Bathtub: The Art and Logic of Breakthrough Thinking
The author suggests that
“breakthrough thinking” isnot really a different type of thinking.
There’s no unique mental mechanism that kicks in.
Rather, there are types of problems which require some different mental
approaches because they are “unreasonable”, they cannot be solved solely by
the application of reason. He deems
of possibilities – a large
plateau – with few clues
canyons – that tend to trap the search process in a solutionless area
of false promise – where the
measure of promise is high, but that do not contain a solution.
The structure of these
problems creates a distinctive problem solving experience involving a long
search, little apparent progress, a precipating event, and a “cognitive
Examples of real life
Klondike problems and their solutions include, as suggested by the title,
Archimedes’ search for a way to measure the gold in the king’s crown,
Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, the search for a method of
heavier-than-air flight, Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) development of the theory
of survival of the fittest.
Throughout the book, the
author uses “insight problems” and research done with them to develop points
and to give the reader a chance to practice “
place three rows of three dots, aligned vertically and horizontally on a
piece of paper. Connect the three
dots with no more than four straight lines.
There’s a man at home with a mask.
There’s a man coming home. What’s
going on here? Perhaps it will help
to know that the man with the mask is not a thief, that the man coming home does
not live there, and that the man with the mask is not going to hurt the other
If you immediately saw
the answer to these problems (or remember your first experience with them), then
you know the “cognitive snap” feeling. If
you didn’t experience this, it might help, at least for the second problem, to
know that I picked it partially because I write this on the way back from a
baseball tournament. The
book offers many more such problems.
The strategies for
addressing Kondike problems include:
Systematic or random coverage of the solution space.
This can include analytical thinking to reduce the solution space by
noting redundancies, eliminating large areas of unlikely possibilities, etc., as
well as “brainstorming”, systematic trials of all possibilities (e.g., some
modern approaches to drug development), and the intentional introduction of
random elements in the search.
subtle clues: Sometimes,
what appears to be a clueless plain may actually contain small, subtle, but
important clues that will reveal themselves to either careful observation,
superior knowledge, or both. Think
of Sherlock Holmes.
Remove search restraints not dictated by the problem.
When a seeming area of
promise has not yielded a solution, move away from it in some fashion to search
elsewhere in the solution space.
Are all “
Other factors affecting
the ability to do
Inert knowledge – knowledge
that is not readily brought to bear on problems.
onself in the problem) prepares the solution-seeker to see clues to the solution
where others would not. Would
Archimedes have even noticed the water overflowing from his tub had he not been
simultaneously immersed in the search for a method for measuring the volume of
an irregular object?
as a Form of Breakthrough “Thinking”
Chapter 13 is an
interesting analysis of the process of evolution as an approach to
Evolution addresses the
wilderness, canyon, and oases aspects of
Dr. Perkins notes,
however, that discontinuous solution spaces cannot be explored by the
evolutionary model. In other words,
if there is, for example, a possible set of creature we might call
“Superbirds” that could exist and function, but no pathway of even
marginally viable forms connects current creatures to that set of forms, then
evolution can never develop such creatures.
Unless, of course, humans should do so and that result be attributed to
the evolutionary development of human intelligence and imagination.
Memes are a form of
evolutionary development in human thought and society.
First proposed by Richard Dawkins in The
Selfish Gene, and developed by Daniel Dennett in Consciousness
Explained, “meme” stands for “mental gene”, a unit of thought that
thrives in the ecology of human culture and communication.
Memes can be ideas (democracy), industrial practices (smelting iron),
medical procedures (bleeding), or wise sayings or proverbs.
Today, I would suggest that the blogosphere is a key development area for
memes. As I write this, various
political bloggers are using “mullahcracy” or “mullarchy” (rhymes with
“malarkey”) to denote the current government of
We’re Stuck with Breakthrough Thinking (Chapt. 15)
Basically, the universe
does not appear to be structured as a sequence of neatly reasonable problems.
To the extent reasonable problems exist, they are readily solved, leaving
only the unreasonable ones for us to struggle with.
And, those very solutions develop patterns of practice that limit our
awareness of other possibilities (canyons) even as we refine and perfect those
practices. Thus, any change in
conditions puts us into a