In Smart Thinking, psychologist Art Markman presents a three-part formula for helping people solve problems more creatively. The strategies are grounded in recent literature from psychology and cognitive science on motivation, learning, perception, and memory. Early on, he draws a distinction between intelligence and what he calls “smart thinking”. Intelligence is a measure of abstract reasoning abilities (using an IQ test), while “smart thinking” is more about how we use the knowledge we already possess to solve problems. While intelligence may be genetically-influenced, Markman believes that smart thinking can be learned. The key to smart thinking is three-fold:
- Develop smart habits. Habits are a result of the brain trying to reduce cognitive load, by making some actions so routine we don’t have to even think about them. Habits form when there’s a consistent mapping between the environment and your behavior and repetition (e.g. you eat junk food in the cafeteria when stressed at work). However, sometimes habits can be counter-productive to your current goals, even though they may have served some useful purpose in the past. In this case, it’s important to remove the triggers that signal the bad habit and replace it with a substitute action (e.g. replacing the desire for junk food with a walk around the block). Markman believes developing smart habits is important for becoming more productive and to begin practice acquiring high-quality knowledge.
- Acquire high-quality knowledge. We only remember a small portion of what we experience, once again due to the brain’s cognitive filtering mechanisms that prevent us from being overwhelmed with information.
In addition, when we take in information from the world, our preexisting knowledge influences what we see and experience as well. Markman discusses the Role of 3, which describes our the phenomenon that we usually only pay attention to and can remember about three things from an experience. To make use of this, it’s important to be active in influencing what these three things are by being prepared whenever we enter into a situation where we need to take in information, paying attention, and then reviewing what we’ve learned later on. It’s also important to develop good causal knowledge, or an understanding of how things work. To do this, Markman suggests that we constantly challenge our own understanding of what we know at varying levels of depth, and try to fill in the gaps in our knowledge with more complete explanations.
For example, you can’t produce a clever redesign of a vaccuum if you can’t understand how it works at various levels.
- Use high-quality knowledge when needed. This involves knowing how to bring up high-quality knowledge when needed and applying it in effective ways. For Markman, this involves using memory effectively and identifying the same problem in other situations. To use memory effectively, we need to take advantage of the fact that we recall information better in the same context we learned it in. (See below for an interesting study on how they verified this using scuba divers).
Though we may not be able to always replicate the physical contexts in which we learn new information, if we actively try to relate it to other things that we already know, then we have a portable, inner, mental context that will likely be more available to aid in recalling information. It’s not enough to be able to recall high-quality knowledge though—we must also be able to apply it. Markman believes that we can do this by identifying the same problem under different guises, such as distilling it down to its essence (e.g. are you trying to redesign a teapot or just trying to find a way to make water hot). Proverbs, stories and jokes can help us make these connections and see problems in a new light.
Markman’s book is likely relevant to my project for a variety of reasons. Even though “creativity” isn’t always explictly mentioned in his book, the strategies he offers can be related to the development of a smarter, more effective, real-world creative process. For example, acquiring high-quality knowledge is important in for developing a good body of background knowledge from which to combine ideas with. Applying that high-quality knowledge by making comparisons points to the combinatorial nature of creativity—where new ideas are formed by combining existing ones. Developing smart habits is likely applicable to all stages of the creative process, whether it’s trying to develop a habit of writing things down or taking a shower whenever one reaches an impasse. And finally, something that is surprisingly relevant is Markman’s description of people who have either a high or low need for closure. The difference is explained in the graphic below, and depending on what type of person you are, you may need more help in certain areas of the creative process.
For example, people who have a high need for closure may settle on an idea too prematurely, without exploring all the options. They will need guidance in finding various ways to look at the problem, to come up with a variety of solutions. However, people with a low need for closure may spend too much time exploring alternative ideas, never moving forward with one. These types of people (myself included) may need help evaluating ideas that are already there in order to move forward with executing it.
- Integrating Markman’s formula and strategies for Smart Thinking may help people move through the creative process more easily and efficiently
- The final design solution should keep in mind user who have a high or low need for closure, in that it should push people who spend too much time deliberating, as well as guide those who may spring at the first idea to spend a bit more time thinking about other potential solutions.