Although Perkins describes the breakthroughs made by some great thinkers, such as Archimedes solving the problem of how to measure the volume of an irregular object such as a crown, Edison inventing the light bulb and Darwin discovering Evolution through Natural Selection, Perkins mainly concentrates on the sort of lateral thinking puzzles like solving the riddle of how the man died who was found dead in the desert with no marks around him and an unopened pack on his back. There are a lot of these sort of puzzles which are fun but seem to make the ideas Perkins is peddling seem slightly shallow and unimportant.
Perkins uses the metaphor of gold prospecting in the Klondike as an analogy to trying to find the solution to a puzzle. There is, he says, a vast wilderness of possibilities and sometimes the only way to find the treasure is to be "systematic about surveying all the possibilities". But often you are on a "clueless plateau" where there are "no apparent clues to point in the direction of a solution" (p 47). The solution is to detect hidden clues by doing a search for "incongruities or other suspicious features" (p 54). (I suspect this might work better for the artificial puzzles that he sets up than in real life.) Part of the reason why searches may seem fruitless is that many people are trapped in a "narrow canyon of exploration" (p 47); their thoughts run in channels when they need to think outside the box. The solution is to reframe the problem, perhaps using perverse interpretations (I always want to obey signs saying wet paint). Finally people are lured towards an "oasis of false promise" (p 48) when you are nearly there but not quite so you hammer away at improvements without seeing that the solution lies, again, outside the box.
It is a delightful analogy but I am not sure that there was anything new here.
In a sense, the real meat can be found when he quotes the work of Davidson and Sternberg who suggested that there were three parts to insight:
- select what is relevant
- compare new ideas with existing concepts
- combine ideas in original ways
It is an interesting and engaging book but I think there is a lot more that could be said on this subject.
August 2016; 269 pages