David Perkins
WW Norton & Company, Inc.
Published Date

I was intrigued by the title of this book, as I was moving amongst the rows of books one evening.  I enjoy learning more about the process of discovery, the “ah-ha” moment of insight, which we call development when it occurs in the vision therapy room.   Much of my reading has been centered on change and creativity and here was a book precisely about that moment of discovery.  “The Eureka Effect,” by David Perkins did not disappoint.

The book is divided into four sections: (I) The Idea of Breakthrough Thinking, (II) The Art of Breakthrough Thinking, (III) Mind, Brain, and Breakthrough Thinking, and (IV) Does Nature Think.  One strong theme through the book is the use of analogy in leading the “discoverer” to the “discovery,” by setting the stage for the critical associations that facilitate seeing one thing in a different light.  “…looked to analogies to reframe a puzzling problem and find an unexpected solution.” (page 5)

Perkins begins by giving some historical perspective.  He discusses a five-step structure that can be discerned by reading about Archimedes.  At first, there is a long search where a problem is thought about for a long time.  Examples of this are Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright brothers and flight.  Then comes the step of little apparent progress, where it appears as if nothing much is happening or the search gets derailed in a minor way moving neither forward nor backward.  Perkins’ example here is the Wright brothers using nautical concepts in working on the propeller, which had to be scrapped later on.  The third step is the emergence of a trigger by a precipitating event.  It is at this moment that we think of thee ureka or “ah-ha” emerging.  It is the light bulb going on.  It is the lightening bolt striking, that moment where the problem is reframed.  Rather than seeing the propeller in nautical terms recognizing it more as a screw or a wing itself may be the critical reframing.  The precipitating event quickly gives way to a cognitive snap.  Here the breakthrough comes rapidly, a kind of falling into place.  One could more aptly say that it is here that the eureka or “ah-ha” is now consciously registered.  The final step is transformation.  The insight gained becomes a fixed idea and concept that lives on in changing the way that other things are seen and possibly acting as an analogy for further eurekas to emerge.

Perkins now spends time elaborating each of these steps.  Although we would like to jump from precipitating event to cognitive snap to another precipitating event and so on, one must invest heavily in the long search and the little apparent progress portions.  “Sometimes the long search may acquaint one deeply with the problem at hand and put one in a position to recognize the precipitating event when it happens.”  He summarizes this with, “To find something, you need to move around a lot in the right neighborhood.” (page 14)

In the final section of the first chapter, Perkins breaks problems down into two types, reasonable and non-reasonable.  What he means by this distinction is that a reasonable problem can be solved by systematically reasoning through each of the steps and incrementally working towards an answer.  Certain problems do not lend themselves to this type of problem solving and require some art in their approach.

Perkins used brainteasers or puzzles as the basis for much of his research.  He presented these to many different people and recorded the steps used by the solver, as well as their reactions and emotions.  Too many people think that problem solving is something only rarely done by great minds.  He states, “The characteristic pattern of breakthroughs – the long search, the sudden advance, and so on – reflects not unusual things certain minds do but unusual structures certain problems have.”  The problem itself, by its very structure, has encased within it the potential for the solver to experience an “ah-ha” or a “eureka” moment!

In a later chapter, after presenting the reader with many of the same puzzles used in his research, Perkins outlines the methods used by successful solvers of non-reasonable problems.  He states, “Good breakthrough thinking systematically jumps the tracks of sequential thinking.  Breakthrough thinking can be organized into four logic operations.  They might be called roving, detecting, reframing, and decentering.”  Roving means exploring the possibilities widely.  Many problems go unsolved because on the front end the person did not let their mind wander, or as Douglas Hofstadter (Gödel, Escher, Bach author) termed it, they did not allow for appropriate degrees ofslippage to enter into their thinking.  I like to think of this as the divergent thinking of the problem solving.  During this phase of looking at a problem it is best to suspend evaluation and just let the mind wander over the problem.  While reading this part of the book I tested myself with several chess problems from a recent magazine I had, and found that by roving I was able to come up with a wider group of candidate moves, which led to more problems being solved correctly.  On the front end of a problem take a little more time and let your mind wander.  I tend to think of the case history as our time to rove around the patient’s life to allow us to form a mental picture of the person and their timeline, to allow us to see the world the way that they see it.

“Now consider detecting hidden clues in response to a seemingly clueless plateau.  Detecting means looking harder for clues that point a direction.  In breakthrough puzzles, it’s often the absence of something that’s a clue—what’s not said that might have been said.”  In my chess puzzles this was often the recognition of a key element in the position, the reason why the position was chosen by the grand master for demonstration.  In the puzzles that are our patients, we rove around the landscape that is their life story in search of these hidden clues that may just be the trigger points for helping them.  How many times has the key thing in a patient’s history been the part they didn’t tell?

The next step is reframing, which is described as reorganizing the problem or looking at it from a different perspective.  You might ask yourself, “What constraints am I taking for granted?”  By doing this you may set the stage to be free of the current viewpoint to be able to take up an alternative view.  Here is where you can, “get out of the box” and adopt a more spacious frame of reference.  As you begin to reframe the problem you may find a few false solutions.  These solutions look like they will solve the problem but don’t.  These may be analogous to Piaget’s low-level learning, where “an” answer is obtained that appears on the surface to solve the problem, but it isn’t based on the appropriate use of existing knowledge or schemes.  “When a search appears to be going in circles, the problem solver should investigate how tacit assumptions, descriptions of the situation, and other factors are constraining the search within a limited region.”

Decentering is to move away from these seductive approaches that don’t really work.  By doing these thing you raise the probability of solving a puzzle or problem.

Brainstorming (page 96)

Perkins weighs in with four rules for successful brainstorming from the work of Alex Osborn, worth mentioning here.

  1. No criticism.  This is the premier rule of brainstorming.  During the brainstorming itself, criticism is out.  Whatever’s said goes on the list.
  2. Keep moving.  Don’t hover to develop details.  Toss in ideas and move on. Go for quantity.
  3. Piggyback.  Besides just making up ideas out of the air, take ideas already mentioned as a point of departure, extend them, add a twist.
  4. Diversify.  Try for different kinds of ideas – ideas in contrasting categories, ideas that comes from different points of view.

Analogies (page 135)

Analogies are core concepts in understanding the visual process and are used well in nearly all learning situations.  Perkins brings in the work of Kevin Dunbar a professor at McGill University whose studies show that, “analogies figure commonly in the development of theories, experiments, and explanations.”  He sorted analogies into three categories: within the organism, across organisms, and non-biological.  He found that the first two categories were used nearly all of the time.  Non-biological analogies were used to explain ideas but not to generate theories.

A Throw Back to My First Kraskin Experience

I have talked about my first experience hearing Dr. Robert A. Kraskin lecture, at the Shelter Island Seminar the summer after my graduation from optometry school in 1979.  His topic was posture and vision and I was not ready to understand him but he did plant, what I have called, grains of said in my brain which continued to rub and call attention to them driving me to understand.  It turns out that these grains of sand have a name!  Bluma Zeigarnik, in 1927 showed that, “people’s memory for unsolved problems is superior to their memory for solved problems.”  This is called the Zeigarnik effect.  It only occurs when problem solvers are genuinely stuck on a problem.  “They create learning hot spots that stay with the learner until the learner finds a way past them.”  (page 204)  So sometimes it is good enough to pose a problem to an audience, one that they take seriously and one that intrigues them and it may be enough to start them on a search for an answer.  One does not always have to have all the answers.  Better sometimes to make sure that what is passed on are the questions that need to be answered!

I found the rest of the book to be a very stimulating and quick read.  It would have been quicker but I took time to work through many of the puzzles.  I highly recommend this book as an introspective way to look at your inner process of problem solving, which to me is the essence of being a good clinician.

Available from Amazon