Teaching for Creativity: Flexibility

There is a river of experiences, sensations, thoughts, memories, and visions that roll through the brain from moment to moment.  Each part of this neural river leaves the brain slightly changed.

Because the human brain has neural plasticity, which is the ability to strengthen, weaken, or even prune neurons and synapses, this plasticity at the cellular level allows the brain to adapt, to learn, and to grow at the conscious level, while conscious mental activity guides the plasticity.

The brain adapts to how it is used.  Devote your time to video games and you will develop a brain more adept at video games.  Studying Renaissance architecture will tune your sensibilities to form, shape, and design. During the Renaissance, individual artists were “artist-architect-engineers” skilled in multiple disciplines.  Leonardo Da Vinci’s first job was as a musician.  He painted, sculpted, invented, designed weapons, launched plans to reroute a river, assisted in staging pageants, studied anatomy, and drafted plans for an ideal city.

Today, one is dubbed a Renaissance person for indulging in multiple pursuits or a “jack of all trades, master of none.”  A jack of all trades is considered shallow, a person with skills in many fields, but no single area of expertise.  In the 21st century, we expect expertise.  For better or worse, we live in an era of specialization.  The specialized fields of the last century have become narrower and more focused: for example, a doctor to an oncologist to a small cell oncologist.

And we expect specialists with a single area of expertise to solve problems in their domain.  Of course, we want the specialists to have thorough mastery of their domains.  But too much focus down one microscope and soon everything looks the same.  As the saying goes: to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.  The vision necessary for innovation becomes blurred.

Innovation comes from flexible thinking.

Flexibility is the ability to bend without breaking.  Cognitive flexibility is the mental ability to adjust focus from narrow to broad, to switch between different task rules, and to hold multiple concepts in mind at the same time.   Or as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Our 21st century specialists concentrate on a narrowing band of information. Innovation, however, requires new information or seeing known information in a new perspective.  New information and perspective come from exposure to different, often unrelated domains.  Innovation grows from cross-pollination between disciplines, and what you see outside your normal scope of vision.

Watch Flies, See Clues

The river is caramel brown, stagnant in the tropical sun of Southern Thailand.  The torrid heat leaves you in a loop of torpor.  The stillness of the summer heat is punctuated only by the movement of flies.  The lethargy and silence mark the ideal time to think about… robotics.

Dr. Rodney Brooks is a roboticist, inventor, founder of iRobots and the former Panasonic Professor of Robotics at MIT.   In the summer of 1985, he was on vacation from MIT visiting his Thai in-laws who, fearing for his safety, insisted that Brooks stay on the deck of their stilt house built over the river.  Brooks had little to do but watch the flies and the birds and the river.

At the time, Brooks was working with his team at MIT to design and a build an independently mobile robot.  Their prototype robot would move one meter and then stop.  It then spent 15 minutes constructing a new three-dimensional model of the room to be able to move forward another meter. Watching the flies from the stilt house in Thailand, Brooks had an insight.  Their prototype robot drew on all the computer power of the MIT mainframe and could only move one meter every 15 minutes.

I watched these insects moving around on the ground and in the house.  And– these insects certainly didn’t have much in the way of brains, certainly in the number of neurons that we sort of knew that insects had at the time and sort of knew how fast they computed.  They didn’t have as much computation as our big main frames really…well…so it seemed strange to me that they could just wander around– if they’re flying– at a meter per second and our mobile robots could only move at a meter in 15 minutes.  Something, something didn’t compute.

… So, I started to think, well, well, what are they doing? [Flies] can’t be doing what our robots are doing.  And our robots at the time were looking with their cameras and then trying to build a complete 3-dimensional model—computationally. And I guessed that probably the insects weren’t doing that.”

Insects are the most ubiquitous and numerous animals on the earth.  Their evolutionary success is not based on intelligence, insight, or computation.  It occurred to Brooks that building a complete model of the world hindered a mobile robot.  Why not give the robot the instincts of a bug?

Roboticists were working from an assumption that the robot needed a control center, a cognition box, as if robots needed the higher cognitive abilities of humans.  Brooks concluded that flies engaged in sensory-motor coupling, that is an action taken in response to the environment.  As Brooks said:

“While watching videos of insects walking over rough terrain, I noticed that many times they would miss a foot placement and stumble.” The other insect legs responded instinctively to overcome the stumble. In another example, an insect calculates how quickly something is looming.  It’s a calculation made on the fly, if you will, without processing the information through a central cognition box.  For Brooks, the key was the simplicity of the cues and responses:

“So, I started thinking about how I can put those simple cues into a robot and then I built … the robot Allen. It could wander around at a slow walking speed, but not only could it wander around and not hit things, it could wander around and not hit crowds of people moving through its… its world.”

It takes a flexible mind to watch flies and see clues to robot movement.  Brooks keeps his mind open to all different kinds of information, both inside and outside the field of robotics:

“I just read a lot of stuff. …It filters by, and I pick stuff out… I got lots of websites and lots of newsfeeds that I just continuously read.  And I get little clues.  Someone says “oh, there’s some interesting thing that happens with this animal” and then I’ll take that, and I’ll go and look up the scientific literature on it.  I’m a sort of a sifter.”

Choose to See More Closely

Present in an unfamiliar environment, Brooks created an unexpected analogy using only what he could see.  He jumped disciplines to see how flying insects might inspire the design of robot movement.  He chose to see the world differently: these may be flying insects, but what could they also be?

H-IQ pushes students and adult participants to look at the world with fresh eyes.  Obviously, Brooks had seen flies before.  We all have.  But on the deck in Thailand, Brooks chose to see more closely: how do they fly with such tiny brains?

After you’ve generated ideas, H-IQ presents questions that help students see ideas from different perspectives.  H-IQ also provides a period of idea incubation.  Incubation— a time without conscious mental effort—will help your idea circulate through your subconscious.

Effective imagination requires finding a balance between thorough knowledge of the domain and an openness to looking outside the domain for new insights.

H-IQ, the Hunter Imagination Questionnaire, will be available soon in a completely revised form. H-IQ will help you capture your ideas and stir up your imagination. But it will also engage you with metacognition—thinking about your own thinking: how do you generate ideas? What works for you?

By: H-IQ is the on-line imagination tool that jumpstarts student creativity and your own

Source: Teaching for Creativity: Flexibility

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