Artwork by: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Midjourney
ATTENTION — QUESTION!
The rapid brain stimulation common to epileptics had this name back in the twentieth century. But since 1937, a valuable technique for solving complex problems has been called this name. How exactly?
ATTENTION — RIGHT ANSWER!
Brainstorming — probably, given that, unlike an epileptic seizure, there is a specific order to it…
SINCE THE TIME OF THE PROPHETS
One of our favorite moments in fairy tales, legends, and even holy books is making a wise and unexpected decision. Actually, what is more important for development and progress than the ability to overcome problems that are not solved so easily from the tip? Those who were able to do such things were considered to be people marked by God and deserving of his special favor.
There are plenty of such examples in the Bible. The same Israelite judge Jephthah not only defeated the hostile tribe of Ephraim but was also able to prevent the Ephraimites from fleeing — every person trying to pass Jephthah’s watch required a seemingly simple thing — to say «shibboleth» («spike»). The Ephraimites said «sibbolet» and 43,000 of those with poor diction died.
The prophet Daniel was also wise. When two dishonorable elders first made an indecent proposal to the beautiful Susanna and, after her refusal, claimed that they had caught her committing adultery under a tree in the garden, Daniel separated them and asked each of them — under which tree? One said it was an oak tree; the other said a mastic tree, and everything became clear to all.
King Solomon became the standard of wisdom in the Bible, giving origin even to the idiom «Solomon’s decision». When two women began to claim the same baby, he offered to cut it in half and give each one a half. The deceiver, out of anger, agreed, and the real mother asked to give him to his rival — just to keep him alive …
Apart from the Bible, no other sources confirm these events. However, the work of the Oracle of Delphi is described by many ancient writings. They say that they noticed that a goat that had gotten loose from the herd started jumping and rushing around, and the shepherd, who went to take it down, did the same thing — why? It was decided that the poison of the dragon Python, which was supposedly killed by Apollo in this place, was to blame.
About the poison, most likely, they were right — there was a large rift from which oil-rich oil shale spews ethylene gas, which actually fogs the mind. To enhance its effect, they burned various plants, including branches of laurel, on a sacrificial tripod, and their vapors also caused strong hallucinations.
Previously, those who wanted to receive a prophecy themselves came up, sniffed, and spoke, but after a lot of such people fell into the abysses and crevices there, they decided to entrust the broadcasting to a special priestess — in honor of Python, she was called Pythia. She was asked a question, and she, inhaling vapors, broadcast the answer, and I have not found a description of a case when she was wrong.
Pythias, of course, were carefully selected. At first, they were young girls, but after a certain Ehekrates from Thessaly, communicating with the Pythia, in the words of Vysotsky, «used her not as Cassandra», the Pythia started to hire older and experienced ladies, but who could understand the essence of the question and formulate an answer so that it was always correct.
The Pythia gave a classic example of such an answer to the Lydian king Croesus, who asked whether he should start a war with Persia. Pythia told him: «You start a war — destroy a great kingdom», and he bravely rushed into battle, not even thinking that his kingdom was also great and what kingdom would die, Pythia did not specify. It turned out that his own …
It also helped that the Greeks believed in the Pythias. When the Pythia predicted that Athens would be saved from the Persian attack by «wooden walls», it seemed that this was clearly not true — the wooden walls of Athens did not become an obstacle for the Persians. But Themistocles quickly explained that the «wooden walls» were ships, and soon, the Persians were defeated in a sea battle at Salamina. It turned out that the Pythia was right!
OUT OF THE TRAIL
The successes of the Pythians, whether true or imaginary, led to interesting thoughts. It turned out that in the normal state of the human brain copes only with trivial problems, and to make a breakthrough, it is necessary to take the brain out of this very ordinary state — for example, poisonous stupefying vapors, as the Pythians did. Is there no other suitable poison?
The ancient Persians knew such a poison. According to Herodotus, when they faced a challenging problem, they gathered a special group to solve it. Its members were simply drunk with wine until they completely broke contact with the usual norms, and in such a state, they solved the problem. To the surprise of many — sometimes nontrivially and extremely successfully.
However, the proposed solutions were so unexpected that the Persians included another stage in the system of their adoption — to consider them also sober, and if they still liked them, to implement them. It is said that sometimes they first discussed the problem sober and then studied the proposed solutions drunk, but I don’t believe it — what would these sober people come up with?
Somewhat later, the fantastic thinker Raymundus Lullius proposed his «logic machine» of rotating circles with various questions and instructions. According to his plans, it was supposed to solve any problem — up to and including theological questions. True, it did not solve anything a single time, but for it, Lullius is even considered the forerunner of computerization …
A really working mechanism for bringing a person out of his usual routine into a forbidden state was offered by the Church — prayer and fasting. Cromwell, for example, when a problem appeared, simply put his officer corps on their knees and ordered them to pray «until the Lord blessed someone». In the Civil War, he eventually won, but his successor was overthrown…
CREATE THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
Lullius’s machine was essentially a way of enumerating different options for solving a problem. If you went through every single option, you could find a solution, right? It turned out that not always — firstly, the solution to the problem under given conditions may not exist at all, and secondly, there may be so many variants that it would take centuries to search through them …
A long time ago, people tried to turn the search for the right solution into a science with a beautiful name, «heuristics» — this word appeared in 300 AD. The founder of such methods, many people consider Socrates, but, by the way, it is not clear whether Socrates is not invented, and besides, too many stupid answers give him opponents — they clearly can be convinced of anything.
Later, many people turned to heuristics — Leibniz, the creator of the binary number system; Bolzano, one of the founders of set theory; and Wolff, Lomonosov’s teacher. Heuristic approaches to pedagogy were pursued by authorities such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Leo Tolstoy. Did they achieve their goal, did they create a new science to help solve problems?
I’m afraid this may be disputed. In 1944, the great mathematician György Polya wrote about heuristics: «…this was the name given to a field of study that was not clearly delineated, referred to logic, philosophy, or psychology. It has often been characterized in general terms, rarely expounded in detail, and is essentially consigned to oblivion at the present time».
And here’s someone who has clearly got something going: the American Alex Osborn. The beginning of his career was not rosy: he lost his position as a journalist for the Buffalo Times due to a lack of professionalism. But in an industry close to journalism and advertising, he achieved considerable success, founding an advertising agency, which survived even in the Great Depression of 1929-1933.
The advertising business requires unexpected solutions — how do you find them? Osborn began looking for rules of thumb for effective deliberation. In the beginning, they determined the optimal size of the group that leads it — it just so happens that it roughly coincided with the line of Vysotsky’s song «Not less than three, not more than ten». Less is not enough, more — they disturb each other.
Another cardinal solution was the complete prohibition of criticism during such discussions — often not only direct but also indirect, like moving on to the consideration of a new idea while the existing one is still being dealt with. However, picking up and developing the ideas expressed is highly recommended and encouraged. Maybe in that idea that the right solution lurks?
It was recommended to express almost any ideas — even obviously fantastic, almost certainly wrong, or even humorous, just for a good mood. But it was clearly not encouraged to stretch your ideas along — any idea should be expressed in no more than one minute. By the way, you don’t have to prove anything — that’s later.
In this way, every single idea expressed, even frivolous and wrong ones, is discussed — it seems so at first, but how is it really? Usually, there is a moderator in the group who monitors the process, stops attempts to violate the ban on criticism, and records new ideas. The method is called brainstorming.
WHERE IT BEGAN
History has preserved several vivid stories about the first applications of the method. One of them dates back to the times of the war when Osborn was recruited into the navy, and the ship he served on received information about a possible torpedo attack by an enemy submarine. This was a very serious threat in those days — quite a few Allied ships were lost in this way.
The story goes that Osborn decided to convene a meeting of sailors to propose some method of dealing with enemy torpedoes. According to naval tradition, the younger men were the first to speak — this allowed them to express their original opinions, independent of the authority of their elders. This also proved to be a useful technique, increasing the effectiveness of the discussion.
Many ideas were expressed that later turned out to be useless, and then the most unbelievable and not always serious options began to be proposed. In the end, one of the younger participants jokingly suggested that everyone should run to the board threatened by a torpedo and blow on it with all their might to see if it would move away. Everyone giggled at first and then wondered if there was something to it.
Since it was forbidden to criticize the ideas in the new method, the young man was not mocked, not told to shut up, but realized that it was not people who could blow, but powerful pumps, not only with air, but also with denser water, and such pumps could well deflect even a torpedo from its course. Of course, every joke has its part of the joke — but brainstorming has found another part.
TOO GOOD IS NOT GOOD EITHER
Another story about brainstorming, which took place a little later, in the 60s, is no less famous. It is often associated with the name of Bruce Barton, but it is simply one of the co-directors of Alex Osborn’s advertising agency — both the firm and the method are the same. It was about a commission from Henckels — to boost the dramatically falling sales of the potato knives it produces.
It was not possible to find flaws in these knives in the search process. Moreover, it turned out that the trouble is in their high quality — durability is high, blades are self-sharpening, and the design is excellent; a housewife buys one such knife and uses it for many years: why should she buy others? Is it to produce worse knives? They will not buy for this very reason. What to do?
The brainstorming lasted 16 hours. They went through all possible associations with the words «knife», «cleaning», and «potato», and not a single idea did not say the forbidden words «this is no good», «nonsense», and «it is not practical to do so», and similar. And suddenly, someone had the grand idea to paint the handle of a knife the same color as potato peels!
It didn’t make the knife any worse. But housewives much more often began to carelessly throw it away with the potato husks, after which they had to buy a new knife — of course, the same as the old one, he was perfectly clean potatoes … Did it affect the quality of the product? In a way, yes — it was lost more often. But the result was achieved…
THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING
The method obviously gave some results, but, of course, not always, and it began to improve. They came up with, say, reverse storming, in which everything but criticism is forbidden, and the process under discussion is searched not for advantages but only for disadvantages. Sometimes, there is simply not enough time for a brainstorming session, and it is conducted over several days — this is no longer a brainstorming session but a brainstorming siege.
These ideas were successfully developed and proposed by William Gordon synectics. Training in this method of special groups costs up to $200,000, and the largest firms in the U.S. use his services. This method involves loosening traditional associations with the help of four types of analogies — direct, personal, symbolic, and fantastic, and its success is undoubted.
There are also quite new methods, like Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. In it, putting on a new hat symbolizes a change of positions: in the white hat, the participant voices facts; in the red hat — expresses emotions; in the black — criticizes; in the yellow — formulates a positive; in the green — suggests improvements, in the blue — sums up. This increases the diversity of ideas.
There are other methods of intensifying creative thinking, and the demand for them is growing. All simple problems have been solved — only complex and very complex ones remain, and a lot depends on whether we can handle them, including whether we will solve any problems in the future. So this is a necessary and urgent matter.
AND IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT…
The word «shibboleth» has become a linguistic term for the pronunciation peculiarities of ethnic groups. A typical form of modern shibboleth is «Say «palyanytsya»!
Alexander the Great wanted to get a prophecy from a pythia on an unfavorable day. And when she refused, he forcibly dragged her to the altar. She screamed in terror: «I can not cope with you!» and Alexander immediately let her go — he considered these words a favorable prophecy.
Andrei Knyshev said: «It would be good to make another revolution in the country, but start it with a brainstorming session at the Winter Palace».
One of the brainstorming sessions was successfully completed only when, after numerous failures, its leader called for the use of all his imagination. Thus was born the name of the drink — «Fanta».
Some methods of intensifying creative thinking put forward the idea that unexpected ideas arise in unexpected places. Even its name — «Bus, Bed, Bath» — speaks of this.