Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 7! Thinking is not in your Head...
This week we have been reconsidering what thinking is and where it happens.
Why does this matter for innovation?
If we believe creativity is a human phenomenon that happens in the head because that is where we believe thinking happens -- and these two assumptions turn out to be false then this whole paradigm of creativity is a dead-end…
That creativity is a worldly phenomenon is patently obvious -- the emergence of life, or flight -- are clearly radical creative events. Creativity is a fundamental feature of reality.
The second assumption is harder to dislodge. It is part of a three thousand year habit: thinking is mental -- it is “in” the brain and thoughts come from thinking. This approach is now termed “Cognitivism”.
But, if you look at almost all methods of creativity -- especially the psychological models -- they place creativity in the head and focus their techniques of helping you limber your mental activity. What if this is all a huge mistake?
To say “thinking is not in the head” is still shocking for people to hear -- more likely you might get dismissed as simply absurd. But nonetheless the field of cognitive studies has moved significantly in that direction, especially the approach of Enactive Cognition (this week we wrote an article that went into this, you can find it here).
Micheal Anderson summarizes this approach quite well:
“We are [embodied] social environment-altering tool users. Tools give us new abilities, leading us to perceive new affordances, which can generate new environmental (and social) structures, which can, in turn, lead to the development of new skills and new tools, that through a process… of scaffolding greatly increases the reach and variety of our cognitive and behavioral capacities”
If we dig a little deeper, the Enactive Approach can be quickly understood with five concepts:
Embodied: Our brains are part of our unique bodies. Having the types of bodies we do — moving, grasping, sensing, and acting with specific bodies gives rise to our forms of thinking which in turn feeds back into the forming of our bodies’ abilities. Practically, what does this mean for thinking? The specific types of bodies we have, and how we use them directly shapes the underlying structure of our thinking — from guiding metaphors to abstract concepts. Changing the body and changing the body’s habits/actions will change how you think.
Extended: The kinds of thinking that we do could not happen without tools. An example: most complex math is not possible without tools: writing (symbols) plus paper and pen, or chalkboards and chalk. In thinking the appropriate set of partners are assembled: diverse brain regions + specific embodied actions + necessary external artifacts, into a holistic coalition to carry out the task of thinking. Again, practically, this means that to think creatively we need to focus on new tools, techniques, and practices and connect them experimentally into effective novel assemblages. We can think of this as setting up types of labs for novelty. Tools/objects will surprise us with unintended capacities that can be discovered and followed under the right conditions. Paul Graham just published an interesting blog post “Beyond Smart” that also makes this point: some forms of idea development require specific forms of writing. Take a look -- his bigger question becomes illuminated when considered from the Enactive approach.
Embedded: Thinking is embedded in a concrete environment and this environment shapes and patterns thinking. Chairs, rooms, houses, streets, and patterns of sidewalk and lawn might seem incidental but are fundamental not simply to thinking in general but to why our thinking gravitates towards certain patterns, logics, and outcomes. A really powerful example of this is the work of the architects Madeline Gins and Arakawa -- they really begin to get into the extended and embedded possibilities of creativity via novel and highly considered space making.
Enactive: Thinking and sense making is fundamentally tied to acting. The world is not simply there for us -- our situated meaningful actions enact it into a specific world. Meaning and thought arise during situated actions that are in a context of being co-determined along with our environment. Doing en-acts meaning into being. A cup is a cup because we use it as a cup (for containing liquids to drink), and the idea of containing arises through our specific actions of using things like cups to contain as part of a larger action such as drinking — which in turns gives rise to a model of quenching thirst which gives rise to a conceptual terrain of “thirsting” and being “quenched” — that extends far beyond actual liquids and physical needs.
Affective: We equate thinking with rationality, logic and high-level conceptualizing. While we do use logic — our intellectual lives and all of our thinking rests upon an emotional foundation that is continuous with, colors and saturates all experience. Experience and thoughts bubble up out of an emotional atmosphere — tone — that is our most basic sense of being alive. Most of the time we are not even aware of this emotional (affect) shaping our thoughts — emotion is working at a subconscious and minimally conscious level. And then when we are called upon to explain our actions or thoughts we skip right over the role of emotion and jump right to “reasons and logic” most of which have little to do with the actuality of our experience, decision making or thinking.
Want to go deeper? This week we shared a link to a great talk by Evan Thompson who is one of the founding figures in the Enactive Approach to cognition along with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Roach.
So what do we do with this?
1. Your Ideas Suck: Because Your Environment Sucked
The simplest and perhaps most useful thing is to understand that environments think and environments are creative -- of course they involve us and we have brains -- but this is not enough -- thinking and creativity are not “in” anything -- they are emergent relational properties of the whole system.
Critical to generating great ideas: Accept that your brain doesn’t think of ideas...
Don’t just invent or follow innovation processes or methods -- intentionally make the spaces, tools, embodiments for creativity to emerge. Creative processes cannot be separated from total environments.
The theorist who has really pioneered this work is Edwin Hutchinson who developed the concept of “Distributed Cognition” -- check out his book: Cognition in the Wild.
2. Abstract Thinking Emerges
The second thing is to recognize that what we call “ideas” are highly abstract forms of thinking that rely on and emerge from highly engaged modes of doing.
Novel thinking first emerges from embodied novel actions in novel environments as a vague sensation that accompanies action (Making-Feeling).
As we engage with things and their embodied affordances vague sensations transform into hunches and quasi-thoughts (Making-Dialoging)
These affordances and embodied hunches slowly take a more understandable and distinct shape via further activity, environment shaping, tool construction, practice formation and worldly experimentation and become something like what we would call an unformed idea (Thinking-Making)
Ideas — those fully formed things that are tossed around in brainstorming or ideation sessions are the final step in this process (Thinking-Thinking)
Know How & Know What
Notice on the left side of the diagram the terms “know-how” and “know-what”. Know-how is all of knowledge that is in our bodies, environments, habits and practices that is non-conceptualizable. It supports and gives rise to Know-what -- our more explicit forms of knowledge. Things that we call “ideas” and “concepts.”
We Leave You With Three Bonus Treats:
We updated our comparison chart based upon discussions.
We heard from many of you that you were interested in our sources. We developed an overview diagram for this.