The essence of creative thinking is a complex blending of elements of two or more different subjects, all of which involve guesswork rather than certainty. Perception is far more than the recognition of members of already-established categories–it involves the spontaneous manufacture of new categories.

Think back in history to the creation of railroads. If the creators of the railroads had understood they were in the transportation business, they could have monopolized the future automobile and airplane business. By the time they realized they were in the transportation business and not the railroad business it was too late. Or consider the bookstore owner who viewed himself as a seller of books, a very specific idea. The trend toward the electronic media put him out of business. On the other hand, if he had viewed himself as a “provider of information and entertainment,” a more abstract characterization, a switch in the medium would not have been threatening and would have opened up fantastic new opportunities.

Before Fred Smith created Federal Express, overnight delivery did not exist at the national level. The U.S. Postal Service and UPS both worked on the challenge of “overnight” deliveries using established systems and theories. Both believed that overnight point-to-point was economically not feasible.

Fred Smith perceived the essence of delivery systems to be “movement.” So Fred wondered about the concept of movement and thought about how things are moved from one place to another.


How is money moved

How is information moved

How are products moved

How does tele-communications move

How does blood move throughout the body

How are airplanes moved

He thought about how information is moved and how banks move money around the world. Both, he discovered put all points on a network and connect them through a central hub. He decided to create a delivery system that operates essentially the way information and bank clearinghouses do

If you take any individual transaction, this kind of system seems absurd — it means making at least one extra stop. But if you look at the network as a whole, it’s an efficient way to create an enormous number of connections. If, for instance, you want to connect 100 markets with one another and if you do it all with direct point-to-point deliveries, it will take 100 times 99 — or 9,900 — direct deliveries. But if you go through a single clearing system, it will take at most 100 deliveries. So you’re looking at a system that is about 100 times as efficient. His delivery system is so efficient that the same idea was subsequently employed, of course, in the airline industry.

It is important to realize that the existence of the patterns of moving money and information and goods do not describe an actual idea or fact—they describe the potential for an idea or fact of nature. There are a range of many potentials in creative thought. What forces the range of potentials to become one idea is the act of observation. Banks and delivery systems, for example, are not in themselves phenomena and do not become phenomena until they were conceptually blended into one phenomenon in the mind of Fred Smith.

In another example of a creative thinker, George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor occupied his mind with the idea of creating a better zipper.  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 “Aha” connection between a 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. This 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.

The key feature of George de Mestral’ thinking was his conceptual connection between patterns of a burr and patterns of a zipper. He bounced back and forth among ideas guessing as to what works and what doesn’t. By “guessing,” 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. His original idea is not the sum of combined thoughts but depends on how they are blended together. Velcro is not a burr + a zipper. It is a blend of the two. This intuitive ability George de Mestral demonstrated when he made abstract connections between different subjects is an ability, we all have. We are all born with this ability to make these connections.


Russian cognitive scientist, Mikhail Bongard, created a remarkable set of visual pattern recognition problems to test one’s creative perception. The Bongard problems present two sets of relatively simple diagrams, say A and B. All the diagrams from set A have a common factor or attribute, which is lacking in all the diagrams of set B. The problem is to find, or to formulate, convincingly, the common factor.  Below is an example of a Bongard problem. Test your perception and pattern recognition skills and try to solve the 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.

One has to 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 of pre-established categories, such as ovals, X’s 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, X’s, circles or other easily recognizable structures for which we have clear representations. 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.








ANSWER: The rule is the “dots” in A are on the same side of the neck.

This is creative thinking. We are born to think inclusively, not exclusively. Exclusive thinking is the logical, linear way to think with the focus on excluding subjects from thought. When you think inclusively, your conscious and unconscious minds blend differing concepts for you by recognizing only those abstract patterns of each concept that are interesting to your unconscious mind based on your unique set of circumstances. These patterns are connected and projected into the blend by your unconsciousness. The blends then bubble up into your conscious mind as ideas and insights. This is not logical thinking. This is creative thinking. This is the magic of creativity. This is the way we are born to think.

MICHAEL MICHALKO. Creativity expert and author of creative thinking books

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