Allan W Snyder
Centre for the Mind
Institute of Advanced Studies
Australian National University
CANBERRA Australia 0200
"The Minds 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
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
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
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
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 animals
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
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
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
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 childs 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
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
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
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
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
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