Friday, February 3, 2012

Creative Thinking - Part 5: Bringing Out the "Genius" in Us

Daydreaming boosts creativity, when mental pictures reach the conscious mind and stimulate our limitless imagination. As a result, drawing can do for the brain during the day, what dreaming does for the brain at night.

During those times, we can open the mind to a floodgate of novel relationships and make interesting non-traditional connections.

Many of history's most prominent scientists were quite accomplished in the arts. MacArthur “genius” Robert Root-Bernstein, in his book Sparks of Genius, details a fascinating revelation. As he researched the lives of more than 150 renowned scientists from Pasteur to Einstein, he discovered a single common characteristic.

Nearly all of the greatest scientists, inventors and innovators, were also musicians, artists, sculptors, poets, or involved in the arts in one manner or another!

From Leonardo da Vinci’s illustrations of the human body to Gregor Mendel’s sketches of how the laws of heredity operated, their models, maps, and drawings were not only indispensable record-keeping tools, but they also blurred line separating the sciences from art. When examined closely, one must ask, "Were da Vinci’s paintings art or anatomy?" "Architecture and blueprints or art?"

Robert Marzano’s research would likely discourage any binary answer, because advanced visual organizers have been shown to increase student achievement by more than 20 percentile points regardless of the discipline to which one attributes the success.

In the final analysis, there is an enlightening answer to the question, "Why do the world’s leading universities boast of a College of Arts and Sciences?” The two go hand-in-hand to enhance classroom learning and human advancement.

In the proverbial equation of "a picture" and its 1,000-word equivalent, one must ask the intriguing question, “If a picture is indeed worth 1,000 words, then what is an experience worth, where a young learner can produce his/her own models, maps, and illustrations?” Perhaps, the answer is a "full dissertation!"

Collectively, visualized experiences with the arts help make the discipline of science comprehensible to all learners, opening the door to our developing young geniuses.

Creative Thinking - Part 4: The Creative Hippocampus

The hippocampus is a sub-cortical brain structure that plays a critical role in laying down new memories. However, brain-imaging studies have shown heightened activations taking place in the hippocampus, not only when we are recalling memories, but also when we are daydreaming, which may constitute creating new memories.

For approximately 30% of our waking hours, we tend to drift off and our minds turn on a "default network" in the brain that is composed of a connected web of brain regions that we use when our mind shifts gears from "concentrate" to "wonder."

The unbridled excursions we take while daydreaming have multiple purposes. It is during these imaginative moments that we:

(1) tend to stretch the current boundaries of reality to new dimensions

(2) mentally rehearse future events

(3) tackle real or imagined challenges, a.k.a. “problem-solving.”

The evolutionary value of a complex creative human memory system rests not so much in our ability to store information, but in our capacities to use that information to predict future events and to imaginatively "create our own future."

Without a flexible and imaginative memory system, predictions, and planning our actions/reactions would linger just beyond our cognitive reach.

Creative Thinking - Part 3: Visualization and Human Cognition

Visualizing is integral to reading for comprehension. To understand what they read, students must rely heavily on the “picture-making” mechanisms in the visual systems of the brain in order to extract meaning from the words on a printed page.

The association cortices in the brain are charged with the task of making sense of incoming information. Learners can only make sense of abstract information based on preexisting internal mental models.

Harvard University faculty member, Marc Hauser (2009) points to four human characteristics that distinguish our cognitive abilities from those of our primate cousins, who are only 1% genetically different from us.

1. Generative Computation: our ability to generate countless products from limited content (26 letters used to construct a limitless number of words, conversations, and concepts)

2. Promiscuous Combination of Ideas: taking disparate ideas from a wide range of domains of knowledge and creating new products, laws, and relationships

3. Mental Symbols: producing a complex communication system

4. Abstract Thought: the ability to reasonably imagine things beyond our immediate.

When we deploy non-linguistic models, maps, diagrams, simulations, and representations to assist with creative r abstract thinking, we enhance classroom success by taking advantage of some of the brain's longest-standing competencies.

We can safely assume that the law of gravity was well understood before Newton's formal theory was ever proposed or written down.

Creative Thinking - Part 2: The Value of Mental Imaging

Advancements in the human condition were largely the result of our predisposition to create images for the purpose of future plans. When did our ancestors suddenly realize that creating pictorial representations had the power to evoke mental images of past experiences (defying time) and objects no longer present (defying space)?

Doing so, both now and eons ago, requires
(1) creating imaginative circumstances
(2) manipulating internal mental pictures
(3) engaging in abstract thinking.

Storing information in the brain for the sake of data accumulation would have forced early man to skip ahead to the final chapters of our species’ existence.

When we venture backwards on the timeline of human history to the "pre-literacy era," evidence abounds of our innate inclination to convey ideas, with images, illustrations, maps, and models (however crude they may have been).

Equally astonishing, the same human basic brain structures, processing mechanisms, and neuronal systems that sketched bison, horses, and deer on the Lascaux walls are used for learning in our classrooms today. Students decipher modern messages from paper, laptop screens, interpret computer-generated images on interactive whiteboards using precisely the same neurophysiological hardware.

Those ancestors who were best able to recreate significant events through visualizations, self-generated images and drawings passed those winning genes on to future generations includng the present generations. So, how should we incorporate this winning strategy into student learning?

While it may be no great feat to create pictures in the mind’s eye, translating an array of squiggly and straight lines on paper into mental images representing concrete objects is remarkable. But generating the exact same mental image, merely by a hand-drawn visual cue, in millions of other minds asynchronously (18,000 years later) is nothing short of astounding!

Creative Thinking - Part 1: Bridging the Gap Between the Experience and the Mind

Every organism interacts with the world in some way, but only human beings are capable of bridging the gap between "the experience and the mind" with the aid of representational thinking tools (illustrations, speech, concrete models, etc.). All abstract thoughts are grounded in concrete scenarios, and we can represent these abstractions on paper, whiteboards, or computer screens.

The human brain is capable of recreating at will an original event, modifying a past experience, or completely inventing a fabricated occurrence inside the mind. Vision and visual imagery have been essential to the evolving human brain far longer than the printed word has.

The celebrated petroglyphs found around the world, including the cave paintings discovered in Lascaux, France, represent some of the first cognitive leaps in the evolution of abstract thinking, but the $64,000 archaeological questions are:

1. What were these particular drawings used for?
2. Were these etchings prescient efforts to convey historical records to
future generations or just flights of artistic and imaginative fancy?
3. Were the illustrations intended for storytelling, or possibly teaching models
that were used to instruct prospective Paleolithic hunters?

The power of these two-dimensional illustrations resided not in the images themselves, but in what the human brain did and continues to do with those illustrations.