Break Your Paradigm, Enhance Your Paradigm

“[T]he scene in which we live is an abstraction, experience must be make-believe, a painting by some clever master”

The quote is from the fascinating book Phi.  It comes during a discussion of art, and how it represents the underlying truth in an object or concept, even though to do this, it must use ever-changing specific visual inputs.  Just prior to the above quote comes this statement:

“Many of the neural systems in the cerebral cortex…learn to predict what remains constant in the world, despite the seeming onslaught of constant change.  They paint a scene of what the world should be…with scarce regard for all the changing details our senses bring in most of the time.  So in our consciousness the cone’s shape stays the same, though when we see it from different angles, the images formed onto our eyes are different entirely.”

This account of our process of perception got me thinking about innovation.  If the above is true – if our brains look for patterns and sameness in the specific and unique – it seems there are two primary ways in which to achieve practical or conceptual breakthroughs.

The first is to halt the brain’s efforts at categorizing and generalizing.  Learning to see a sideways cone not as a cone, but as a triangle, may open opportunities to solve problems in new ways.  If we can force ourselves to step outside of the condensing process and analyze stimuli as much on their own terms as possible, rather than immediately trying to stick them into a more fundamental category, we may learn valuable things about objects, ideas, and systems.

The second is just the opposite: by enhancing our ability to identify the changeless substance amid the fluctuating details, we can more quickly see patterns and systems at work that operate beyond the visible artifacts they produce.  Those who are first to recognize fundamental relationships in seemingly random data points often reap the rewards of innovation.

We needn’t decide whether it’s helpful or harmful that our brains tend to sort, categorize, and omit.  It happens.  Understanding the process might help us break from it for fresh perspective at times, and enhance it for quicker insight at others.

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