Brain Pickings

The Dalai Lama on Science and Technology

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Pain, pleasure, and what sets man apart from machine.

Last month, in response to the impossibly fantastic conversation between Einstein and Indian philosopher Tagore, reader Feña Avila recommended an intriguing collection of conversations between the Dalai Lama and prominent Western scientists across physics, neuroscience, biochemistry, mathematics, artificial intelligence, and cognitive psychology. Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind is an extraordinary exchange of ideas in its entirety, but this particular excerpt from the Dalai Lama’s opening remarks articulates an incredibly important point, one C. P. Snow passionately addressed in 1959 and Jonah Lehrer called a “fourth culture” half a century later.

For quite some time I have had a great interest in the close relationship between Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism, and Western science. My basic aim as a human being is to speak always for the importance of compassion and kindness in order to build a better, healthier human society, and a brighter future.

[…]

Western civilization’s science and technology bring society tremendous benefit. Yet, due to highly developed technology, we also have more anxiety and more fear. I always feel that mental development and material development must be well-balanced, so that together they may make a more human world. If we lose human values and human beings become part of a machine, there is no freedom from pain and pleasure. Without freedom from pain and pleasure, it is very difficult to demarcate between right and wrong. The subjects of pain and pleasure naturally involve feeling, mind, and consciousness.

(This, of course, brings us to the grand question of what consciousness actually is, which is a whole different can of intellectual worms.)

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A 5-Step Technique for Producing Ideas circa 1939

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“The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.”

Literature is the original “inter-net,” woven of a web of allusions, references, and citations that link different works together into an endless rabbit hole of discovery. Case in point: Last week’s wonderful field guide to creativity, Dancing About Architecture, mentioned in passing an intriguing old book originally published by James Webb Young in 1939 — A Technique for Producing Ideas (public library), which I promptly hunted down and which will be the best $5 you spend this year, or the most justified trip to your public library.

Young — an ad man by trade but, as we’ll see, a voraciously curious and cross-disciplinary thinker at heart — lays out with striking lucidity and clarity the five essential steps for a productive creative process, touching on a number of elements corroborated by modern science and thinking on creativity: its reliance on process over mystical talent, its combinatorial nature, its demand for a pondering period, its dependence on the brain’s unconscious processes, and more.

Right from the introduction, original Mad Man and DDB founder Bill Bernbach captures the essence of Young’s ideas, with which Steve Jobs would have no doubt agreed when he proclaimed that “creativity is just connecting things”:

Mr. Young is in the tradition of some of our greatest thinkers when he describes the workings of the creative process. It is a tribute to him that such scientific giants as Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein have written similarly on this subject. They agree that knowledge is basic to good creative thinking but that it is not enough, that this knowledge must be digested and eventually emerge in the form of fresh, new combinations and relationships. Einstein refers to this as intuition, which he considers the only path to new insights.

To be sure, however, Young marries the intuitive with the practical in his formulation:

[T]he production of ideas is just as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.

In a chapter on training the mind, Young offers:

In learning any art the important things to learn are, first, Principles, and second, Method. This is true of the art of producing ideas.

Particular bits of knowledge are nothing, because they are made up [of] so called rapidly aging facts. Principles and method are everything.

[…]

So with the art of producing ideas. What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced and how to grasp the principles which are at the source of all ideas.

But the most compelling part of Young’s treatise, in a true embodiment of combinatorial creativity, builds upon the work of legendary Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (of Pareto principle fame) and his The Mind and Society. Young proposes two key principles for creating — that an idea is a new combination and that the ability to generate new combinations depends on the ability to see relationships between different elements.

The first [principle is] that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.

[…]

The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. Here, I suspect, is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as it is an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts.

[…]

Consequently the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.

STEP 1: GATHERING RAW MATERIAL

Young talks about the importance of building a rich pool of “raw material” — mental resources from which to build new combinations — in a way that resonates deeply with the Brain Pickings founding philosophy, and also articulates the increasing importance of quality information filters in our modern information diet. This notion of gathering raw material is the first step in his outline of the creative process:

Gathering raw material in a real way is not as simple as it sounds. It is such a terrible chore that we are constantly trying to dodge it. The time that ought to be spent in material gathering is spent in wool gathering. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us. When we do that we are trying to get the mind to take the fourth step in the idea-producing process while we dodge the preceding steps.

Even seven decades into the past, Young knew that the future belongs to the curious. His insistence on the importance of curiosity would make Richard Feynman nod in agreement:

Every really good creative person…whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested — from, say, Egyptian burial customs to modern art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.

[…]

The process is something like that which takes place in the kaleidoscope. The kaleidoscope, as you know, is an instrument which designers sometimes use in searching for new patterns. It has little pieces of colored glass in it, and when these are viewed through a prism they reveal all sorts of geometrical designs. Every turn of its crank shifts these bits of glass into a new relationship and reveals a new pattern. The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations in the kaleidoscope are enormous, and the greater the number of pieces of glass in it the greater become the possibilities for new and striking combinations.

(I once used a similar analogy with LEGO.)

STEP 2: DIGESTING THE MATERIAL

In his second stage of the creative process, digesting the material, Young affirms Paola Antonelli’s brilliant metaphor of the curious octopus:

What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.

STEP 3: UNCONSCIOUS PROCESSING

In his third stage of the creative process, Young stresses the importance of making absolutely “no effort of a direct nature”:

It is important to realize that this is just as definite and just as necessary a stage in the process as the two preceding ones. What you have to do at this time, apparently, is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep.

[…]

[W]hen you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.

STEP 4: THE A-HA MOMENT

Then and only then, Young promises, everything will click in the fourth stage of the seemingly serendipitous a-ha! moment:

Out of nowhere the Idea will appear.

It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night.

STEP 5: IDEA MEETS REALITY

Young calls the last stage “the cold, gray dawn of the morning after,” when your newborn idea has to face reality:

It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work. And here is where many good ideas are lost. The idea man, like the inventor, is often not patient enough or practical enough to go through with this adapting part of the process. But it has to be done if you are to put ideas to work in a work-a-day world.

Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious.

When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.

* * *

Years later, upon reissuing A Technique for Producing Ideas, Young recounted the many letters he had gotten from “poets, painters, engineers, scientists, and even one writer of legal briefs” who had found his technique empowering and helpful. But what’s perhaps most interesting is the following note he made to the postscript of a reprint:

From my own further experience in advertising, government, and public affairs I find no essential points which I would modify in the idea-producing process. There is one, however, on which I would put greater emphasis. This is as to the store of general materials in the idea-producer’s reservoir.

[…]

I am convinced, however, that you gather this vicarious experience best, not when you are boning up on it for an immediate purpose, but when you are pursuing it as an end in itself.

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lesser-Known Contributions to Graphic Design

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Shedding new light on the iconic architect’s legacy through the kaleidoscope of his diverse design work.

Frank Lloyd Wright is considered by many the most influential architect in modern history, but despite his enormous cultural recognition, the full extent of his contribution to design — posters, brochures, typography, murals, book and magazine covers — remains relatively obscure. In Frank Lloyd Wright: Graphic Artist (public library), Penny Fowler examines Wright’s ingenious and bold graphic work — his covers for Liberty (some of which were so radical the magazine rejected them), his mural designs for Midway Gardens, his photographic experiments, his hand-drawn typographical studies, the jacket designs for his own publications, including The House Beautiful and An Autobiography, and a wealth more.

Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West, 1955. ©FLW Foundation

From his childhood encounter with Friedrich Froebel’s educational building blocks at the 1876 Centennial Exposition to his experiments with geometric designs long before the Mondrian age to his obsession with the woodblock art of Old Japan, Fowler traces Wright’s inspirations, influences, and singular style as his work dances across aesthetic movements like Bauhaus, Japanisme, Arts and Crafts, and De Stijl.

Magazine cover, Town and Country, July 1937.

One of the designs that Wright originally proposed for Liberty, it is the only one ever published as a magazine cover. ©FLW Foundation

Frank Lloyd Wright, 'Descriptive Geometry' class drawing, 1885.

Shade and Shadow of a Surface of Revolution. Pencil and ink on paper. ©FLW Foundation

LEFT: This colorful 1973 adaptation of Wright’s design is a backlit art glass mural made for the Arizona Biltmore by Taliesin Architects. ©FLW

RIGHT: Frank Lloyd Wright, Saguaro Forms and Cactus Flowers. Cover design for Liberty, c. 1927–1928. Presentation drawing (detail). Pencil and color pencil on tracing paper. ©FLW Foundation

As Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation director Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer writes in the introduction, what Wright wrote in 1908 of architecture could well apply to his graphic design work as well:

As for the future — the work shall grow more truly simple, more expressive with fewer lines, fewer forms; more articulate with less labor; more plastic; more fluent, although more coherent; more organic. It shall grow not only to fit more perfectly the methods and processes that are called upon to produce it, but shall further find whatever is lovely or of good repute in method or process, and idealize it with the cleanest, most virile stroke I can imagine.

Frank Lloyd Wright, presentation drawing, City by the Sea mural (south wall), Midway Gardens.

Pencil, color pencil, gold ink, watercolor, and crayon on tracing paper. ©FLW Foundation

Frank Lloyd Wright, 'Kinder Symphony,' for the Avery Coonley playhouse, Riverside, Illinois, 1912.

Title page designed by Wright for the Auvergne Press. ©FLW Foundation

Midway Gardens. Tavern Room, looking north to entranceway.

©FLW Foundation

'The Eve of St. Agnes'

Title page designed by Wright for the Auvergne Press. ©FLW Foundation

Fowler writes of Wright’s formative years:

Reading, sketching, and music each played a role in shaping Wright’s character. So did hard work. Beginning when he was eleven, he worked through the late spring and summer on his uncle’s farm. Wright described the long hours and hard work as ‘adding tired to tired.’ Nevertheless, this farm labor as an ‘amateur hired hand’ fostered an everlasting appreciation of nature.

TOP: Frank Lloyd Wright, conceptual sketch for promotional brochure, Midway Gardens. Pencil and color pencil on paper. ©FLW Foundation

BOTTOM: Cover, Midway Gardens (Chicago: The Midway Gardens Co., n.d.) This rare promotional pamphlet describes the facilities and their attractions and features photographs of patrons enjoying the cosmopolitan atmosphere. Collection of Brian A. Spencer, AIA/IAA

Frank Lloyd Wright, perspective of model J902. 'American System-Built Houses for the Richards Company,' 1915–1917.

Lithoprint ©FLW Foundation

Hendrikus Theodorus Wijdeveld, wrapper design for the Wendingen Wrightnummers (fourth paper, January 1926).

Published by C. A. Mees, Santpoort, Netherlands. Black and red ink on white paper. This wrapper design was used (with minor variations) for all of the Wrightnummers (October 1925–April 1926). ©FLW Foundation

Frank Lloyd Wright, 'Saguaro Forms and Cactus Flowers.' Rug design, 1955.

Adapted from a cover for Liberty magazine, 1927–1928. Presentation drawing. Pencil and color pencil on tracing paper. ©FLW Foundation

BOTTOM: Frank Lloyd Wright, Scherzo. Rug design, 1955.

Adapted from Liberty cover design. Presentation drawing: pencil and color pencil on tracing paper. ©FLW Foundation

Hendrikus Theodorus Wijdeveld, 'Architectuur/Frank Lloyd Wright,' 1930.

Printed by Jon Enschede en Zonen, Harlem, Netherlands. Color lithograph ©The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MIA

Frank Lloyd Wright, cover and dust jacket, The Disappearing City (William Farquar Payson, 1932).

Wright’s abstraction of the “futile pattern” foretold the American dilemma of centralization without planning. ©FLW Foundation

Shedding new light on the beloved creator’s legacy through his kaleidoscope of creative contributions, Frank Lloyd Wright: Graphic Artist is an essential bible of design and cultural history.

Images courtesy of Pomegranate / © FLW Foundation

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