Posts Tagged ‘mental ability’

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Creativity relies on many mental abilities

June 22, 2009

The more I think about creativity, the more it looks like my ideas about creativity have been stereotyped and limited.

For one thing, creativity doesn’t work all by itself. No mental ability works in a bubble, though we may think of them that way to more easily make sense of them.

For example, how could someone create anything without a vast reserve of memories to draw on? That’s not to mention visualization or imagination abilities. You have to be able to choose what to create, and those choices require memories of similar things to the thing being created.

And visualization itself requires memory. How could you make a mental picture of something unless you had a reservoir of many things and how they appear?

Painters who create a new work make choices about how it looks. They pull up memories of colors and how they look when mixed, the effects of various sizes and types of brushes and the way something looks on various media. Other skills include planning, organizing and the ability to focus on one subject for a long period of time.

Translating visual, verbal, aural or tactile ideas into physical media, as all artists do, requires a whole set of mental abilities to control body movement.

The abilities to control our bodies can be finely honed with practice, but we learn them automatically when we are children–without any memory of how it happened.

Have you ever tried to feel or analyze how your hand and arm move to pick up a glass? I can’t do it. It’s an invisible process that I have no access to. Bodily control is so essential to our lives that we don’t have ways to mentally interrupt or analyze it. We “will” the movement, and presto! We move!

It’s really quite magical and invisible–yet we all make myriad intricate movements every day. It’s so integrated into our ability to function that we take it for granted.

Another example: how could someone create a product without analytical skills, like those used to determine the usefulness of the product? When Gideo Sundback designed the zipper in 1913, the inventor/engineer must have first systematically compared and evaluated other clothing fasteners, then decided that something else could work better. In fact, he improved upon a zipper-like design called a “clasp locker.”

This creative act also required memory, critical reasoning, design skills, evaluative abilities and other skills. Emotions, including frustration over the limitations of buttons and hooks, could have driven the inventor’s desire to create the zipper.

When someone does something “creative,” it’s not only creative. It could be analytical as well. A creative act may require intuition, evaluation, comparison, critical reasoning, memory, visualization, or any other mental function alone or in combination with others.

The other thing I’ve noticed about mental activity is that it’s often hard to separate one activity from another, because they work so well together. Clearly they are separate skills, but the mind or brain’s abilities work together seamlessly–so effortlessly and rapidly, in fact–that we can’t possibly analyze every process that’s going on at the time it’s happening. (Well, I have to speak for myself on this. Maybe Stephen Hawking could do it.) Retrospection is neccessary to figure out what we’ve been doing during retrospection!

These observations bring up a question that has dogged humanity since recorded history: What could have created something as complex as the human mind?

It also brings up a question that confounds researchers and has created entire branches of philosophy: How could such amazing abilities be housed in something as small as the brain?

I don’t have answers, but Emerson Pugh, an influential IBM executive, captured the essence of the problem with a humorous twist:

If the human mind was simple enough to understand, we’d be too simple to understand it.

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Some mental abilities increase as we age

May 30, 2009

According to a Wall Street Journal article, “The Upside of Aging,” our mental abilities keep growing as we age.

American culture celebrates youth and many human abilities that decline with age. But contrary to prevalent beliefs, some mental functions actually increase in some areas while decreasing in others.

The aging brain is subject to a dreary litany of changes. It shrinks, Swiss cheese-like holes grow, connections between neurons become sparser, blood flow and oxygen supply fall. That leads to trouble with short-term memory and rapidly switching attention, among other problems. And that’s in a healthy brain.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. An emerging body of research shows that a surprising array of mental functions hold up well into old age, while others actually get better. Vocabulary improves, as do other verbal abilities such as facility with synonyms and antonyms. Older brains are packed with more so-called …

Speed of response times and reflexes decrease, according to the Journal article. But wisdom–a previously unquantifiable set of abilities–increases, says new research.

That’s because we develop “action templates” for experiences that we can apply to similar experiences. Younger minds don’t have enough experiences to develop templates as seasoned as those of older people.

These templates may be the foundations of what we call wisdom.

Sharp Brains, a website devoted to mental improvement, notes:

In our “Exercising Our Brains” Classes, we typically explain how some areas typically improve as we age, such as self-regulation, emotional functioning and Wisdom (which means moving from Problem solving to Pattern recognition), whereas other typically decline: effortful problem-solving for novel situations, processing speed, memory, attention and mental imagery.

Of course, this runs against my own experience: I knew far more at age 16 than I’ll ever know again. I certainly knew more than anybody else then.

But maybe my memory is just slipping…and I’ve merely forgotten most of it?

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