I’m often inspired by my kids. They are my innocence goggles. When I’m stuck on a problem, I can put them on to get truly unbiased views of things I take for granted as an adult. You’ve probably heard the quote from Einstein, “My secret is I remained a child. I always asked the simplest questions. I ask them still.”
The other day I asked my son what air tasted like and he responded by sticking out his tongue to try it. Certainly such innocence can have a down side, so it must be supported and protected. But it is essential as a basis for discovery. So much of what we do as adults leads us to edit or dismiss ideas before they have a chance to be properly “tasted”.
Here, I’m reminded of the great book, Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. In it he describes all kinds of cool research and experiments about how the human brain works. One thing that stood out for me is that we have to gloss over many details of the world just to function. That is, there’s so much going on around us, that our brain has filters that automatically fill in some of what’s real with existing assumptions in favor of more efficient sensory processing.
That works great when you are trying to be efficient, but when you are trying to discover something new, you must look with new eyes and uncover not only your assumptions about what is real, but overcome your perceptions of what’s real.
Try this little experiment that demonstrates how your brain fills in things your eyes can’t see:
Place your mouse pointer on the screen to the right of the JFX logo at the top of my blog (right in front of the word “playing”). Now cover your left eye and look at the JFX logo with your right eye. Gradually move your head closer to the screen until the pointer disappears. Move a little forward and back… see the pointer appear and disappear?
The pointer disappears because there is a blind spot in your eye at the point where your optic nerve is attached. You don’t walk around with empty spots in your field of vision because your brain uses information from around the spot on the retina to construct an appropriate image. Your brain automatically “assumes” what is there and makes you see it. This happens in your memory too. Read the book for more fun examples.
So the point is, our brains are constructed to help us fill in missing information because most of the time that’s a great strategy for us to function successfully in the world. But when you need to solve a difficult problem, it’s better to keep a naive mind. That way you don’t miss the answers that are sitting right in front of you because you are assuming they’ve already been found.
This is not difficult to do, it just takes practice.
Or just hang around a bunch of toddlers and taste some air!