How is a burdock similar to a zipper?

Gorge de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, wanted to improve the ordinary zipper. He looked for a better and easier way to fasten things. George’s thinking was inclusive as he was always trying to connect all sorts of things with the “essence of fastening” (e.g., how do windows fasten, how does a bird fasten its nest to a branch, how do wasps fasten their hives, how do mountain climbers fasten themselves to the mountain and so on). One day he took his dog for a nature hike. They both returned covered with burrs, the plant like seed-sacs that cling to animal fur in order to travel to fertile new planting grounds.

He made the analogical-metaphorical connection between burrs and zippers when he examined the small hooks that enabled the seed-bearing burr to cling so viciously to the tiny loops in the fabric of his pants. The key feature of George de Mestral’ thinking was his conceptual connection between patterns of a burr and patterns of a zipper. He bounced what I mean is that he had to take chances as to what aspects of a “burr” pattern matter, and what doesn’t. Perhaps shapes count, but not textures–or vice versa. Perhaps orientation count, but not sizes–or vice versa. Perhaps curvature or its lack counts and so on until he got it.

Patterns are fitted together like words in a phrase or sentence. A sentence is not the sum of its words but depends on their syntactic arrangement; “A dog bites a man” is not the same as “Dog a man a bites.” Likewise, an original idea is not the sum of combined thoughts but depends on how they are integrated together.

De Mestral’s thinking inspired him to invent a two-sided fastener (two-sided like a zipper), one side with stiff hooks like the burrs and the other side with soft loops like the fabric of his pants. He called his invention “Velcro,” which is itself a combination of the word velour and crochet. Velcro is not a burr + a zipper. It is a blend of the two into an original idea.

Perception and pattern recognition are major components of creative thinking.  Russian scientist Mikhail Bongard created a remarkable set of visual pattern recognition problems where two classes of figures are presented and you are asked to identify the conceptual difference between them.  Try the following patterns and see how you do.

Below is a classic example of a Bongard problem.  You have two classes of figures (A and B).  You are asked to discover some abstract connection that links all the various diagrams in A and that distinguishes them from all the other diagrams in group B.

Thought Experiment

.EX.BONGARD (2) (1024x1024)

One has to think the way de Mestral thought the way he thought when he created Velcro. One must take chances that certain aspects of a given diagram matter, and others are irrelevant.  Perhaps shapes count, but not sizes — or vice versa.  Perhaps orientations count, but not sizes — or vice versa.  Perhaps curvature or its lack counts, but not location inside the box — or vice versa.  Perhaps numbers of objects but not their types matter — or vice versa.  Which types of features will wind up mattering and which are mere distracters.  As you try to solve the problem you will find the essence of your mental activity is a complex interweaving of acts of abstraction and comparison, all of which involve guesswork rather than certainty.  By guesswork I mean that one has to take a chance that certain aspects matter and others do not.

Logic dictates that the essence of perception is the activity of dividing a complex scene into its separate constituent objects and attaching separate labels to the now separated parts members of pre-established categories, such as ovals, Xs and circles as unrelated exclusive events.  Then we’re taught to think exclusively within a closed system of hard logic.

In the above patterns, if you were able to discern the distinction between the diagrams, your perception is what found the distinction, not logic.  The distinction is the ovals are all pointing to the X in the A group, and the ovals area all pointing at the circles in the B group.

The following thought experiment is an even more difficult problem, because you are no longer dealing with recognizable shapes such as ovals, Xs, circles or other easily recognizable structures for which we have clear structures.  To solve this you need to perceive subjectively and intuitively make abstract connections, much like Einstein thought when he thought about the similarities and differences between the patterns of space and time, and you need to consider the overall context of the problem.

Again, you have two classes of figures (A and B) in the Bongard problem.  You are asked to discover some abstract connection that links all the various diagrams in A and that distinguishes them from all the other diagrams in group B.


Scroll down for the answer.












ANSWER: The dots in “A” are on the same side of the neck in the illustration. The dots in “B” are on the opposite sides of the neck. To learn more about how creative geniuses get their ideas, read Michael Michalko’s Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: