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Friday, October 3, 2014

Creative Problem Solving

I stumbled on a couple of interesting, apparently unrelated, pieces that got me to thinking we have been looking at problem solving all wrong.

First, on the way to an aerobics class at the gym I caught part of a fascinating story on public radio. The person who was being interviewed has written a book about his mathematical insights. He had been an ordinary guy, managing a futon store, and before that, a mediocre student in school. The latter achievement only because he paid a better student to do his homework.

Then, he was hit in the back of the head by two muggers. That was about 10-12 years ago.   Suddenly, on the way home from the hospital, he had these new insights. The world literally looked different to him.  And he now has come up with amazing mathematical innovations and insights. He goes around lecturing, developing curriculum for schools, and writing amazing books about math. Previously his least favorite subject.

As with most things on public radio, since I listened to it in the car on the way to run errands or go to the gym, I didn't hear the whole thing and may have gotten a few details wrong. I didn't catch either the math guy’s name or the title of his book.  But I suppose if you really wanted to find it you could Google the topic "smacks to head resulting in math genius". How many stories about that topic can there be?

When I got back from my exercise class and was trying to work up the energy to do something more for the rest of the day, I read a few articles in the New York Times. One title struck me—“How Exercise May Protect Against Depression”. Feeling smug, I had just exercised after all, and thus apparently had unknowingly kept depression away, I read the article.

The article was based on mice subjects. They are small and easy to keep, they get stressed like people, and although scientists are not yet psychoanalyzing them, at least I don’t think there are any mice psychoanalysts, the scientists can extrapolate when the mice are depressed from certain micely behaviors.

So using mice to run on little tread mills or whatever to see if the exercise relieves symptoms of stress makes sense. But, as I read further, I discovered the scientists did not make the mice run on little tread mills, or engage in some other sweaty exercise. Instead, the little mice subjects had not been exercising at all. The scientists took a short cut and got mice that already had the muscle chemistry of mice who had exercised. These lazy mice just sat around drinking sugar water since that's one of the behaviors of non-depressed mice. Sort of like a lot of soda-guzzling people.

At that point in the story I felt like I’d had a smack upside the head. Why were people suppose to go to the gym and exercise when you apparently can get muscles that already act like they’ve been exercising? And why weren’t scientists exploring whether people could bypass this whole sweat and fatigue thing at the gym and just jump ahead to the pre-exercised muscles?

Going back to the story about the new math genius, you have to wonder if a good “hit upside the head” (I picture a sort of  Gibbs-from NCIS-smack, typically given to Tony DiNozzo when he needs to have his attention refocused) might be just what the scientists need to get them thinking in a totally new direction.

And is that’s all anyone of us needs to utilize our full creative powers? Maybe I’ll just smack myself in the head rather than go sweat in the gym. No telling what insights I may have.

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