The research of Dr. Edward de Bono is of significant value to everybody working in an environment where creativity is important. His work shows how one can learn to use the brain more efficiently and - ultimately - become more able to produce a higher number of ideas. This article briefly explains de Bono's theories about the brain as a system, and will also present the creative tool PO as a way to beat that system - and be more creative.
A vital concept to understand, and the foundation of his work, is the theory of the brain as a self-organizing information system. When the brain receives information, it organizes itself based on experiences from the past that have already left their marks. Edward de Bono presents the following analogy:
A spoonful of ink is poured onto a towel spread out flat. The ink is absorbed and leaves a permanent stain. The stain can be referenced to by coordinates taken along the edges of the towel. A spoonful of hot ink is poured onto a bowl of jelly. The ink melts the jelly slowly, but cools down quickly. A depression has been made in the surface of the jelly. The ink stains represent information input. When several spoonfuls are poured onto the towel, more permanent stains are made. They never change; it becomes a record of everything that has happened to the towel. When several spoonfuls are poured onto the jelly, the holes will connect and the ink will flow into the existing depressions and make them deeper. The jelly is self-organizing; the towel is not.
The patterns generated by the brain are asymmetric; we go along the deepest patterns without noticing the side track. If we - randomly or by using techniques deliberately - get over to the alternative track, "the route becomes obvious in hindsight. This is the basis of both humor and creativity." When the solution becomes logical in hindsight, we believe that the solution could have been found logically from the start; this is a belief that makes us focus more on logic rather than creativity. In a passive, self-organizing system like the brain, an idea that is logical in hindsight is not necessarily accessible by logic in foresight.
PO is the fundamental tool of the creative system. It is a word created by Dr. de Bono for this purpose. Its need arises from "the deficiencies of the special memory-surface". He argues that "the use of PO is a skill that can be learnt and practiced just as you learn to drive, cook, surf or play golf". Its function is purely creative, just like the function of yes/no is judgemental. PO is a tool that acts to break down patterns and conquer dogmatism. It introduces discontinuity, and helps you move sideways across patterns instead of getting trapped by them and being led in their tracks. To use PO as a specific thinking tool, there are three basic uses:
PO1 - The Intermediate Impossible
This process can be said to be an extremely powerful variant of the word suppose. It is built upon the concept that wrong and/or impossible ideas can be used as gateways or stepping stones to ideas that are not wrong. It is a way to jump over the barrier of judgement, and continue in a seemingly wrong direction. This tool is often used as provocative statements. From a graphic design point of view, an example might be "PO this copy should not be readable". The objective is to explore unfamiliar landscape, and see where the provocation is leading. Results of this PO could be to have the text presented in the Braille system, a feature for audio playback of the same text, communicating the same message purely pictorial, or special glasses that make the copy readable.
PO2 - Random Juxtaposition
This requires a completely random word, and is a technique to form ideas between two concepts that have no previous connection in your memory bank. This technique provides two unrelated starting points, and your brain will try to find a path to connect the two concepts - a process that will force you to explore new thoughts and ideas. "The subject was cigarette. The random word was traffic light. From that quickly came the suggestion of putting a red band around cigarettes so that the smoker had a decision zone. If he or she stopped at the red band, then the smoker was gaining control over his or her smoking habit."
PO3 - Challenge for Change
The third use of PO is simply a judgement by-pass technique. It is an invitation to generate alternative solutions and fresh thinking, even if an adequate and fitting solution already is found. It is a formal way of saying "Why?", "Why this concept?", without getting a defense of the initial idea as an answer. It is an attempt to fight complacency and arrogance, by putting an existing idea to one side and keep on searching for new solutions. It sums up the following statement: "That is one way of looking at things and it is perfectly valid, but it does not exclude other ways, so let us try to find some".
A major point that de Bono advocates, is to suspend judgement throughout the entire creative phase. Critical thinking and creative thinking are two incompatible processes. Another author in the field, Dr Michael LeBoeuf, agrees, and introduces the following analogy: "To use your judgement and imagination simultaneously is like stepping on the brakes and the accelerator of your car at same time". One must allow invalid statements, untruths and steps in seemingly wrong directions, in order to create a mental environment for creative thinking. This is a vital principle that needs to be understood and practiced. High-paced, effective idea generation without any room for critical thinking will result in a much higher number of ideas, which then can be judged critically and logically in the selective phase. A thought that presents itself as a bad idea at the time, might lead you onto something else - something that you would not have seen if you had abandoned the initial thought. This is a significant part of lateral thinking, and it is fundamentally different from vertical thinking. "The need to be right all the time is the biggest bar there is to new ideas".
Katie Konrath, who recently finished a Master's in Creativity and Innovation at the University of Malta, is a certified lateral thinking instructor. She explains that the more ridiculous the PO is, the better the creative output will be. The goal is to make your brain so "disturbed by the apparent lack of connection between your creative challenge and the PO statement that [it] will plumb its depths for any connection possible". She, too, mentions the dangers of judgment. If you get selective in the generative phase, your creativity will be drastically limited.
This research provides an understanding of how the brain functions as a system. That understanding can be used to overcome the natural barriers that restrict your creative sessions, and thereby improve your creative capacity. There are several misconceptions about creativity, and de Bono addresses them all in a way that is simple enough for youngsters to use and simple enough to make academics angry. You can download the full article about this study here [PDF]. For further reading, the books Lateral Thinking and PO: Beyond Yes and No are excellent starting points.
This article was written by Asgeir Hoem from Journale. It a site updated with articles on design, typography, creativity and cool randomness. If you are interested in contributing to the thinking process and become a guest writer on The Thinking Blog, find out more information here and be my guest!