Monday, November 14, 2016

How To Be Intuitive: Intuition, Imagination and Discovery

Intuition, Imagination and Discovery

 This is part of a series of blogs about creativity, imagination, 
 and the need to shape our future. See these previous blogs:

There comes a point where the mind takes a leap 
— call it intuition or what you will — 
and comes out upon a higher plane of knowledge, 
but can never prove how it got there. 
All great discoveries have involved such a leap.
Albert Einstein

Intuition is often both a clear thought and a strong feeling at the same time -- it is a thought that literally *hits* you with its importance and often comes unexpectedly, out of the blue. 

Archimedes getting into his bath just before the Eureka moment

The most famous intuition story is about Archimedes and his Eureka moment. Eureka roughly translated means 'I've found it'. Archimedes was trying to figure out whether a crown was made of pure gold or contained some silver as well. So he needed to determine the density of the irregular shape of the crown. After struggling with the problem, he put it aside for a while. Then later sitting in his bathtub -- all at once in a flash -- he understood how to measure the volume of the crown by the water that was displaced, the key information he needed to make his calculation. He realized that the volume of water that rose when he got into the bath was equal to the volume of his body and therefore he could measure the volume of an object no matter how intricate. The story goes that he screamed, "Eureka" and was so excited he jumped out of his bath and ran naked though the streets of his city.

In our logical number driven world, intuition is frequently dismissed as not fitting with our modern rational outlook, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Einstein's great insights and Newton's as well -- two key thinkers whose ideas were/are critical for the creation of our modern world -- were originally flashes of intuition that then took years to work out, years to understand how to do the math on paper.

In his early twenties Newton saw an apple fall and suddenly in a flash connected the force that caused it to fall to the Earth with the force that affected the orbit of the moon -- a story that appears to be mostly true. Nevertheless his central work that described the necessary calculations and formulas, PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), would not be published for another 20 years -- as  it took him that long to come up with the correct math.

A page from Isaac Newton's PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687)
in which he gave a detailed explanation of the forces of gravity.

One unique aspect of intuition is that while it feels true, how you arrived at that idea or any obvious proof of its truth is often missing. And finding that rational logical proof can be a lengthy process. 

As a teenager Einstein fantasized about riding a beam of light. He invented what came to be known as 'mind experiments'. For example, if he were traveling at the speed of light and looked into a mirror, would he see his reflection? Yet it would be ten years before he could work out the math for his Special Theory of Relativity.

“Imagination is the highest form of research.” 
“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking” 
Albert Einstein

I believe that intuition needs to be and can be developed just as becoming skilled at math is learned. As I said about imagination -- there are ways to markedly increase your ability to imagine and the same is true for intuition.

Yet intuitions can often be wrong. So how do you know when a feeling is something you should explore or ignore?

Like much of human thought, intuition can be tested. I follow my intuitions often, but at the same time test them to see if my thought process plays out the way I think it should in the real world. Over time I have learned when to trust things and when not to -- and also to become more aware of the things that were triggering my educated guesses.

I think of myself as having a 'tool box' for my creative and imaginative thinking. Sometimes my approach is simply information gathering, sometimes logical, sometimes intuitive, sometimes I imagine several scenarios and pick the one that seems to have the best chance of succeeding. Being able to fully imagine several outcomes is often quite helpful when I need to make a decision. In hindsight my method really combines all of these -- as I use each tool when the situation requires it. And when one tool does not work, I change to another.

Perhaps one of the oddest aspects of intuition is that it is both active and passive. On the one hand you are looking for something (active) on the other hand intuition requires that you be receptive to thoughts that come into your mind (passive), as though from somewhere else. This is a key part of intuition -- to both move and be moved, to search and to be found. Again this is a bit at odds with out modern mindset, but this is how it works.

(Left) By chance as he walked near a blacksmith's shop, the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras heard a musical harmony when different sized blacksmith hammers hit an anvil. 
(Right) This sudden insight led to his understanding of the mathematical relationship between notes and became the basis for Pythagorean tuning.

The normal workday requires focus and attention while tuning out distracting elements. Intuition requires a more receptive and listening frame of mind. Neither approach is right or wrong -- they are simply tools in your tool box that give you the flexibility to try different approaches.

Intuition did not come naturally to me. I was brought up in a quite strict rational, logical, left brain environment. I had to teach myself to be intuitive but then test my intuitions against reality -- as intuition must pass the reality test just as logic does. 

Intuition is the supra-logic that cuts out all the routine processes of thought 
and leaps straight from the problem to the answer.
Robert Graves

Here are some examples of my intuitive thinking.

One of my first successes happened when I was sixteen. During summer vacation I went to New York City convinced I could find a sublet apartment for little money. This was just a guess on my part and everyone said it was impossible. After staying with friends and spending a week searching, it looked like I was wrong. Then I decided to go to every laundromat in the area and look at their bulletin boards. And guess what? I found a small hand written note for a summer sublet, a very tiny apartment that today would be about $400 a month, that I then rented for two months.

Here is another example:

I knew at an early age that I wanted to write and had worked on my writing up through my years in college. But when I had almost completed my bachelors degree in English and was enrolled in the Honors Program for Creative Writing, I also knew that I wanted to do something more. So I made a deliberate effort to find another art form to compliment my writing. I wanted to do something quite different -- something that required less thought, something that I could do with my hands. 

A principle goal during that time was to discover a visual way of working -- as I felt that reading and writing were not enough. However, I had been told by my father and others that I was not visual. Yet my intuition was that they were wrong.

But where to start? 

I could not draw -- it was just not something I could do as I had tried many times. But I liked working with my hands. For example, in eighth grade in a shop class, I had designed and built a simple tray out of plywood and molding. The tray not only worked well but was almost indestructible -- as I continued to use it for the rest of my life.  

Then I remembered constructing a model of the Wright Brother's first airplane, known as the Wright Flyer -- out of balsa wood and tissue paper -- for a history project in grade school. I built it with balsa strips to frame the wings and then stretched and glued tissue paper over the frame. There were no plans, so in addition I had to draw a design best as I could from old photographs. But perhaps more importantly, I remembered a feeling of extreme satisfaction when I had completed the model.

Then having just seen the Calder retrospective in New York -- the man who invented mobile sculpture -- I decided to make some simple mobiles out of balsa and tissue paper. In a sense I was picking up where I had left off nine years before when I had made the Wright Brother's plane. And voila! Making these mobiles was exactly what I had been looking for. I found that I enjoyed working with my hands as it put me in a different frame of mind -- quite different from reading, writing and doing research.

(Left)The Wright Brothers first airplane, the Wright Flyer
(Right) An example of a mobile (not by me) based on Calder's work

Now flash forward a couple of years: After I made the initial mobiles, one hands-on creation led to another. Then all of a sudden I had a camera in my hands and it was like a revelation -- it was what I had been looking for. Composition, positioning myself for a shot, and darkroom developing gave me the tactile visual art form I needed. So I have been working with photography ever since. 

(Left) One of my first successful photographs on film -- of water and reflections in a pool near my house. I developed the negative and made the print.
(Right) 30 years later: a digital photograph taken from a van while moving in the rain in traffic -- in which I used all my photographic skills (depth of field, camera movement, close-up focus, long exposure).

That is just one story about using my intuition but I could tell you many more. Because of my intuitions I found the house that I now live in 30 years ago, I met my wife, I developed my particular type of photography that I in part invented called time-flow photography and I started working with computers in 1983 -- when no one thought they were that important for individuals. And today as I work with my art photography, my intuitions guide me every step of the way. 


I do believe intuitive thoughts and ideas will come about in different ways for different people and different disciplines. But I think the following general approach would apply to many. 

When you are tackling a problem gather as much information as you can, have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish, imagine a number of scenarios, brain storm a bit and come up with some possible solutions -- but then put everything aside and go do something else for a while. It is often when you let go that the unconscious process of problem solving occurs and that out of the blue the correct solution comes to you -- like a flash. 

The Eureka Moment is also known as the Aha Moment 
Years ago I was friends with a scientist whose specialty was the 'Aha Moment'. She emphasized that her studies showed intuition was not a logical process that cranked out an answer, but rather one that required struggling with a problem and then letting go for a while. As this next link explains, intuition often requires immersion followed by incubation before the Aha Moment can occur.
Here is a recent study about how the brain comes up with an Aha solution.
This article goes into detail about how your off-time is often the best time for intuitive solutions.

To go back to Archimedes, I am quite sure he had been wrestling with the problem of how to determine the density of an irregular object when he finally gave up. While I do not know for sure, I imagine that sometime later while thinking about something else he took a bath. Then in a relaxed state he saw the water rising as he got into the bathtub and BANG, it came to him. He realized the volume of the water that rose was equal to the total volume of his body. And that with an irregular object if he factored in its weight in relation to the volume it displaced, that would give him the density. Eureka!

There are no rules here -- we're trying to accomplish something.
Thomas Edison


Reason and Intuition:
Reason and intuition are often seen as opposites. But, as a philosophy teacher pointed out, when used to their fullest extent they can almost be the same. The mistake is to equate reason with logic. Logic is mechanical and rigid -- reason is flexible. The teacher suggested, for example, that when considering a problem you fully imagine the problem and walk yourself through it in your mind. Out of that imagining would emerge the solution. And this process could be thought of as reasoning or as being intuitive. 

What that man creates by means of reason 
will pale before the art of inspired beings. 

Inspiration is closely related to intuition -- as an idea that encourages you to act can come out of the blue, for no reason. Again, I feel it is important to pay attention to such ideas and to do something when they occur no matter whether you are at work or at the beach. I have carried a notebook with me since I was 20 years old; I find the simple act of writing an idea or making a drawing on paper gives such ideas a reality. Later when I have time, I go over my notes in my notebook and decide which ideas I want to work on. Otherwise, like a dream, these thoughts can vanish and if you do not pay attention to them, they will stop coming to you -- a variation on 'use it or lose it'. As a creative person you want to encourage ideas; finding a way to pay attention and to record them will help keep your ideas flowing.