster creative and inventive efforts. The great artists of the warring states of the Renaissance and the incredible scientific developments made during World War II are classic examples. Was the creativity enhanced because there was a top-down pressure on creative thinkers to work even more diligently on their projects? Was it because the pressure of the times somehow modified the brain chemistry of the creative people forcing them into an extraordinarily productive mode much of the time? The influence of chemicals ranging from alcohol to narcotics to imbalances of neurochemicals such as serotonin and dopamine has been noted and discussed from ancient Greek times to the present. Many creative people such as writers feel that immensely creative states of mind are reached when the mind is not in a normal equilibrium state.

Despite the many problems that hems in almost every child, children still have the almost naïve capability of unfettered imagination. Some people, very few, keep this imaginative ability through adulthood. Their imaginings lead to inventions, art, designs and explorations of many frontiers never seen before. Emotion is part of this creative formula, and perhaps the emotional element is what is hardest to reconcile in equating the human mind to an advanced computer or an artificial intelligence machine. Did you ever see a computer cry?


About the Author(s)

Larry Kilham is a speaker and consultant specializing in new product development for high-tech companies. He is the author of the forthcoming book, MegaMinds: How to Create and Invent in the Age of Google. Kilham and his family are successful inventors and entrepreneurs with many patents and awards. He has a master’s degree from MIT and has founded three companies. For more information, contact: lkilham@gmail.com.