“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 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
“Imagination is more important than knowledge” – Albert Einstein
Reduced to its simplest elements, what you are required to do is solve a problem or construct a work of art without a complete set of instructions or without comprehensive data. In a creative process, you are using your imagination to make an appealing or useful whole from a set of components that would not appear to be sufficient or adequate for the job. To do this you need to see beyond mere recollection or simple association. You are projecting the mind’s eye to another point in space or time. You are putting your conscious being in an entirely different surrounding environment. One way of looking at this process is that you will be creating a new mind out of your regular mind.
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.
My father invented a number of bird feeders that are the now familiar plastic tubing with metal perches. He started by imagining himself to be a bird on the perch. Then he envisioned the geometry that would be most accommodating to the bird. Only after the birds were satisfied did he select the materials and manufacturing processes to make an attractive and economical product.
He always included testing the feeder designs to see how happy the birds’ chirping sounded! I venture to suggest that most would-be inventors or designers of bird feeders would start with an overall design, reduce it to acceptable cost, and finally test in an actual bird-feeding situation. As a consequence, by not following the bird’s eye route, they would probably not have an optimum design from the birds’ point of view, which would undoubtedly put their product at a disadvantage once they came into competition with my father’s feeders.
I myself have three patents and co-patents relating to observing transparent particles and impurities in molten plastic flow and particles in paper pulp slurries. In each case, during the inventing process, I located myself as a microscopic observer in the chemical flow processes where I could see the relationships of particles in the liquid flow and under various illumination geometries. Of course, it was necessary to apply chemical and mechanical engineering, knowledge of materials, and acquaintance with video processing to arrive at a useful design, but the insight came first.
When the inventor comes up with a truly novel idea, he or she has been exploring relationships, patterns, and associations until a productive interplay of ideas, images, and data of all kinds is found. That encouragement signals the brain that the chase is on. The mind is to be projected to a little world encompassed by this project. I call this world imagination space. I know this is what happens because I have done it many times myself.
I am projecting my mind into an external space somewhere outside of my head and my surroundings. This space could be invention space if I am creating new products. It could be a stage in artistic space if I am composing an opera. It could be inside a black hole if I am a physicist working on a new theory. In each case, I am striving to be imaginative and creative by wholly implanting my mind’s eye in the space immediately surrounding what is being analyzed and for endless periods of time. I analyze all the combinations of data and search for clues to the breakthrough I am hoping for while unsociably avoiding distractions.
However, none of this imagination is possible without referring to remembered or retrieved information and events. When we compare memorized and reference information with new information, through analogies we can invent solutions to a problem.
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Larry Kilham is an author, inventor and consultant. He writes about artificial intelligence, cognitive science, invention, new enterprise and entrepreneurial development. Consulting to people and organizations about product development, venture capital, and various entrepreneurial issues.