A Humanistic Art of Thinking: Better

This post includes the October, 2012 response I submitted to the US “Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity” (IARPA) Request for Information (RFI),   IARPA-RFI-12-04 

The RFI was in support of “Strengthening Human Adaptive Reasoning and Problem Solving (SHARP)”

“A Humanistic Art of Thinking: Better”

Based on interviews I conducted with over 20 leaders of Modeling & Simulation, Systems Analysis, and Analytical Techniques for a number of multi-billion dollar Space and Defense Programs, it became clear to me, and to them, that there is a pressing need to re-evaluate and make explicit the common baseline of definitions, assumptions, methodologies & models, and analytical techniques for problem-solving.   This was true even for those very highly qualified upper level managers and subject matter experts (SME’s).

How people think is a very personal, often sensitive topic usually jealously guarded and shrouded in mystery, even to the individuals themselves. Nonetheless, there is a teachable Art of Thinking, as attested to by many books and essays throughout history. What distinguishes a great mind is beliefs, images, passions, attitudes, and habits of thought, with the willingness to consciously choose techniques that work, setting aside those that don’t, even if it forces them out of their “comfort zone”.

“The difference in the success of men, is the difference in their methods.”  — Ernest Dimnet in “The Art of Thinking”

Our suggestions are pragmatic, psychological, and pedagogical rather than scientific and technical. In defining what we suggest as the meta-system of interest, we consider the relationship of what’s often described as “hardware”, “software”, and “wetware” (the latter being the physical brain), plus the “Database” of relevant models, facts, relationships, tricks and techniques.  By “software” we include the programming within the conscious and unconscious mind. We also include in the meta-system the mentor, guide, or instructor who conveys (and ‘models’) that body of knowledge and practice in direct interaction with the students, possibly in a supportive community of learners.

We all have access to thousands of years of human experience, research, and analysis regarding how to think well.  Our premise is that although much of that is well-known to those of an academic, philosophical, or intellectual bent, it isn’t necessarily widely disseminated in usable, pragmatic form among “thinking-practitioners”.  The admonition that “when all else fails, read the manual” seems appropriate here.  The “low hanging fruit” in strengthening human problem solving is not (only) to focus on increasing potential raw intelligence (wetware), but in identifying the useful “manuals” for human reasoning, combining useful parts into a course syllabus and organized content, and with an appropriate ‘guide/mentor/instructor’ conveying that material in what’s as much a “training” as an “education” course.  In such a course, the students would have the opportunity to “model” the teacher’s thought-attitudes, methods, and processes. We suggest that the high-leverage, near-term achievable approach is to improve the brain’s “software” using a very humanistic, inter-personal classroom experience.

“The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master”  — Goethe

Observation:  There is too much reliance on their high-intelligence among problem-solvers, and too much trying to prove how smart they are, rather than what we should be doing, which is trying to prove how well we deal with our own intellectual and emotional limitations. A basic premise here is that there are specific thinking and problem-solving knowledge and skills that can be learned, with a practical outcome of enhanced problem-solving in practice,  i.e. improving the “programming” and “software” of the mind, rather than increasing the power of the mind’s “wetware”.

“to be an inventor you need a good imagination, and a pile of junk”   — Thomas Edison  

(cf. our Mind Map of Problem-Solving Techniques and Methods)

The “guide/mentor/role-model/instructor/facilitator” must have the appropriate knowledge, personality, and sensitivity. This includes background knowledge of such topics as Meyers-Briggs Personality profiles, research into ‘styles of thinking’, and possibly possessing a very right-brain, humanistic approach to teaching . We suggest designing a course that includes much of the material in a number of “Art of Thinking” books, including Edward de Bono’s books, Socrates and Lao Tzu’s perspectives, and many others’.

Harrison and Bramson, in their Art of Thinking book, report that the ‘synthesist’ (dialectic) is the most rare style of thinking in the US.  Perhaps Western Culture, especially US culture, would benefit from emphasis on teaching dialectic/synthesis-styles of thinking as part of improved whole-brain thinking skill development. This is particularly relevant with the increasing importance of Asian Nations, whose cultural background arguably gives them a more right-brain, synthesist style of thinking.  (cf. the two Nisbett books referenced below)

The ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind and suspend them there without becoming confused, is the mark of a mature intelligence”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

To develop “habits of thinking” it’s not sufficient to just know this material intellectually or academically. The thinker must “own the process”, have a firm commitment to it. Be willing to get out of their comfort zone*, ‘slow down’, avoid premature closure, value the ‘process’ as much as the ‘solution’, try to NOT be the quickest, and consciously look for how to apply a large and diverse set of potential methods and tools, e.g. look for the Yin & Yang of each new situation.

“Many of the tools of thinking are simply attention-directing tools.”  — de Bono “Teach Your Child to Think

* “If you’re not out of your comfort zone you may be learning, but you’re not growing”  — ebr


1. “The Art of Thinking”

2. “Naval Operations Analysis” 3rd Edition (includes my materials on Measures of Effectiveness)

3. “Notes on Measures of Effectiveness” by E. Rockower, 1985. http://www.rockower.net/articles/MOEs_Rockower.pdf

4. “The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn” by Richard W. Hamming, Gordon and Breach 1997

5. “Six Thinking Hats”  2nd Edition by Edward de Bono, Back Bay Books, 1999

6. “Teach your child How to Think”  by Edward de Bono, Penguin Books 1994

7. “Systems Thinking. Applied. A Primer” by Robert Edson, 2008; Asysti.org     http://www.anser.org/asyst       http://www.anser.org/docs/systems_thinking_applied.pdf

8. “The memorable Thoughts of Socrates” by Xenophon

9. “Solitude: A Return to the Self” by Anthony Storr, Ballantine Books; 3rd edition (May 6, 1989)

10. “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer”. – Albert Einstein

11. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why by Richard Nisbett

12. Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count by Richard Nisbett

13. A “Mind Map” for An Art of Thinking, Better (cf. “a bag of tricks” for problem-solving)



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One thought on “A Humanistic Art of Thinking: Better

  1. Ed Post author

    The Mind Map is meant to depict a “bag of tricks” for problem-solving. There’s no implication that it’s complete. Feel free to add your own techniques.


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