Review: Root—Bernstein, R. and M. Sparks of Genius. The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston & NY: 1999.

This book has some excellent “exercises” for many of the thirteen tools they describe. Some of them are things you can do without much study, others will take practice to do well, and regular repititions to improve. Try them, help your children or friends do them, and above all, see how they fit into your regular learning and study activities.

Root—Bernstein, R. and M. Sparks of Genius. The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston & NY: 1999.

p. 3. Einstein’s {Mental Strengths} “he revealed….’the words of the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined….The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some muscular type.’”
They then describe the photon image he imagined he was a photon moving at the speed of light and meets another, then he tries to imagine what he could experience of the first one.
p. 4. Barbara McClintock, geneticist, “seeing” a being with the chromosomes she was studying. Claude Bernard “feeling” releases and acting. Wolfgang Pauli, physicist, sees emotion poetically in the mind’s eye. Stanislaw Ulam, mathematician, experienced abstract mathematical numbers in visual terms, that is active mental pictures—visual algorithms.

NOTE: (Antonio Damasio, in his book Descarte’s Error, says that the error is not understanding that the body, mind, emotions and intellect are inseparable. This title is probably hyperbole, because it appears to imply that all of Descartes’ insights are somehow tainted by the “error.”)

p. 6. William Lipscomb, a chemistry Nobel Laureate and a musician is quoted, “a focusing of intellect and emotions which was surely an aesthetic response,”…”followed by a flood of predictions coming from my mind as if I were a bystander watching it happen. Only later was I able to begin to formulate a systematic theory of structure, bonding and reactions for those unusual molecules.”

Walter Heisenberg, “Mathematics is the form in which we express our understanding of nature; but it is not the content of that understanding.”

Richard Feynman—“In certain problems,…it was necessary to continue the development of the picture as the method, before the mathematics could be done.”

p.5. “To think creatively is first to feel.” The desire to understand must be whipped together with the sensual and emotional feelings and blended with intellect to yield imaginative thought.”

(My conclusion: One NEEDS verbal and number skills to “explain” what one knows and creative people don’t quote others because they must explain for the first time what they have conceived. But of course, for everyone learning something for the first time is creative—in a real sense, for them—all learning is creative—that is, uses some of the tools described.)

P. 25—The Thirteen Tools of Creative People

Recognizing Patterns
Forming Patterns
Body Thinking
Dimensional Thinking

Using these tools means DOING SOMETHING with your tool kit—that is doing something in your mind—using the mental skills, the tools you have. These words are “descriptors” of some kind of mental action—they are in fact highly abstract terms that represent many mental activities, either individually or combined.

p. 25, Some tools are “pre-verbal and pre-symbolic:, e.g. body thinking—thinking that occurs through the sensations and awareness of muscle, sinew and skin. The eye is a specialized skin, it “feels” the light. “Empathy is related to body thinking.”
For EACH of the tools, list and illustrate their uses—practical, sensible, that is, can be seen, heard, felt, etc.

Many scientists are also artists and performers, visual and tactile combined to develop concepts—a series of exercises for this relationship—how, what? E.g. instruction in drawing and illustrating, broad outlines, relationships, etc.

In Chapt. 4, “Imaging” p. 50-ff, “numerous studies have found significant correlations between aptitude for visual imaging and career success in engineering. (See book, by Brooke Hindle, Emulation and Invention NY Univ. Press. NY, 1981)

p.52. “…three basic types of visual thinkers.” Some people must draw the figure on paper, in their heads first or trace it with their finger. Others “project” the image, (e.g. triangle) on the back of their eyelids when they close their eyes. Some few can superimpose the image on whatever they are looking at (eyes open). Finally, some few can make the figure move, jump, change, and go through other figures.

(EXERCISE) take several figure in increasing complexity and imagine them, draw them mentally, change them, etc.
p. 53. “…although some people (are better at it) than others, everyone benefits from practice…So the more you practice, the more you will be able to (use) the (same) visual thinking process of countless inventors. mathematicians, physicists, artists, writers and dancers.”
“Imaging in its broadest sense is a common thinking tool in many fields.”
p.54. “For many people…being a good visualizer ties in with being artistic.”
;.55. “Imaging is…an important tool for thinking among writers….Many writers of fiction are visualizers.”
Even taste and smell can be visualized. Chefs, before they create new recipes image how the ingredients will taste together. Hearing, too, can be imaged. (p55) Beethoven, after he was deaf, had to write his music that way. And Mozart finished his compositions that way before he wrote them down.
p. 63. Pestalozzi, spoke of imaging, seeing, feeling, manipulating changes in the mind, visualizing 3-D objects. Touch, handle things close up, image, see and move things in one’s mind, any object.
EXERCISE Think of a ball or cube or any object and image it, project it, do this with more complex objects such as spoons, cups, hammers, forks, glass or container, etc. and move them around, actually seeing, changing its size and shape and surface and what it is made of, etc. Move it closer or farther away, see inside it, take it apart, put it together, combine it, use it in something else imagined, etc. See the objects as 3-D or otherwise, in color or outline, or transparent, etc.
Copy what you visualize on paper and then go back and do it again.

For after-learning activity.
Each day, to better recall what you have learned “visualize” it in some way that helps you recall it—see words or images in certain shapes and sizes, see the text or pictures, in the classroom, on the desk, etc. Put some pictures/images into your notes so that they can be “cues” or “triggers” or “anchors” for your memory—as a way of recalling what you learned—use they to “retrace” your thoughts and refresh them and use these and your notes as ways of studying—remembering for exams, etc.
Speaking out loud or to another person helps and describing the images and ideas and the associations is even better, as this uses more than a single sense. All the senses can be used—tracing for touch, visual and auditory as well.

Try to think about “abstract” words in images—what do you “imagine” when you see or hear the words DO, TAKE, MOTION, BELIEVE, EXIST, MANAGE, WISE, HAPPY, etc?
If you are learning something, you NEED to know what it actually represents—some kind of “image”—not necessarily a visual one, or just an object, but “something” that you can either see, hear, touch, taste, or smell, or combinations. For example, the word fragrance means an odor, or a perfume, or some “characteristic” of a flower. What “images” do you get when you think about that word? List them.
Wine-tasters often describe wines as tasting or having the aroma or scent of fruits—not just grapes, but others such as raspberries, plums, apple, etc. This is using more than a single sense. They also talk about “texture” (a feeling), and color is described as well. All the senses can be used to create “images” and words can be found that describe them.

p. 65. Four steps to doing this better.
First, recognize the way you use visual, auditory, tactile taste and smell images—Do it now—what do you “imagine” when you smell fresh baked bread? The ocean? A dead fish? A loud sound—thunder, a “bang,” music, an engine revving, etc.
Second, Do it a lot!! Rewrite your reading, your dreams, recall music, the way YOU do it. That’s practice, and helps you understand HOW the process works.
Third, take up some ARTISTIC thing, do it, don’t just study it, do drawing, or writing, or singing, cooking, playing a musical instrument. Whatever you are doing, keep doing it until it feels “natural,” and then keep practicing.
Remember, all mental images can be—have to be—translated INTO SOME KIND OF VISUAL, AUDITORY, TOUCH, TASTE OR SMELL “IMAGE.” The clearer the image is, the more vivid it is to you, the better you will learn.
Example: The image is “stimulated” by a word (that you have already associated with something), in your mind/memory, then the “image” appears—one that you control, move, hold, or change in your mind. You can hold it until you have learned it.

Even though you have imagined the idea and related/associated it with other ideas, you must still find the words, symbols and signs to communicate the idea to others. In exams, essays, interviews, assignments at work or just talking to someone, you NEED to be able to identify, in ways that the other person understands, what “names” or “labels” can be put onto the idea. Or, as artists may be able to do better than most, draw pictures or diagrams or otherwise illustrate—e.g. sculpture, or music, or dance, or in sign language—the idea/concept. Otherwise, you will be unable to “communicate” it.

Sometimes, we get ideas for which our words are inadequate, and we have to struggle, trying to describe the thought, image, idea by saying “It’s something like….but it doesn’t have…or it has other things, etc.”
EXERCISE: Imagine the outside of a space ship. Describe it. THEN, imagine what kinds of instruments are in the ship itself, its engines and how they are operated, what they use, how large they are, what fuel, etc. This is much more difficult, isn’t it? In TV space dramas you just assume that the “computer stations” have operating controls as well, but exactly what are they and what do they do?
You may have some ideas, but certainly nothing that would work independently of computers and controls handled back on earth, because as you know today’s astronauts are “passengers” on most of the trip to and from the space station and use maneuvering controls only to “dock.” and leave. Still, this is a good example of the old saying, “You can only learn what you partly-know already.” In this case, you know a little about controlling a spacecraft. So, you could speculate about others. Try to imagine how even brilliant men of the middle ages would think about seeing a space ship or even a jet plane fly. Pretend you know how wings work, but have no conception of rocket power. Could you figure out what was moving a modern jet? A propeller-driven plane? Might it be steam? Charcoal? Gunpowder? They might come close.
Now, if you saw a “real” UFO, and it moved silently but very fast across the sky, what might be driving it? Make some guesses. That’s what the people of 500 years ago would have done.
Test all your senses, one after the other, on these activities. We use vision for about 80% of our imagery, hearing for about 10-15 % and the other senses for the rest. See if you can imagine all five senses in use, and describe what you “sense.”

p. 73 (the Root-Bernsteins book). Werner Heisenberg called abstracting “the possibility of considering an object or group of objects under one viewpoint while disregarding all other properties of the object. The essence of abstraction consists in singling out one feature, which in contrast to other properties, is considered to be particularly important.”

In painting, Pablo Picasso sought (p. 73) “the minimum visual stimulus that can be put on canvas and still evoke recognition without spelling everything out.”
It also (my view) is SOMETHING LEFT that can be recognized, when everything else is left out., or, it is the thing, without which the object would not be recognizable, as what (the person abstracting) sees, believes, thinks it to be. An abstraction is an explanation by the viewer, of something.
Or, it is, in his view, the most, or at least an important part of the object, and so is “subjective”—because the viewer of the original object kept its identity because others recognize in the image something of the original in the abstraction—the description or image of the object as it is presented in “abstract” form.

EXERCISE Take “abstract” words (those that do not “name” an object that can be “sensed,” and “work backward” so that you DO find what the ACTUAL OBJECT is. How? Let’s take an example. The word roll can mean to move very smoothly because the surface of an object that has no edges permits the moving object to travel without “hanging up” or “bumping” along. But what is being “abstracted?” In this case the object behind the “idea” of rolling can be a smooth stone, a wheel, a cylinder, a spherical or conical object, etc. However, We have taken the idea of “rolling” and expanded it to mean anything that moves end over end—for example, dice, or an automobile crashing, or an airplane spinning in the air—or a small piece of baked dough or cake. A “bankroll” is another use of the term, and you can think of many more.
Take the words play, flight, tool, and take and go back to the “objects” from which they were “abstracted. Just list them and explain, perhaps in a sentence, how they are abstract.
Now, take some newer abstract words such as taped, dated, time frame, and track them back to the origin of their abstraction—how did they get to be abstract? Just do a little diagram from word to word, with a phrase explaining it. For example the idea of motion goes back to someone raising one’s hand to get attention, then to a formal process of recognizing the movement by someone in charge, and then through the development of rules that govern meetings, where a motion must be made, then recognized, then supported and finally voted on—when the “motion” carries—what is the origin of the abstract word carry, here? Not too difficult to figure out, is it.
“Old” abstract words—those that represent things that we no longer use except in historical discussions—don’t add “new” elements. Just as the word lamplighter describes persons who went through the streets of large cities in the 19th Century “lighting” with a taper or other flame the gaslights that lighted the streets. No city has these now, so any “new” idea about the word is unlikely. On the other hand, a “new” abstract word, spaceship, is likely to “expand” to include many new ideas, some we have still not yet come up with.
But we don’t think of ALL words as abstractions, do we? Yet, in a real sense they ARE, because they “are not the object itself, but just a word we use to identify it.” That’s an important idea in itself. As you can easily deduce, there can be many abstractions from the same object, but the most used one is usually the one that represents the object for most of us.
Some abstract words can be quite specific, others are vague and can represent many ideas. We explain this here because the word abstract is often used carelessly—especially as if words that represent things we perceive by the senses—sense objects such as book, pencil, auto, plane, dog, fish, building, brick, etc. are actually the things themselves. An early semanticist, Alfred Korzybski, warned that “the map is not the territory, and the word is not the thing referred to.”
The Root-Bernsteins, in p. 90, define “Abstracting. (It) is a process beginning with reality and using some tool to pare away the excess to reveal a critical, often surprising, essence. Artists do it; scientists, mathematicians, and dancers do it. And they all do it in the same basic way. You can, too.”…
“Choose your subject and your abstracting tool; think about them realistically; play around with their various properties or characteristics; get at what might be the most essential; then consider and reconsider your results from a distance of time or space. Say your abstraction, mime it, sing it, write it in prose, write it in poetry, extract a concept or a metaphor. Practice with art work, or if you are scientifically-inclined, practice with simple experiments or mathematical concepts….Find the minimum vocabulary to convey the maximum amount of sense and sensibility.”

EXERCISE. An exercise to make you more aware of “abstracting” is to actually DO it. You can test your progress by “abstracting” what your senses deliver to you about an object such as an orange or a human over and over again. What is new? E.g. orange—round, color, juice, seeds, chemicals, etc. The Human—body, arm, blood? Shape, size, breathing, etc. Characteristics that define—represent—describe–ALL of the object. so we will recognize it.
“Abstracting” can be a game in which you take away, one by one, the characteristics of an object until you take away so many that you don’t know what the object is. Consider a chair—must it have a seat? Legs? A backrest? A cushion? color? Upholstery? A certain size? What shape must it have? Now, write all the things a chair MUST have.
Do the same with other objects such as an auto, a toothbrush, a lamp, etc. Now, here are some abstract words that DON’T have one specific object that you can sense—time, location, endurance, action, more, belief, life, happiness, etc. What must you do with, (how can you explain or describe) these kinds of words? We have an entire section on how words “work.” This is just to alert you to the essential roles words play in our thinking.
The last and most complex of the 13 tools is the process of “synthesizing.” This is actually a combination of association and abstraction, plus deciding on the value of the new idea\concept. To synthesize we ”put together” ideas so that they create NEW ways of thinking about things. Although it seems to be complex, everyone does this when they learn something “new.”
When we “learn,” that is conceive an idea or thought for the very first time, we must have already possessed or experienced some part or aspect of it before. Otherwise, we could not learn at all. We touch a hot stove for the first time and we remove our hand quickly. We already respond to heat or cold and touching a hot object is uncomfortable. We learned something new—a stove can be hot. We have synthesized previous knowledge with the new experience. When someone says, “hot,” we may associate the sound with the experience. Then when we hear the word we may recall the experience. Some psychologists call this “idea-blending,” another way of describing association of ideas.

John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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