The Core of Cognition
In his books and lectures, Douglas Hofstadter—the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach—repeatedly says things like, “analogy is the core of cognition,” “the brain makes analogies without letup,” and “analogy is the fuel and fire of thinking.” Analogy is the core, the fuel and fire, of this SIX at 6.
The Core of Judgment
John Mayer was asked if he gets offended when a person says that John’s music sounds like, for instance, Jack Johnson’s. No, Mayer said, because it reveals more about the person than it reveals about him. “It’s just pattern matching,” he said. When someone compares him to another musician, he said, “really what they’ve done is given me their GPS coordinates.” Hofstadter says that an analogy is a “reminding event.” We listen to a John Mayer song, for instance, and it “reminds us” of a Jack Johnson song. So, Mayer continues, “When people go, ‘oh, you sound like so-and-so,’ well, that just starts to give me an impression of their music library.” They are just revealing what they have previously listened to—what they have the capacity to be reminded of.
The Core of Creativity
Jerry Seinfeld was once thinking about golf announcers whispering. He then found something in his notebook about how people whisper when they talk about tipping. “Now we make what’s called a charm bracelet,” Seinfeld said, explaining his creative process. When you notice a commonality between two or more things, when one thing “reminds you” of another thing, Seinfeld said, “You say, ‘Oh there’s something there.’ And now we make what’s called a charm bracelet: You take these things and you find a way to associate them.” “So that’s the whole process: I’m thinking about this [one] thing and then remember this [other] thing, and then you go, ‘Oh there’s something there—let me connect those things.'” (You can watch how the “whispering” joke came together here).
The Core of Understanding A New Technology
When computers hit the mass market in the 1970s, people felt threatened. There were fears about privacy invasion, the erosion of human-to-human interaction, and the loss of jobs. To soothe concerns and spur the proliferation of computers, Steve Jobs repeatedly used the same analogy, to borrow from Hofstadter, “in an effort to [help others] make sense of the new and unknown in terms of the old and known.” “There was an article in Scientific American in the early 70s, which compared the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet.” In other words, they measured how much energy it took for different animals and machines (birds, dogs, rabbits, automobiles, Man, etc.) to get from point A to point B. And then they ranked them. “Turns out,” Jobs continues, “the condor won. The Condor was the most efficient. And Man came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list. But someone at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of Man riding a bicycle.” Man riding a bicycle was twice as efficient as the Condor. “What it illustrates,” Jobs said, “is man’s ability as a tool maker to fashion a tool that can amplify an inherent ability that he has. So for me, a computer has always been a bicycle for the mind. And that’s exactly what we think we’re doing at Apple: we think we’re fashioning a 21st-century bicycle here—something that can amplify an inherent intellectual ability that Man has, take care of a lot of drudgery, and free people to do what we do best, which is to work on the conceptual level, to work on the creative level.”
The Core of Problem Solving
Eighteen years after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, the Oil Spill Recovery Institute (OSRI) was still looking for a solution. Thirty-two thousand gallons of oil was still stuck. So in 2007, the OSRI posted their problem to InnoCentive—an “Open Innovation Marketplace” where outside “Solvers” offer solutions to a “Seeker’s Challenge”. A chemist from Illinois named John Davis saw the Challenge posted on the InnoCentive site and began thinking of analogies. “I visualized the problem as drinking a slushy,” he said. And as he thought about whipping around a straw to stir up a slushy, he had a reminding event: he remembered a time he helped a friend move some concrete. It was a hot day and the concrete was cementing prematurely. Davis expressed his concern, and his friend grabbed a concrete vibrator and said, “watch this.” When the vibrating metal rod touched the concrete, “it fluidized instantly, just like whooosh,” Davis said. Making connections, Davis wrote up his solution: use concrete vibrators to fluidize the slushy oil/water. “Sometimes you just slap your head,” OSRI research program manager Scott Pegau said, “and go, Well why didn’t I think of that?” Then he answered his own question: “Because we tend to view things with all the information we’ve gathered in our industry, and sometimes that puts us down a path goes into a wall. It’s hard to back up and find another path.” In his book Range, David Epstein notes that Pegau was explaining the Einstellung effect—“a psychology term for the tendency of problem solvers to employ only familiar methods even if better ones are available.” One way to avoid the Einstellung effect, Epstein writes: “[Frame] problems with distant analogies,” like Davis did.
The Core of the Brain
For nearly three decades, the neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett has been studying the brain. Again and again throughout her bestselling book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Dr. Barrett writes about how the brain relies heavily, and sometimes entirely, on past experiences. “You are continually cultivating your past,” she writes, “the experiences you have today become the past that your brain uses to make predictions tomorrow.” The experiences you have, the information you consume, the notes you make, the music you listen to today become the events your brain is reminded of to make analogies tomorrow.