Michael Michalko
Michael Michalko : Your Mind Was Once a Cathedral

Creative Thinking

Your Mind Was Once a Cathedral

How going to school changes that.

By Michael Michalko | Updated 9/8/15

Before you go to school, your mind is like a cathedral with a long central hall where information enters and intermingles and combines with other information without distinction. Education changes that. Education changes the cathedral of your mind into a long hall with doors on the sides that lead to private rooms segregated from the main assembly.

CathedralWhen information enters the hall, it’s recognized, labeled, boxed, and then sent to one of the private rooms and trapped inside. One room is labeled “biology,” one room is labeled “electronics,” one room is labeled “business,” one room is for religion, one is for agriculture, one is for math, and so on. We’re taught that, when we need ideas or solutions, we should go to the appropriate room and find the appropriate box and search inside.

We’re taught not to mix the contents of the rooms. For example, if you’re working on a business problem, go to the business room, and stay out of all the other rooms. If you’re working on a medical problem, stay out of the religion room; and if you’re an electronics expert, stay out of the agriculture room; and so on. The more education people have, the more private rooms and boxes they have, and the more specialized their expertise becomes — and the more limited their imagination becomes.

This separation of information and concepts explains our ability to associate related concepts. This learned ability is one of the reasons education limits creativity. We end up forming mental walls between associations of related concepts and concepts that are related at all.

Think for a moment about a pinecone. What relationship does a pinecone have to the processes of reading and writing? In France in 1818, a nine-year-old boy accidentally blinded himself with a hole puncher while helping his father make horse harnesses. A few years later the boy was sitting in the yard thinking about his inability to read and write when a friend handed him a pinecone. He ran his fingers over the cone and noted the tiny differences between the scales. He conceptually blended the feel of different pinecone scales with reading and writing, and realized he could create an alphabet of raised dots on paper so the blind could feel them as separate letters read them as words. In this way Louis Braille opened up a whole new world for the blind.

Braille made a creative connection between a pinecone and reading, two totally related things. When you make a connection between two unrelated subjects, your imagination will leap to fill the gaps and form a whole in order to make sense of it. This is an example of conceptual blending, which is the act of combining, or relating, unrelated items in order to solve problems, create new ideas, and even rework old ideas. It succeeds because it is not possible to think of two subjects, no matter how remote, without making connections between the two. It is no coincidence that the most creative and innovative people throughout history have been experts at forcing mental connections via the conceptual blending of unrelated subjects. No learned scholar who thought logically and linearly would ever contemplate associating feeling something with reading something.

I sometimes think this is why the person, who knows more, sees less; and the person who knows less, sees more. Maybe this is why it took a child to invent the television. Twelve-year-old Philo Farnsworth was tilling a potato field back and forth with a horse-drawn harrow in Rigby, Idaho, while thinking about what his chemistry teacher had taught him about the electron and electricity. Philo conceptually blended tilling a potato field with the attributes of electronic beams and realized that an electron beam could scan images the same way farmers till a field — row by row — or the same way a person reads a book, line by line. (Interestingly, the first image ever transmitted was a dollar sign.) Amazingly, this was 1921, and a child conceived the idea of television while the mind-sets of thousands of electronic experts prevented them from looking at the same information they had always looked at and seeing something different.

Leonardo da Vinci is considered the greatest genius in all of history. Leonardo, a polymath, was not allowed to attend a university, because he was born out of wedlock. Because of his lack of a formal education, his mind was like a cathedral with a long hall and no separate rooms. He enjoyed fluidity of thought, as his concepts, thoughts, and ideas intermixed and danced with each other. His mind integrated information instead of segregating it into separate disciplines. Leonardo wrote in his notebooks that his creativity secret was the ability to mentally combine dissimilar subjects in his mind. He wrote that it is impossible for the human mind to spontaneously think about two different subjects without connections being formed.

This is why he was so polymathic. He created breakthroughs in art, science, engineering, military science, invention, and medicine. •

© 2013 Michael Michalko. All rights reserved.

Michael MichalkoMichael Michalko is one of the most highly-acclaimed creativity experts in the world and author of the best-seller Thinkertoys. More »
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