#83: Creativity test

I’m obsessed by the phenomenon I call visual metaphor: when one object can be seen as being ‘like’ some other to which it is otherwise unrelated. Consider the piece of toast which my three year old daughter suddenly declared to be a cow, below. (I’m also pretty sure that similar things exist in other modalities…aural metaphors are probably what are commonly known as puns).

This seems to be the ability to generalise to a very large extent: something which highly analytical types have trouble with, but at which artistic or imaginative people excel (although they, in turn, generally seem to have problems with minimal generalisation…ie tasks requiring step-by-step, small scale logical deduction).


Why might the ability to generalise to this absurd extent have been evolutionarily valuable? Being able to see that a snake resembles a cigar, resembles a penis, resembles a sportscar, resembles a fountain pen is not obviously that useful.

This ability may however have allowed our distant ancestors to make some kind of guesses about the behaviour of a new phenomenon which appeared (when they had almost no other information) based on very loose similarity between it and something already known about. Rather than standing around looking completely confused when the first steam engine appeared, some Native Americans dubbed it an ‘iron horse’ and reacted accordingly.

This ability nowadays may help invention to occur, in the sense that you can mentally swap properties between two objects recognised as being only very distantly similar eg
A cigar:

  • you light one end
  • you draw smoke through it
  • it comes in a metal cannister

and a fountain pen:

  • it splits in two
  • it is located in the pocket by a clip
  • you make marks with it.

Now, swap some properties:

  • you might have a pen with a light at one end?
  • maybe you could make marks using an airborne flow of carbon particles, like a photcopier?
  • maybe you could supply cigars in a metal cannister that also allowed you to write with it?
  • perhaps cigars should come equipped with an attachment to locate them in a shirt pocket?
  • they could sport a device which prevents them being lit? etc

Anyway, today’s invention is a test by which the ability of people to spot such analogies can be measured and used as some kind of a creativity index. Simply show them a range of images which may have multiple interpretations and count the number of alternatives with which they come up.

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