November 5, 2012

Hypothetical Thinking

Hypothetical thinking is the foundation of your imagination. When you employ hypothetical or conjectural thinking, you are mentally imaging something that is not manifest in the world of reality (reality being the state of things as they objectively exist, not as we would have them exist). Your conjecture is not “true,” or at least it has not been shown to be true. You are thinking in “What ifs.” We’ve already discussed how “What if?” thinking can help you make decisions (such as whether to jump off a cliff and try to fly). However, hypothetical thinking is not limited by the constraints of current reality. You can use “What if?” or hypothetical thinking to speculate on situations that are not probable in the real world, as well as those that might actually be possible. What if people had three arms instead of two? What if you use red instead of green for the color of the grass in a watercolor painting? What if you replace the cinnamon in Aunt Millie’s pumpkin pie recipe with cayenne pepper? What if light is both a particle and a wave? What if Darth Vader turns out to be related to Luke Skywalker? What if you switch the melody from a major key to a minor key? What if you let the killer escape from the asylum in Chapter Twenty-Three? What if Chicago were overrun with Martians? What if I take the next exit and drive to Ohio instead of Florida?

There is an endless array of “What if?” scenarios we could visualize in just a single day. We have this elegant hardware that allows us to imagine, but how often do we use it? We have this sophisticated video game right inside our skull, there to be played at any hour of the day or night. How often do you play with it? Creative people play with mental imagery and hypothetical thinking a lot . . . and the results are not inconsequential.

Einstein claims to have used this power of hypothetical mental imaging to form his theory of relativity. He described his creative process as seeing “more or less clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined . . . this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” This is a good description of working within the envision brainset.

All right. I’m getting a mental image of those of you who prefer the evaluative brainset rolling your eyes. You may see the “What if?” games as silly or as a self-indulgent waste of time. But, as we’ve discussed, the ability to imagine is a survival tool. It has allowed us to adapt to and eventually control our surroundings by imagining new and novel resources for ourselves. By forming mental images of highly unlikely scenarios, you are training your brain to think outside the proverbial box. The more you practice “what if-ing,” the more easily you will be able to visualize unusual scenarios and the more likely you are to come up with ideas when you need to generate a novel solution to a problem.

[Source: Your Creative Brain Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life]

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