Different thinking patterns
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 isnt
a childhood disease; its 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. Its
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
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 trains 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 differentthat
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. Wertheimers 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 Wertheimers book Productive
Thinking. Wertheimers 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 is essentially a matter of repeating the past: doing what
youve done before and thinking what youve 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.
Lets 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 takeall 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; shed 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 shes had was too short for a standard roast, so she had to cut off
the end to fit it into the pan. Shed long since gotten roasting pans in
larger sizes and hadnt 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