how to be a better problem solver and more creative -- 1/14/21

Today's encore selection -- from "Switching on Creativity" by Allan W. Snyder, Sophie Ellwood, and Richard P. Chi. Most people are familiar with the phenomenon of savants (once referred to as idiot savants), individuals with significant brain dysfunction who are nevertheless able to do amazing things such as play complex piano pieces without any training after hearing them once, or count the exact number of matches in a pile in a single glance, or recall what day of the week a given date fell on from hundreds of years ago. However, we may all have the capacity for these kinds of things. Researchers have uncovered that this savant ability relates to two things. First, constraints placed on the right hemisphere of the brain by the patterns of learning and perception of the left hemisphere, so that the impairment of the left hemisphere liberates certain aspects of the right hemisphere. Second, compensatory development of the right hemisphere because the left hemisphere has dysfunction. Interestingly, researchers have also discovered that they can induce heightened problem solving skills in individuals with normal function by temporarily quieting neural activity in the left hemisphere:

"A number of studies suggest that savants have some form of left-hemisphere dysfunction, together with right-hemisphere facilitation. (Typically damage to one hemisphere of the brain incites compensatory activity in the other half.) This characteristic can be observed from early childhood or after an injury, stroke or dementia damages the left hemisphere. Some of these impairments occur in a brain area of particular interest to us, the left anterior temporal lobe. ...

"T. L. Brink, then at the Palo Alto School of Professional Psychology, described the case of Mr. Z, who as a nine-year-old child suffered a gunshot wound to the left temporal lobe. He lost the ability to read and write but suddenly gained extraordinary mechanical skills; for example, he discovered he could dismantle and reassemble multi-gear bicycles without instruction. Another case is Orlando Serrell, whom we have studied, who was hit on the left side of his head with a baseball when he was 10. He has exhibited savant skills in calendar calculation the ability to swiftly discern the day of the week that a given date falls on -- and in literal recall of the weather every day since his accident. The abrupt emergence of autistic-like cognitive abilities in acquired savant syndrome points to the possibility that these skills are latent in us all, but beyond conscious access.

"Intriguingly, recent evidence suggests we need not wound ourselves to access this altered cognitive state. We can quiet neuronal activity in the left hemisphere for brief periods using well-accepted forms of noninvasive brain stimulation. Many studies have shown that such stimulation can temporarily either inhibit or enhance neuronal activity in targeted areas. These techniques are now being explored for numerous applications, including the treatment of depression, eating disorders and speech impairments, among many others. ...

"In one recent experiment [which used a weak electric current to temporarily disrupt the firing patterns of established networks of left hemisphere brain cells], we asked 60 right-handed participants to solve a series of matchstick arithmetic 'insight' problems. An erroneous arithmetic statement, spelled out in Roman numerals using matchsticks, must be corrected by moving one matchstick.

"Participants were first given 27 problems that all involved one type of solution, namely changing an 'X' to a 'V.' The goal was to prime the subjects to become fixed in one way of solving problems. Once people have learned to solve a problem, past research has shown, they often struggle to generate solutions using a different approach. As economist John Maynard Keynes put it, 'The difficulty lies not in grasping the new ideas, but rather in escaping from the old ones.'

"The participants then received five minutes of [electric current] stimulation. Next the subjects had six minutes to solve another problem. This task required a different kind of solution. As we had expected, many people were stuck. Yet 60 percent of those in the group that received stimulation according to our parameters solved the problem. Only 20 percent of those in the placebo group solved the new problem, and reversing the direction of stimulation did not have a significant effect on performance.

"We did a follow-up study to ensure that our results were not a fluke. This time we used a notoriously difficult task -- the classic nine-dots problem. The goal is to connect all nine dots with four straight lines, drawn without lifting pen from paper or retracing a line. A century of research has established that in the laboratory, at most 5 percent of participants manage to crack it, and very likely fewer manage to do so. Most people fail to decipher it even with hints and plenty of time. ... None of our participants solved the problem before stimulation or in the sham condition. Yet 14 out of 33 individuals did so as a result of receiving stimulation at the anterior temporal lobes according to our protocol. We calculated that the probability that this fraction of people could solve it by chance is less than one in a billion."


Allan W. Snyder, Sophie Ellwood, and Richard P. Chi


"Switching on Creativity"


Scientific American Mind


November/December 2012


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