Breaking Mindset


Allan W Snyder
Centre for the Mind
Institute of Advanced Studies
Australian National University
CANBERRA Australia 0200

Keynote address
"The Mind’s New Science"
Cognitive Science Miniconference
Macquarie University 14 November 1996

Abstract A fundamental question facing the cognitive sciences is why it is so difficult for us to look at the world in new ways. Experts, in particular, appear to have extreme difficulty in questioning the foundations for their belief. This I argue is because we can only view our world through mental paradigms. Such paradigms, our mindsets, have evolved so that we can respond automatically to things of importance but, by having mindsets, we are intrinsically prejudiced. I suggest that infantile autism provides valuable insight into what a mind would be like if it were not to have paradigms. Because we are constrained to look at the world through our mindsets, the only way to see more is to acquire more mindsets. But, to actually be original, it is also necessary to subvert conventional wisdom and this would appear to be culturally dependent. Accordingly, understanding creativity necessitates examining the collective perspectives of diverse disciplines, encompassing abnormal minds as well as the historical transformations of different cultures.

1. Introduction - Difficulty in seeing things anew

I think one of the fundamental questions facing the cognitive sciences is how we get ideas in the first place. How we actually think of something new. Indeed, here I want to take this question to the limit, because this question gives us insight into both the possibilities and the constraints of the mind.

What is it that the creative geniuses have in common? What in fact are the threads that link the expression of originality across all endeavours? Most importantly to us here, why is originality so rare? Why is it so difficult to look at the world in new ways? Let me emphasize that I am not discussing serendipitous discovery, although it has played an important role in the history of invention.

Curiously, breakthroughs in creativity do not usually come from those who possess the most knowledge about something. In fact, experts would appear to have extreme difficulty in reexamining or questioning the foundations for their beliefs (Kuhn, 1962).

There are countless examples which support this observation. My favourite is how visual experts from diverse disciplines can have radically different readings of the very same cloud formations. The portrait painter sees a face of dignity, while the ultrasound sonographer sees a diseased gall bladder.

It would appear that we are all blinded by our mental paradigms - by our mindsets! We emphatically do not examine each situation anew by logically considering all possibilities (Snyder, 1996). Instead, we look at the world through our mindsets, mindsets acquired from our past experiences. Put simply, we are intrinsically prejudiced.

2. Evolution of mindsets

Why are we prejudiced? What is the rational for mental paradigms? How did such a mind evolve? Let us think about these questions from the perspective of behavioural ecology (Snyder and Barlow, 1996). This world has an indefinite number of potential surprises, but, only a restricted subset is of critical importance to an animal. And, this subset is dictated by the animal’s life style within its niche. If the animal is to be a master of its niche, an expert as it were, then it must react automatically to those things of importance. Mental paradigms - mindsets - make possible this automatic behaviour. But, the price for mindsets is fixed modes of thought and hence prejudice.

3. A mind without paradigms - theoretical speculations

Some might think it would be better if minds were not to be endowed with paradigms. Perhaps this is a clue to the strategy for breaking mindsets. What would a mind be like without paradigms?

True, such a mind would be more conscious of detail and hence potentially aware of alternative interpretations. This is certainly a plus for seeing the world differently. It could lead to new insights or abilities, analogous to the ways a colour blind person can excel at certain camouflage tasks.

But a mind without paradigms would have no language, no communication abilities and no thought as we know it. Communication, language and thought are symbolic systems. They all require mental paradigms. Such a mind would have difficulty in coping with anything but the simplest routines, because the world would be one of continual surprises. Everything would have to be examined anew by treating each detail with equal importance.

This does not look like the recipe for conceptual leaps, let alone creative genius. Rather, this is a mind that is overwhelmed and bogged down in detail. In fact, a mind without paradigms appears to me like one with infantile autism! And, if this is so, individuals with infantile autism provide us with living examples of minds without paradigms. I explore this further, after first demonstrating that the constellation of features which comprise infantile autism is in fact consistent with a mind without paradigms.

4. Infantile autism - A mind without paradigms?

Recall that infantile autism (Kanner, 1943; Asperger, 1944) is a developmental disorder which can be diagnosed, occasionally before 18 months, but with certainty before three years. It is especially characterized by the child’s inability to relate to others (qualitative impairments in reciprocal social interactions and impairments in verbal and nonverbal communications), by obsessive insistence for sameness (restricted and stereotyped patterns of behaviour, interests and activities) and often by exceptional abilities in isolated areas (islets of precocity, including those of idiot savants) (Kaplan and Sadock, 1994).

Individuals with infantile autism confront life as a series of surprises. Kanner (1943) describes the extreme literalness of autistics who often appear to give attention to parts at the expense of the whole anddo so in various domains, including language and vision. Indeed, autistics can be very good at spotting abstract shapes embedded in a coherent pattern, but have an inability to integrate these or to make links (Frith, 1989). They appear to observe the world without interpretation. They can not work out what others think or believe. They lack the ability to pretend (Leslie, 1987; Baron-Cohen, 1995).

These core characteristics of infantile autism are anticipated from a mind without paradigms - a mind with no expectations about this world or its dynamic interactions. Everything must be evaluated anew! We anticipate that this mind would have major inadequacies in domains such as language ability or in social interactiveness. A mind that can not make predictions or assumptions based on past experience would find it impossible to associate words with ‘objects’, meanings or emotions, and to comprehend what another person is thinking. The Gestalt-like quality of mental paradigms is crucial for such skills and they are apparently lacking in autistics. Indeed, autistic children often do not even seem to recognize or differentiate the most important people in their lives (Kaplan and Sadock, 1994 see p 1054).

Normal individuals acquire mental paradigms to function automatically in a complex world. Without such mental structure, they would presumably have to impose external order upon the world to simplify it. This, I believe, explains the restricted interests and repetitive and stereotyped behaviour of infantile autistics.

Minds without paradigms are less prejudiced and so less prone to fixed interpretations than the Gestalt-driven normal mind. I believe this explains the astonishing naturalistic drawings of certain preschool autistic artists who, unlike normal preschool children, seem to be conscious of a number of factors like determining perspective from gradient of texture or shape from shading. Analogously, I believe it also explains how autistic preschool children can perform surprising feats such as recite poems or sing an opera word perfect, without understanding the meaning of one word (Kanner, 1943) and probably also explains the unusual calculating abilities of some autistic children. Furthermore, I believe that the enhanced awareness of the senses frequently reported by those with autism is a consequence of their being unable to integrate the separate strands of sensory information into a coherent whole or indentifiable label. Unlike normal children, these autistic children apparently can track seemingly ‘meaningless’ detail and patterns. Autistic children are also known to perform remarkable physical feats by virtue of having no fear (Briggs, 1996). Fear is equated with mindsets derived from prior experiences. The fact that certain autistic individuals are unique in having several exceptional skills (Treffert, 1989), not one of which is derived from training, is wholly consistent with our hypothesis that autism provides valuable insight into a mind without mindsets.

Finally, I have been discussing infantile autism. This is the purest or most extreme form of the disorder, when the mind lacks a multitude of paradigm across various domains. At the other extreme, high functioning autistic (Asperger) individuals can be deficient in only the most elaborate mindsets, such as those necessary for subtle social interactions (Asperger, 1944; Ozonoff, Rogers and Pennington, 1991). On this account, autism appears to be a retarded acquisition of mental paradigms. The simplest or most basic paradigms is acquired first, while the most complex, such as those required for understanding the minds of others, is never fully acquired or, at best, approached only asymptotically. In summary, the constellation of features which comprise infantile autism is consistent with a mind that lacks paradigms4.

5. Examples of minds without mindsets

Now, I want to return to my central theme about why it is so difficult to see the world in new ways. This, I have argued, is because we see everything through our mindsets. What would it be like if this were not the case? Being thrown into another culture, new language and all, might give us a vivid impression. But I would like to explore another example which is a particular research interest of mine - the drawing skills of preschool children.

We are all masters at seeing what is needed of this world and this skill comes to us automatically. The imposition of meaning on the visual percept is something learned from birth. Yet, it is a surprising fact that none of us can draw natural scenes unless we have been taught how to do so. The reason why this is so unexpected is that our brains obviously possess all the information required to draw, but we can not seem to access this information.

Gombrich (1982) says, ‘One thing stands out from this story and demands a psychological explanation. It is that this imitation of visual reality must be very complex and indeed a very elusive affair, for why should it otherwise have taken so many generations of gifted painters to learn its tricks?', p 12. Snyder and Thomas (1997) believe that this is because we are blocked by our mental schema. Preschool children draw, not so much what they see, but rather they draw from their mental schema. And, these schema tend to be invariant across cultures. For example Figure 1 is typical of late preschool art. The horse is conventionally drawn side-on, head to the left, and in bold outline form.

Two Horses. Hand drawn

Figure 1. Representative drawings of normal children, each at age four years and two months.
(Emma and Teneal, Parents on Campus Preschool, Australian National University).

Figure 2. Autistic child's drawing at about three and a half years. (Selfe, 1977)

But, certain autistic preschool artists (those without language) can often draw naturalistically and with astonishing accuracy. For example, Figure 2 shows a drawing of the autistic artist Nadia, at age 3, with the detailed perspective that is normally associated with the classical masters like Leonardo da Vinci (Selfe, 1977; 1983).

These autistic preschool children seem to be aware of determining shape from shading and other details that we suppress in order to instantly identify an object (Snyder and Thomas, 1997). So here is a good example which illustrates how mental schema can endow normal individuals with automatic recognition, and the ability to label what we recognize. But, mental schema can blind us when it comes to drawing. In fact, we learn to draw by blocking our mindset with subterfuge by taking away the meaning of scenes. For example, by looking at something upside down or a little piece at a time (Edwards, 1993, see p 52).

On the other hand, Nadia could draw like a professional at 3 years old, yet she could not even label her own drawing as a horse. However, as Nadia started acquiring language (that is, acquiring mental paradigms) she no longer could draw (Selfe, 1977).

So, in summary, autistic preschool art provides a vivid example of a mind without mindsets. Minds need to adopt paradigms for rapid conceptualization and automatic behaviour. We can not achieve creative genius by abandoning our mental paradigms.

6. A case study of breaking mindset

If mindset is so intrinsic to our nature and indeed so valuable, then how do we break mindset? How can we see the world anew and hence be inventive?

Let me give you a case study, one that involves looking at a part of the brain itself - the eye . Hughes (1996) in a recent Nature article, described how a 19th century mindset had to be broken before photoreceptors could be observed directly through the pupil of a living eye. What was the process that broke this particular mindset?

The human (camera) eye is composed of optics and retina (the 'film') whose grain is set by the density of photoreceptor cells. Both Young and Hemholtz, giants of 19th century science, believed that the eyes’ optics were the starting point of vision - the given. They believed implicitly that the job of the photoreceptors was to squeeze out all available detail from this given optical image. From this mindset, it is not possible to see the photoreceptors through the pupil. And no one ever did!

But, when you look at the problem from visual ecology, you develop an entirely different mindset (Snyder, 1979; Snyder, Bossomaier and Hughes, 1986, 1990). It is then the animals’ lifestyle that dictates its resolution which, in turn, sets the photoreceptor packing. The optics then moulds itself to give the best performance for this specified resolution. From this perspective, you predict that photoreceptors are visible through the pupil.

It took only minutes to confirm this prediction by using the simplest tool - an ophthalmoscope. Subsequently, Land and Snyder (1985) published the first photograph of a photoreceptor mosaic seen through the eyes’ optics.

What can we learn from this case study? As Hughes (1996) said in her Nature News and Views article. Theories can be surprisingly powerful influences. They determine mindset, what we look for and what we find. Anyone could have seen the photoreceptors, and they most probably did, but no-one seems to have had the confidence to identify them as such from the existing theory.

7. How to see the world anew?

Armed with the perspectives discussed here, how can we look at the world differently? I believe that it is necessary to take on more mindsets. Develop more mental paradigms by working in completely different fields, (Snyder, 1996). Because, by nature, we can only look at the world through our mindsets, we need more of them to see more of the world. Recall, for example, that those who are fluent in several languages have more ways to describe things than the monolingual speaker who has only one.

Of course, when you actually study the giants of invention, you find there is in fact no recipe for creativity. Sigmund Freud, one of the most creative minds ever, although much deconstructed today, once said of his creativity: "You often estimate me too highly. For I am not really a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, and not a thinker. I am nothing but by temperament a conquistador - an adventurer - with the curiosity, the boldness, and the tenacity of that type of being" (Jones, 1961 see p 227).

In other words, creativity is more than the product of multiple mindsets. Rather, we must also have the courage to subvert conventional wisdom (Hudson, 1987). And, I want to emphasize that this courage is something that would appear to be nurtured by particular cultures, while severely constrained in others.

Originality is obviously a complex and challenging issue. "The minds new science" demands the collective perspectives of diverse disciplines, an understanding of abnormal minds like the autistic child Nadia and, especially, an understanding of other cultures and their historical transformations viewed from the broadest perspectives.

This paper was the keynote address at "The Mind's New Science" cognitive science miniconference, Macquari University 14 - 15 November, 1996. I especially thank Max Coltheart, Ian Gold, Daniel Stoljar and Mandy Thomas for their invaluable comments.

Address for correspondence: Centre for the Mind, Institute of Advanced Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia.



1. We seem to force fit all sensory information into the most likely interpretation based on our prior knowledge (Snyder and Barlow, 1988). This explains various illusions and is the subject of much of the Gestalt school (Gregory, 1987). The familiar photograph (Frisby, 1980) of the Dalmatian dog which is camouflaged by leaves is a good example, because radically different interpretations can exist of this photograph, each dependent upon the viewers’ prior knowledge.

2. It is interesting that the minds of the great apes appear qualitatively the same as ours (Russon, 1996): They are capable of causal reasoning (Langer, 1996), logical-mathematical reasoning (Boysen, 1993), insight (Anderson, 1996), imitation (Mitchell, 1987), self-awareness (Parker, Mitchell and Boccia, 1994), pretence (Mitchell, 1994), role-reversal (Miles, Mitchell and Harper, 1996), teaching by coaching (Boesch, 1991), planning (Parker and Milbraith, 1993), mind reading (Premach and Woodruff, 1978) and protolanguage (Savage-Rumbaugh et al, 1993).

3. The most highly functioning autistic adults, even those who have obtained PhD degrees, appear to have extreme difficulty comprehending and dealing with emotional interactions (Sacks, 1995; Grandin, 1995).

4. Much discussion has focussed on the 'mind reading' deficiency of autistics (Leslie, 1987; Baron-Cohen, 1995). Great apes may also be able to mind read (Whiten and Byrne, 1996; Whiten, 1996). However, we are reminded that 'mind reading' is a late development of normal children (Leslie, 1987), say at about 4 years, whereas autism can frequently be diagnosed as early as 18 months (Kaplan and Sadock, 1994).

5. It is the symbolic identification of objects in their most general sense, their labels, that are of ultimate importance to an animal and not the attributes of ‘objects’ that are processed by the brain to formulate this label (Snyder and Barlow, 1988; Snyder and Thomas, 1997). For example, we are not consciously aware of why one face is recognizable over another, nor how we derive shape from shading, perspective from gradients of texture, etc. Analogously, children tend to linguistically label objects long before they are conscious of the semantic nuances which differentiate one object from another. Yet, the ‘image’ is stored in detail, otherwise recognition of subtle details could not be possible, nor would be the police identikit. ‘The true miracle, it seems to me, is that we store so many impressions that recognition of the familiar is guaranteed’ (Gombrich, 1982 p 16).

6. This gives substance to the claim that breakthroughs often come "from way out in left field" or the parallel claim that diverse fields cross fertilize each other. My experience has born this out. Research on the visual photoreceptors of animal eyes led to ideas about the analysis and design of optical fibres used for telecommunications, (Snyder, 1996).

7. Many facets of creativity have been explored in the literature (Hudson, 1988). Of particular interest to me is the role of unconscious problem solving (Snyder, 1996). There are numerous accounts of individuals who have spontaneously arrived at the solution to problems without conscious knowledge of the process. This has been dramatically documented by the mathematician Poincare (Hadamard, 1945) and by the poet Rilke (Hudson 1987). It would appear that once the building blocks are in place, acquired by conscious learning, the mind then has the capacity to sift through them without our conscious awareness.

8. No doubt there are compelling biological reasons for our propensity to follow fashion. For example, why should each individual discover everything anew when discoveries can be borrowed and thus implemented rapidly? Further, we seem more inclined to borrow ‘facts’ than we are to develop algorithms for generating results. Perhaps this explains the popularity of quiz shows. Conceptual understanding does not appear to generate comparable popular interest.


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