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Boost Your Insights, Part I

Five popular ideas for increasing discoveries

This is the first of a two-part discussion of how to increase our chances of gaining insights. In this first part I review five ideas put forth by different authorities:

  • Increase swirl
  • Encourage failures
  • Be open to new ideas
  • Apply critical thinking
  • Get into a quiet, meditative mood

Each of these ideas seems reasonable, useful and worth trying. Nevertheless, I am not convinced by any of them. It may be worth examining my misgivings in order to see what a more effective strategy needs to achieve— which will be the topic of part II.

Increase swirl. Stephen Johnson, in Where Good Ideas Come From (2010), has championed the notion that we can spark innovation and insights by exposing ourselves to lots of ideas, particularly unfamiliar ideas. Many others have come to the same conclusion; a number of companies designed their office layout to mix up specialties, forcing the knowledge workers to bump into different types of specialties. The strategy of increasing swirl fits into the Connection path in my model of insight: people make unexpected connections between ideas.

So what is making me uncomfortable? I doubt the anecdotal evidence because it’s based on hindsight. If I am a mechanical engineer and I have lunch with a friend who works in the optics department and she describes a new project that gives rise to an insight, great. But what about all the lunches that didn’t result in insights. It’s like having a great idea while taking a shower and then doubling the number of showers you take in order to double your chances of having more great ideas.

Another problem with the swirl strategy is that insights don’t arise by increasing the combinations of ideas, because the more ideas we expose ourselves to, the more connections and the more bad combinations we have to sort through. In contrast, when an insight arises, we know right away. Sure, sometimes we’re wrong and we find out later that the discovery won’t work, but we aren’t plowing through lots and lots of sterile combinations.

Encourage failures. I think the strategy of learning from failures is very important, so I do see merit in the advice to encourage failures, and the slogans to fail fast to learn faster. The failure-based strategy traces back to Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, who pointed out that no theory is perfect and so scientists should be trying to refute their own theories rather than defending them. However, despite this sage advice, scientists do not try to shoot down their own theories. We aren’t built that way. The failure strategy doesn’t match our psychological makeup. Personally, I hate failure. I have failed too often and each time it takes a toll. Later, I can sometimes look back and diagnose why I failed, so I do learn a lot from my failures. But I never enjoy them and never set out to fail. And I suspect few people are built to seek out failure. So this advice doesn’t seem practical.

Be open to new ideas. Many advice manuals state some variation of this strategy to stay open-minded. And the advice makes good sense. People who are closed to new ideas are unlikely to have insights. The advice to keep an open-mind seems to be particularly relevant to the Contradiction path of insights, reminding us not to be too quick to dismiss evidence that doesn’t fit our preconceptions.

So what’s the problem? Simply that the advice to be open doesn’t seem all that powerful. It’s not clear what we can do to keep open-minded. The advice is more of a slogan than a strategy.

And when I go back to my 120 examples of insight and look at the set of Contradiction cases, I find something strange: in two-thirds of them the person did NOT have an open mind but was skeptical of the conventional wisdom, and was seeing events through that skeptical lens. Very different from an open mind.

Apply critical thinking. Laboratory-based studies of insight generally use some variation of the impasse paradigm: give the subjects a puzzle that traps them into making an unnecessary assumption. The impasse paradigm lines up with the Creative Desperation path in my Triple Path model of insight.

The only way forward is to discover which assumption can be jettisoned. Therefore, the Critical Thinking approach of listing assumptions seems spot on.

And yet I am dubious about the value of critical thinking for generating insights. One reason is that I am not aware of any evidence that following critical thinking practices to list assumptions and sources of uncertainty result in greater numbers of insights. A second reason is that even with laboratory tasks, the subjects are trapped by assumptions they are not even aware they are making. So if they tried to list all their assumptions,, they wouldn’t list the unconscious ones.

Get into a quiet, meditative mood. If insights emerge from our subconscious mind, then we might be able to coax more of them into consciousness by giving them space — by quieting down all the clutter that usually fills our thoughts. That’s the claim of Keifer and Constable (2013) in their book The Art of Insight, and there is even some neuropsychological data to back it up, showing that for impasse puzzles, the creative desperation path, solutions are more likely to emerge when we get into a dreamy state. I wondered how useful this advice was and went back to my collection of 120 examples of insight; none of them, 0/120, arose when a person deliberately entered into a quiescent, meditative state. Therefore, I am skeptical that we can increase our chances for discoveries by following this quiet-mind strategy.

None of these five approaches seems very helpful. However, reviewing what is wrong with each of these suggestions may provide some ideas about what an effective insight strategy would have to achieve.

One of the most common questions I get asked is how to increase insights and previously, I have explained the shortcomings of the popular types of advice, as I have done above. I didn’t offer any better strategy because I didn’t have one.

But recently, I did have an idea that might work. In the next entry, Part II, I will describe an approach that may be useful for boosting insights: The Insight Stance.

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