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04 February 2008  
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Different thinking patterns

Reproductive thinking is a way to refine what is known; it aims for efficiency. Productive thinking is a way to generate the new; it aims for insight.

When you were a child, you probably had a thaumatrope. A thaumatrope isn’t a childhood disease; it’s a toy first popularized in Victorian England. It consists of a disk about the size of a small paper plate with a picture on either side. The disk is usually mounted on a dowel that you spin by rubbing your palms back and forth. The images on each side of the disk are different by complementary. If you get the disk spinning fast enough, the two images merge. A common Victorian-era thaumatrope showed a bird on one side and an empty birdcage on the other. When you twirled the disk, you saw the bird in the birdcage. It’s a simple but fascinating effect. Although there is no actual picture of a bird in a cage, you see it as clearly as can be. You see a picture of something that isn’t there.

Although there is still debate among theorists about how it works, this basic visual phenomenon is the same happy neurophysical fluke that allows you to see movement in a progressive series of flip book drawings, interpret 24 still images per second as action in a movie, and perceive movement in electronic signs. This odd but useful phenomenon also stimulated the development of a school of psychology that changed the way we see the world.

Discovering the theory

In 1910 a young scientist named Max Wertheimer traveled from Vienna to Frankfurt by train. Wertheimer was a student of embryonic fringe concept known as Gestalt, which posited that the way people perceive the whole thing is different from the way they perceive its parts. As he daydreamed and stared at the interior of the coach, Wertheimer noticed that reflections from the train’s windows were creating a flashing pattern of light on the seat in front of him. Two separate points of light were alternating, on and off. When the timing was just right, the flashes gave the illusion of being not two separate lights but a single light travelling back and forth. What Wertheimer had discovered was a compelling demonstration of the basic Gestalt premise that what we perceive is not simply the sum of things that stimulate our senses but something different—that in some way we act on the stimuli, just as they act on us.

Over the next several years, Wertheimer and his colleagues Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka built the framework for what would become known as Gestalt theory, the principles of which have been applied to psychotherapy, philosophy, ethics, and political theory. Wertheimer’s concept about new ways of thinking and problem solving, which developed in part through a famous series of conversations with Albert Einstein on the development of the theory of relativity, were published posthumously in Wertheimer’s book Productive Thinking. Wertheimer’s essential argument is that to think effectively, it is necessary to view problems as a whole rather than as the sum of their component parts. Wertheimer categorized problem solving as the result of either reproductive thinking, that is, solving problems based on what is already known, or productive thinking, that is, solving problems with new insights.

The ideas in this book build on the work of many pioneers in the field of thinking: Wertheimer, Guilford, Torrance, Parnes, Osborn and many others, with a hope that this recasting of productive thinking into a straightforward, practical, and disciplined framework for perceiving and acting on the challenges of life, whether business or personal, will help you think better, work better, and ultimately do better in every aspect of your life.

Reproductive thinking

Reproductive thinking is essentially a matter of repeating the past: doing what you’ve done before and thinking what you’ve thought before. You can visualize reproductive thinking on a continuum. At one end is mindless repetition, in the middle is conscious systematization, and at the other end is incremental improvement, or kaizen thinking.

Let’s start with the crudest form of reproductive thinking, reactive gator-brain or elephant-tether nonthinking, in which a given stimulus produces a fixed, predictable response. The way you brush your teeth each morning, from unscrewing the cap of your toothpaste, to the way you dab the bristles of your toothbrush, to the length and strength and shape of the strokes you take—all of these are performed with the minimum possible exertion of the brain power.

These kinds of patterns are not confined to personal habits. They can become even more powerful when transmitted from person to person. Ellen Langer in her book Mindfulness tells the story of learning from her mother how to prepare a roast. As a little girl she would watch as her mother cut off a small bit from one end of the meat before placing it in the roasting pan. As an adult, Langer followed the same routine until one day she wondered what the purpose of cutting off the end of the roast was. She asked her mother, who said she had no idea; she’d learned to do it from her own mother. Langer then asked her grandmother, who explained that when she was a young mother, the only roasting pan she’s had was too short for a standard roast, so she had to cut off the end to fit it into the pan. She’d long since gotten roasting pans in larger sizes and hadn’t cut an end off since. Yet for years both Langer and her mother had mindlessly followed this routine. At one time the thought that stimulated the action was relevant, but over time circumstances changed. Instead of disappearing, the thought fossilized into meaningless routine.

Excerpt from ‘Think Better’ by Tim Hurson. Reproduced with permission © 2008, Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Company Limited. Price: Rs 550. Vishwanath_Ghanekar@mcgraw-hill.com


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