The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Revealing Hidden Knolwedge

This Ted talk by David McClandless is worth watching. I agree with his observation that data visualization is really the process of using Design as a means of solving problems and creating elegant solutions. He points out that information overload is now a very serious problem and data visualization is one powerful way to make sense of it.

I agree and will even go further and suggest that without data visualization (an important new emerging industry), we will experience paralysis.

Enjoy – as with all TED talks it is no longer than 18 minutes.

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A Visual Essay

In this video, Paul Jenkins tells the story of a photograph. There is great skill in deconstructing meaning and putting the story together that is captured in the metaphors in the photograph.

The video is about 14 minutes long.

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Photographs And What They Say

I find this video fascinating and cannot resist sharing the lessons.

Paul Jenkins uses the International Mission Photography Archive to explore and analyse photographs. I particularly like the way he asks questions and visually answers them. The video is 29 minutes long – enjoy.

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Visual Data – The Humble Graph

In my quest to understand why visual thinking is important, and what the benefits are, I decided to explore further questions:

When we are confronted with data, why do we prefer to see it in a visual form rather than the raw data? Does the visual form enable us to produce new knowledge and gain new insights?

In my view, what emerges from the visual form is greater than the sum of the individual data elements.

Let’s use a very basic example. Firstly, what does raw data look like? I found this small set for the total population of the City of Lethbridge, Canada.

Population for Lethbridge, Canada - Raw data.

Population for Lethbridge, Canada – Raw data.

How easy is it to make sense of the data? We can see that the population has increased but do we get any more out of the figures without having to consult a calculator? Can we easily see what the trends are and what the rate of growth has been in the different areas (North, South, West) and years?

Below is the same data represented in Graph form.

Population for Lethbridge, Canada - graph.

Population for Lethbridge, Canada – graph.

The graph is a visual/pictorial means of representing relationships between various quantities, parameters and measurable variables. A graph summarises how one quantity changes if another quantity, that is related to it, also changes.

Graphs summarise substantial information into one visual. In some cases, graphs are the only way to represent data and make sense of the results. Often one does not know the exact relationships and interdependence between the various quantities that are being measured. By using a visual like a graph, one is able to comprehend how the variables change relative to each other. It provides a vivid image to “hang onto” in order to have some intuitive picture of the information and the dynamics between the data.

Hubbard explains … “There is a magic in graphs. The profile of a curve reveals in a flash a whole situation — the life history of an epidemic, a panic, or an era of prosperity. The curve informs the mind, awakens the imagination, convinces.”

The magic is the synergy of information where meaning emerges and the observer can see and know the whole. Not only because it is immediate but because the attention is released from having to linearly digest the data to being able to postulate questions; explore explanations; and frame a story of meaning about the information. You are not caught up in the manipulation of the data.

In not a dissimilar way, I would suggest that this is what happens between text and an image that represents the content of a text. The raw data (to a degree) is the text and the graph is the visual. I will explore this further in the next post.

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Creativity explored

This post explores what creativity might be and how it is linked to visual thinking.

A traditional view claims that creativity is something that only some people possess. This view holds that creativity is innate; a gift that is available to some and cannot be acquired or even learned. This position suggests that we should identify people with this gift and then simply give them space to perform their magic. This view, even though still considered to be the case by the general public, has been discarded by research.

In my view, the best way to explore this topic is to look at published cases of when people have their eureka moments (how individuals come to their ideas or moments of inspiration) from an experience perspective.

From the many cases, there seems to be a large percentage that describe ‘the moment of having a creative inspiration’ to be when their focus is not on the topic of concern and they even appear to be thinking of something else altogether at the time. They get stuck, then they relax their mind and then the magic happens. This is certainly what I have personally experienced.

Let us briefly consider some examples:

The theory of special relativity – For years, Einstein had been grappling with the apparent contradictory theories of space and time. While driving in a car, the sight of Bern’s famous clock tower came to him. The elegant and simple solution emerged: time can beat at different rates throughout the universe relative to the velocities of the observers.

Bern Clock Tower. Google Maps – street view image.

Bern Clock Tower. Google Maps – street view image.

Nerve Impulses Transmitted Chemically – Otto Loewi dreamed of an experiment that would prove once and for all that transmission of nerve impulses was chemical and not electrical. Up until then, it was not clear whether signaling across the synapse was bioelectrical or chemical. After his second dream (he could not decipher his notes after his first dream), he woke up and performed the experiment in his lab using two frogs’ hearts. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which he shared with Henry Hallett Dale.

Friedrich Kekulé – a German chemist who dreamed that atoms danced around and formed themselves into strings, moving about in a snake-like manner. This continued until the snake of atoms formed itself into an image of a snake eating its own tail. The dream enabled Kekulé to suggest that the structure of the benzene molecule is a ring. As a result of this idea, the new branch of science – aromatic chemistry – emerged.

Structure of the benzene molecule is a ring. By Rui Martins.

Structure of the benzene molecule is a ring. By Rui Martins.

In all cases of inspiration and creative eureka moments, the individuals had been working hard and over a long period of time, trying to make sense and solve the ‘problem’ they were working on. Also of interest is the fact that in the above cases, visual thinking and images are central to the moment when creativity emerges.

The insights, moments and flashes of inspiration – how do these happen? They do not just emerge from thin air. If that were the case, then all humans would have access to any type of inspiration – a ten year old could have access to how to solve a complex problem in a field like …  shape-shifting.

Boden believes that inspiration/creativity does not emerge out of thin air nor is it reserved to the gifted. She proposes that all humans have the ability to be creative, which involves both conscious and unconscious mental processes.

Poincaré identified four phases of creativity in his model– conscious thought, unconscious thought, illumination and verification. The model was developed further by Hadamard (mathematician) who described the creative process as having four steps – Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification – within which conscious and unconscious mental work are involved to varying extents. He came to this model after interviewing 100 leading thinkers of his period. He also describes his own thinking as largely wordless and accompanied by visual thinking, which is a very similar experience to Kekulé.

In explaining the above theory, the link between the importance of the unconscious and conscious mental work is critical. The preparatory phase activates all potentially relevant ideas in the unconscious. The incubation phase can take any period of time (minutes or even years). Koestler takes the point of the unconscious notion further and introduces the notion of ‘bisociation’, where creativity emerges by sudden interlocking of previously unrelated thought patterns. He emphasized the fact that the more unusual the bisociation the more scope there is for truly creative ideas. The point that is of particular interest to me is his emphasis that unconscious thinking, like visual thinking, is important to the process of creativity.

Koestler, in attempting to explain creativity, introduced the notion of ‘intuitive guidance’ and this happens through seeing analogies and these analogies in turn are created by the imagination. Perkins (educational psychologist) elaborated further and proposed that creativity involves mental capacities such as perception, memory and the ability to notice interesting (unusual) things and recognize analogies. The difference between outstandingly creative people and less creative individuals is not special powers but practiced expertise and deeper knowledge, as well as enduring motivation. This sentiment is echoed by Polanyi for whom intuitive insights are anchored in ‘tacit knowledge’.

Generally, the more impressive the creativity, the more expert knowledge typically is involved. Apart from in-depth knowledge, other skills are also required such as recognizing, remembering, exploring and noticing. Each of these abilities involves subtle interpretive processes as well as complex mental structures.

However, this is not the full story of creativity. We are left wondering as to what the mental processes are when creativity takes place.

Margaret Boden suggests that computer science offers the experimental tools for our better understanding of creativity. The concepts she uses are pattern recognition, ‘connectionist network’ and ‘parallel processing’ (I briefly describe these terms below). Central to Boden’s explanation of creativity is the notion of ‘mapping conceptual space’ where ‘mapping’ is used as a generalized visualization of how the thinking process is fluid.

Inside the mind -THE LOBSTER LOUNGE by Anatomyofrockthe - dreamstime.

Inside the mind -THE LOBSTER LOUNGE by Anatomyofrockthe – dreamstime.

The ‘map’ concept is useful as both a generative system that explores a conceptual space and also as an emphasis on the role of mental representation in creativity. In other words, we can only be creative if we have clear mental representations of the generative systems we work with. We need to have some clear basic notions/concepts/images before we can modify and become creative. This is where the notion of knowledge becomes relevant (see Karmiloff-Smith’s work with children).

To be creative means to have both the knowledge and stamina to explore conceptual spaces and these explorations are dynamic and open-ended, which takes place in the terrain of the mind. The creative thoughts that emerge are articulated and given form through language and images. The images are used when concepts are rich, complex and dense with meaning.

From the variety of readings – the general consensus is that creativity does exist. It is not predictable and, once creativity emerges, it cannot be traced in every detail after it has happened.

Computer Science Terms explained – notice the similarities with ideas explored in previous posts where I explore the brain:

Connectionist Network – the interest in these networks is because they are believed to provide a new framework for understanding the nature of the mind and its relation to the brain. The brain is essentially a neural net formed from huge amounts of units (neurons) and their connections (synapses). Many properties of neural network models suggest that connectionism might enable us to gain a good understanding of the nature of cognitive processing. For a critique on this notion see Pinker and Prince (1988, “On Language and Connectionism: Analysis of a Parallel Distributed Processing Model of Language Acquisition,” Cognition, 23: 73–193.)

Parallel Processing – the ability of the brain to do many things at once. When seeing an object, the brain does not just see one thing but rather many aspects that together help the person identify the object. Like seeing red and black – the colours alone mean little. One needs to see shapes. The brain will simultaneously put them together and identify as a car. If you add motion and a change in car size to the perception of a car, these cues processed by the brain will tell the person to get out of the way. If information was processed sequentially one at a time, it might be too late.