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Posts Tagged ‘science’

19 AUGUST, 2013

The Magic of Metaphor: What Children’s Minds Teach Us about the Evolution of the Imagination

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“Metaphorical thinking … is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent.”

“Children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real,” MoMA’s Juliet Kinchin wrote in her fascinating design history of childhood. Indeed, children have a penchant for disarming clarity and experience reality in ways profoundly different from adults, in the process illuminating the workings of our own minds. But among the most curious of these mediations of reality is children’s understanding of abstraction in language, which is precisely what James Geary explores in a chapter of his altogether enthralling I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World (public library).

But first, Geary examines the all-permeating power of metaphor:

Metaphor is most familiar as the literary device through which we describe one thing in terms of another, as when the author of the Old Testament Song of Songs describes a lover’s navel as “a round goblet never lacking mixed wine” or when the medieval Muslim rhetorician Abdalqahir Al-Jurjani pines, “The gazelle has stolen its eyes from my beloved.”

Yet metaphor is much, much more than this. Metaphor is not just confined to art and literature but is at work in all fields of human endeavor, from economics and advertising, to politics and business, to science and psychology. … There is no aspect of our experience not molded in some way by metaphor’s almost imperceptible touch. Once you twig to metaphor’s modus operandi, you’ll find its fingerprints on absolutely everything.

Metaphorical thinking — our instinct not just for describing but for comprehending one thing in terms of another, for equating I with an other — shapes our view of the world, and is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent.

Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words.

Children, it turns out, are on the one hand skilled and intuitive weavers of original metaphors and, on the other, utterly (and, often, humorously) stumped by common adult metaphors, revealing that metaphor is both evolutionarily rooted and culturally constructed. Citing a primatologist’s study of a bonobo, humans’ closest living relative, who was able to construct simple metaphors after learning to use symbols and a keyboard, Geary traces the developmental evolution of children’s natural metaphor-making ability:

Children share with bonobos an instinctive metaphor-making ability. … Most early childhood metaphors are simple noun-noun substitutions… These metaphors tend to emerge first during pretend play, when children are between the ages of twelve and twenty-four months. As psychologist Alan Leslie proposed in his theory of mind, children at this age start to create metarepresentations through which they imaginatively manipulate both the objects around them and their ideas about those objects. At this stage, metaphor is, literally, child’s play. During pretend play, children effortlessly describe objects as other objects and then use them as such. A comb becomes a centipede; cornflakes become freckles; a crust of bread becomes a curb.

Children’s natural gift for rich and vivid metaphors, Geary argues, is propelled by the same driving force of our own adult creativity, pattern-recognition. Because kids’ pattern-recognition circuits aren’t yet stifled by narrow conventions of thinking and classification, they are able to produce a cornucopia of metaphorical expressions — but only few of them actually make sense. The reason is that successful metaphors hang on perceptual similarities, and in the best of them these similarities are more abstract than literal, but children are only able to comprehend the more obvious similarities as their developmental psychology evolves toward abstraction. Geary cites an illustrative study:

Children listened to short stories that ended with either a literal or metaphorical sentence. In a story about a little girl on her way home, for example, the literal ending was “Sally was a girl running to her home,” while the metaphoric ending was “Sally was a bird flying to her nest.”

Researchers asked the children to act out the stories using a doll. Five- to six-year-olds tended to move the Sally doll through the air when the last sentence was “Sally was a bird flying to her nest,” taking the phrase literally. Eight- to nine-year-olds, however, tended to move her quickly across the ground, taking the phrase metaphorically.

In his brilliant picture-book 'People,' French illustrator Blexbolex uses visual, perceptual similarities to make clever commentary on conceptual ideas. Click image for details.

Another study, conducted by legendary social psychologist Solomon Asch and his collaborator Harriet Nerlove in the 1960s, demonstrated a different facet of the same phenomenon by testing children’s comprehension of so-called “double function terms,” such as “warm,” “cold,” “bitter,” and “sweet,” which in their literal sense refer to physical sensations, but in the abstract can describe human temperament and personality:

To trace the development of double function terms in children, Asch and Nerlove presented groups of kids with a collection of different objects — ice water, sugar cubes, powder puffs — and asked them to identify the ones that were cold, sweet, or soft. This, of course, they were easily able to do.

Asch and Nerlove then asked the children, Can a person be cold? Can a person be sweet? Can a person be soft? While preschoolers understood the literal physical references, they did not understand the metaphorical psychological references. They described cold people as those not dressed warmly; hard people were those with firm muscles. One preschooler described his mother as “sweet” but only because she cooked sweet things, not because she was nice.

Asch and Nerlove observed that only between the ages of seven and ten did children begin to understand the psychological meanings of these descriptions. Some seven- and eight-year-olds said that hard people are tough, bright people are cheerful, and crooked people do bad things. But only some of the eleven- and twelve-year-olds were able to actually describe the metaphorical link between the physical condition and the psychological state. Some nine- and ten-year-olds, for instance, were able to explain that both the sun and bright people “beamed.” Children’s metaphorical competence, it seems, is limited to basic perceptual metaphors, at least until early adolescence.

Younger children’s inability to understand how a physical state could be mapped onto a psychological one, Geary argues, has to do with kids’ lack of life experience in observing how physical circumstances — like, say, poverty or violence — can impact a person’s character, which, as we know, is constantly evolving and responsive to life:

Children have trouble understanding more sophisticated metaphors because they have not yet had the life experiences needed to acquire the relevant cache of associated commonplaces.

What this tells us is that while the hardware for making metaphors may be in-born, the software is earned and learned through living. This learning, Geary explains by pointing to cognitive scientist Dedre Gentner’s work, takes place in stages marked by a “sliding scale of increasingly complex similes:”

[Gentner] presented three different age groups — five- to six-year-olds, nine- to ten-year-olds, and college students — with three different kinds of similes.

Attributional similes, such as “Pancakes are like nickels,” were based on physical similarities; both are round and flat. Relational similes, such as “A roof is like a hat,” were based on functional similarity; both sit on top of something to protect it. Double similes, such as “Plant stems are like drinking straws,” were based on physical as well as functional similarities; both are long and cylindrical and both bring liquid from below to nourish a living thing.

Gentner found that youngsters in all age groups had no problem comprehending the attributional similes. But only the older kids understood the relational and double similes. In subsequent research, Gentner has found that giving young children additional context enhances their ability to pick up on the kind of relational comparisons characteristic of more complex metaphors.

Some of history's most celebrated children's books, like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, are woven of metaphors exploring life's complexities. Click for more.

Thus, as children’s cognition develops and their understanding of the world evolves, their metaphorical range becomes more expansive — something equally true of us grown-ups, as Geary reminds us:

Any metaphor is comprehensible only to the extent that the domains from which it is drawn are familiar.

But this is where it gets most interesting: While this familiarity might be the foot in the door of understanding, a great metaphor is also an original one, thus forming new, uncommon associations of common elements rather than relying merely on the familiar ones — a beautiful manifestation of combinatorial creativity at play. And therein lies the magic:

This is one of the marvels of metaphor. Fresh, successful metaphors do not depend on conventional pre-existing associations. Instead, they highlight novel, unexpected similarities not particularly characteristic of either the source or the target — at least until the metaphor itself points them out.

I Is an Other is endlessly illuminating in its entirety, exploring how metaphors influence our experience and understanding of everything from politics to science to money. It follows Geary’s equally fascinating The World in a Phrase: A History of Aphorisms and Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists.

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15 AUGUST, 2013

French Polymath Henri Poincaré on How Creativity Works

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How to spark the “sudden illumination” of creative genius.

In his fantastic 1939 Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young extolled “unconscious processing” — a period marked by “no effort of a direct nature” toward the objective of your creative pursuit — as the essential fourth step of his five-step outline of the creative process. The idea dates back to William James, who coined the concept of fringe consciousness. T. S. Eliot called this mystical yet vital part of creativity “idea incubation,” which Malcolm Cowley echoed in the second stage of his anatomy of the writing process. John Cleese similarly stressed the importance of time in creative work.

From French polymath and pioneering mathematician Henri Poincaré — whose famous words on the nature of invention inspired the survey that gave us a glimpse of how Einstein’s genius works — comes a fascinating testament to the powerful role of this unconscious incubation in the creative process. In a chapter titled “Mathematical Creation” from his 1904 tome The Foundations of Science: Science and Hypothesis, the Value of Science, Science and Method (public library; free download), Poincaré observes a process profoundly applicable not only to mathematics, but to just about any creative discipline:

I wanted to represent these functions by the quotient of two series; this idea was perfectly conscious and deliberate; the analogy with elliptic functions guided me. I asked myself what properties these series must have if they existed, and succeeded without difficulty in forming the series I have called thetafuchsian.

Just at this time, I left Caen, where I was living, to go on a geologic excursion under the auspices of the School of Mines. The incidents of the travel made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment when I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidian geometry. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with a conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty. On my return to Caen, for conscience’ sake, I verified the result at my leisure.

With a true scientist’s insistence on empirical evidence, Poincaré ensures this was a pattern rather than mere one-off coincidence by citing another example of the process at work:

I turned my attention to the study of some arithmetical questions apparently without much success and without a suspicion of any connection with my preceding researches. Disgusted with my failure, I went to spend a few days at the seaside and thought of something else. One morning, walking on the bluff, the idea came to me, with just the same characteristics of brevity, suddenness and immediate certainty, that the arithmetic transformations of indefinite ternary quadratic forms were identical with those of non-Euclidian geometry.

He puts forth a notion contemporary researchers on creative productivity have since affirmed and speaks to the value of what we too tragically term “procrastination,” which is in fact a valuable part of ideation:

Most striking at first is this appearance of sudden illumination, a manifest sign of long, unconscious prior work. The role of this unconscious work in mathematical invention appears to me incontestable, and traces of it would be found in other cases where it is less evident. Often when one works at a hard question, nothing good is accomplished at the first attack. Then one takes a rest, longer or shorter, and sits down anew to the work. During the first half-hour, as before, nothing is found, and then all of a sudden the decisive idea presents itself to the mind. It might be said that the conscious work has been more fruitful because it has been interrupted and the rest has given back to the mind its force and freshness.

What’s more, Poincaré observes, not only circumstances but also substances help prime the mind for such moments of “sudden illumination”:

One evening, contrary to my custom, I drank black coffee and could not sleep. Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. It seems, in such cases, that one is present at his own unconscious work, made partially perceptible to the over-excited consciousness, yet without having changed its nature. Then we vaguely comprehend what distinguishes the two mechanisms or, if you wish, the working methods of the two egos.

Still, Poincaré is careful to point out that without a foundation of prior conscious work — something Alexander Flexner touched on in his timeless meditation on the usefulness of useless knowledge — these “sudden illuminations” wouldn’t take place:

There is another remark to be made about the conditions of this unconscious work: it is possible, and of a certainty it is only fruitful, if it is on the one hand preceded and on the other hand followed by a period of conscious work. These sudden inspirations (and the examples already cited sufficiently prove this) never happen except after some days of voluntary effort which has appeared absolutely fruitless and whence nothing good seems to have come, where the way taken seems totally astray. These efforts then have not been as sterile as one thinks; they have set agoing the unconscious machine and without them it would not have moved and would have produced nothing.

He concludes:

The subliminal self is in no way inferior to the conscious self; it is not purely automatic; it is capable of discernment; it has tact, delicacy; it knows how to choose, to divine. What do I say? It knows better how to divine than the conscious self, since it succeeds where that has failed.

It appears, then, that in order for us to lubricate the machinery of unconscious ideation, we have to first prime the mind with directed conscious work, then relieve it of its standard inhibitions, whether by a distracting situation like a trip or a vacation, or by a stimulating substance like caffeine. (Curoiusly, more than a century after Poincaré’s remarks, scientists are beginning to suspect caffeine has the opposite effect and cramps creativity by making us too focused.)

Complement Poincaré’s insights from The Foundations of Science with Young’s indispensable 5-step “technique” for ideation and this excellent contemporary field guide to creativity.

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14 AUGUST, 2013

How Einstein Thought: Why “Combinatory Play” Is the Secret of Genius

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“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

For as long as I can remember — and certainly long before I had the term for it — I’ve believed that creativity is combinatorial: Alive and awake to the world, we amass a collection of cross-disciplinary building blocks — knowledge, memories, bits of information, sparks of inspiration, and other existing ideas — that we then combine and recombine, mostly unconsciously, into something “new.” From this vast and cross-disciplinary mental pool of resources beckons the infrastructure of what we call our “own” “original” ideas. The notion, of course, is not new — some of history’s greatest minds across art, science, poetry, and cinema have articulated it, directly or indirectly, in one form or another: Arthur Koestler’s famous theory of “bisociation” explained creativity through the combination of elements that don’t ordinarily belong together; graphic designer Paula Scher likens creativity to a slot machine that aligns the seemingly random jumble of stuff in our heads into a suddenly miraculous combination; T. S. Eliot believed that the poet’s mind incubates fragmentary thoughts into beautiful ideas; the great Stephen Jay Gould maintained that connecting the seemingly unconnected is the secret of genius; Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press embodied this combinatorial creativity; even what we call “intuition” is based on the unconscious application of this very mental faculty.

The concept, in fact, was perhaps best explained by Albert Einstein, who termed it “combinatory play.” (Einstein famously came up with some of his best scientific ideas during his violin breaks.) From his Ideas and Opinions (public library) — the same invaluable volume that gave us the beloved physicist’s timeless wisdom on kindness and our shared existence — comes Einstein’s single most succinct articulation of how his mind works, driven by this powerful combinatorial creativity. The 1945 letter was written in response to French mathematician Jacques S. Hadamard’s survey of the mental processes of famous scientists, inspired by polymath Henri Poincaré’s famous meditation on the subject and published as An Essay on the Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, with Einstein’s missive included as a “testimonial”:

My Dear Colleague:

In the following, I am trying to answer in brief your questions as well as I am able. I am not satisfied myself with those answers and I am willing to answer more questions if you believe this could be of any advantage for the very interesting and difficult work you have undertaken.

(A) The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined.

There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.

(B) The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

(C) According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for.

(D) Visual and motor. In a stage when words intervene at all, they are, in my case, purely auditive, but they interfere only in a secondary stage, as already mentioned.

(E) It seems to me that what you call full consciousness is a limit case which can never be fully accomplished. This seems to me connected with the fact called the narrowness of consciousness (Enge des Bewusstseins).

Ideas and Opinions is superb from cover to cover, the kind of book you return to again and again, only to find new layers of meaning with each reading. Complement it with this vintage technique for producing ideas and Einstein on the secret of learning anything.

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