Think of your mind as a dish of jelly which has settled so that its surface is perfectly flat. When information enters the mind, it self-organizes. It is like pouring warm water on the dish of jelly with a teaspoon. Imagine the warm water being poured on the jelly dish and then gently tipped so that it runs off. After many repetitions of this process, the surface of the jelly would be full of ruts, indentations, and grooves.

New water (information) would start to automatically flow into the preformed grooves. After a while, it would take only a bit of information (water) to activate an entire channel. This is the pattern recognition and pattern completion process of the brain. Even if much of the information is out of the channel, the pattern will be activated. The mind automatically corrects and completes the information to select and activate a pattern.

This is why when we sit down and try to will new ideas or solutions, we tend to keep coming up with the same-old, same-old ideas. Information is flowing down the same ruts and grooves making the same-old connections producing the same old ideas over and over again. Consider what happens when you read these words:

  • Thief…………careless……….prison 

Just three words activate a thinking pattern in your brain that relates a story about a thief who is careless, gets caught and ends up in prison.  There is no story. There are only three unrelated words. Your brain simply recognized a certain pre-existing cognitive pattern and assumed the story.

It is this habitual use of pattern recognition that provides us with an instant interpretation of the problem. It also limits our view of the world, our access to new ideas, and our access to unique solutions. If you always think the way you’ve always thought, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

Over time we have cultivated an attitude which puts the major emphasis on separating human experience into different domains and universes. We’ve been tacitly taught that perception is the activity of dividing a complex scene into its separate parts followed by the activity of attaching standard labels to the parts. For example, if the average person were asked to create a better zipper. The person would think in terms of pre-established categories such as “material zipper is made from, position of zipper on clothing, size of zipper, color and design of zipper, fasteners, zipper pulls to move the zipper up and down, and so on.” This kind of thinking is exclusive. Its goal is to separate and exclude elements from thought based upon what exists now. It discourages creative thought.  You cannot will yourself to look at things in a different way, no matter how inspired you are to do so. No matter how hard or how long you think about a zipper, you will continue to see a zipper as an independent part of an independent reality and will continue to focus on the particulars of a zipper.

Change Your Thinking Patterns

You can change your thinking patterns by focusing on the universal instead of the particular. When you do this, you will find yourself looking at the same thing as everyone else, but seeing something different. The essence of a zipper, for example, is fastening. Think of the process of fastening instead of the particular zipper. Now instead of thinking of the particular (zippers) open your mind and think of how things fasten (universal). Some examples:

How does a wasp fasten to its hive?

How does a window fasten to a sill?

How does a bird fasten its nest to a branch?

How does a person fasten a shoe to his foot?

How do mountain climbers fasten themselves to the mountain?

How do burdocks fasten to passerby’s?

George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor occupied his mind with the idea of creating a better zipper. A creative thinker he perceived the essence of a zipper to be “fastening.”  Thinking inclusively, he was always trying to connect all sorts of things with the essence of “fastening:”

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.  The idea of Velcro is not only greater than the sums of their parts, but it is different from the sums of their parts.


Suppose you were challenged with the task of finding a better way to organize the way information flows on the internet. The average person will organize and think only about those particulars that relate to the internet, the way information is digitally organized, and the way existing search engines work.

What is the essence of the problem? How are things organized so they can flock and flow? The principle is “flocking and flowing.”

  1. Think about how things flock and flow in other worlds. Examples:
  2. How do fish flock and flow?
  3. How do molecules flock and flow in liquids?
  4. How do birds flock and flow while flying?
  5. How do sheep flock and flow in herds?
  6. How do people flock and flow in and out of football stadium?

Xiaohui Cui at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee immersed himself in the problem of a better way to organize information on the internet. He did this by abstracting the principle of the problem (flocking and flowing) and immersed himself in searching in other domains for how things flock and flow. When he made the analogical connection between how birds of the same species flock and flow together and how information flocks and flows on the internet, he was able to look at his problem with a new perspective.

The system he created mimics the ways birds of the same species congregate while flying. He created flocks of virtual “birds.” Each bird carries a document, which is assigned a string of numbers. Documents with a lot of similar words have number strings of the same length. A virtual bird will fly only with others of its own “species” or, in this case, documents with number strings of the same length. When a new article appears on the Internet, software scans it for words similar to those in existing articles and then files the document in an existing flock or creates a new one.

Chi’s new tool will, whenever you go online, automatically update your browser with any new stories added to your favorite websites. It will also provide automatic updates from other websites, such as when new scientific papers are added to journals.

Chi discovered the abstract connection that links and does not separate parts of two complex wholes by thinking of universals and essences. He connected the flocking and flowing of information with the flocking and flowing of birds. This is the essence of creative thinking: a complex blending of elements of two or more dissimilar subjects, all of which involve guesswork rather than certainty.

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