Analogical thinking has certainly been a cornerstone of science.
The seventeenth-century English physiologist William Harvey compared
the heart to a pump. The physicists Ernest Rutherford and Niels
Bohr pictured the atom as a tiny solar system. Every concept we
have, writes the cognitive scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter, is essentially
nothing but a tightly packaged bundle of analogies.
DDrawing analogies is one part of the creative discovery process,
but an equally important one is seeing things that dont quite make
sense. Thomas Kuhn introduced the idea that revolutions in science
arise from the recognition of anomalies. Kuhn observed that the accumulation
of anomalies findings that cannot be assimilated into an
accepted scientific framework, tradition, or paradigm paves the way
for scientific revolution. A single anomalous observation may stimulate
an initial inquiry, but most productive to an alert mind is a special
sort of anomaly, one that clearly falls into a class of anomalies. Resolving
just one can provide insight into a whole category of more
complicated ones. For example, the era of cancer chemotherapy was
initiated by the recognition of never-before-seen symptoms in sailors
saturated for long periods with liquid mustard gas during a military
disaster in World War II. From this came the development of alkylating
chemical agents, followed by a series of different categories of anticancer
In the early 1950s Nathan Kline, a psychiatrist at Rockland State
Hospital in Orangeburg, New York, exploited an anomalous reaction
in patients receiving the drug reserpine for hypertension. He noticed
that it tranquilized agitated, restless patients. It was later shown that
reserpine affected the levels of serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline in
the brain. This was truly a Eureka! finding because it steered psychiatry
onto a whole new path that focused on brain chemistry. Klines
pioneer efforts in introducing the use of tranquilizers to the practice of
psychiatry in the United States was followed by the development of a
host of psychoactive drugs influencing the brains neurotransmitters,
culminating in todays multibillion-dollar mood-altering-drug industry.
Creative thinkers tend to take analogies and anomalies to higher
levels. They have a gift for seeing similar differences and different
phrases coined by the British theoretical physicist David
Bohm. True creation, Bohm argues, relies upon perceiving a new fundamental
set of similar differences that constitutes a genuinely new
order.27 Indeed, it is the recognition of anomalies, discrepancies,
and exceptions that often leads to the uncovering of a
truth, perhaps one of greater magnitude than the one originally pursued.
Writing of Charles Darwin, his son said: Everybody notices as
a fact an exception when it is striking and frequent, but he had a special
instinct for arresting an exception. A point apparently slight and
unconnected with his present work is passed over by many a man almost
unconsciously with some half-considered explanation, which is
in fact no explanation. It was just those things that he seized on to
make a start from.
The ideal scientific mind comfortably incorporates unanticipated
factors into an established body of work or, more likely, follows it in
completely new directions. Such a mind handles error, inconsistencies,
and accidents in a characteristic way that represents a special mark of
creativity. In other words, the open mind embraces serendipity and
converts a stumbling block into a stepping-stone. As Winston Churchill
whimsically observed, Men occasionally stumble across the
truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing
When Insight Strikes
A perceptive breakthrough may be likened to grasping the hidden
figure in a Gestalt diagram. In the 1950s Rosalyn Yalow, a biophysicist,
and Solomon Berson, a physician, at the Bronx VA Hospital began
using radioisotopes radioactive forms of chemical elements
to study diseases. At that time, it was believed that the high levels of
sugar in the blood of adult diabetics were due to insulin deficiency.
Some researchers hypothesized that it was probably destroyed by a
liver enzyme once it entered the bloodstream.
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