I’ve been up in the Smoky Mountains hiking with friends, enjoying the glorious fall weather and trying to totally submerge myself into the sights, sounds, smells of the beauty around me. As we hiked, we talked about the immense difficulty of just letting go and enjoying – too often your mind runs back to that hovering black cloud of “should be doings” and “must get dones”. My friend said she actually felt guilty if she allowed herself to sink into the many aspects of pleasure! And, alas, I know just what she means! The old man was asked “and what do you do all day?” and replied: “sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits”. It’s good to just sit and enjoy it!
But then when we do get to thinking, what kind of thinking will we do? Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow describes the two main kinds of thinking which he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is (more or less) intuitive or automatic thinking and System 2 is focused, calculated, analytical thinking. System 1 is fast and without conscious effort, System 2 is slow and involves considerable effort. These two modes are surprisingly relevant to our work as visual artists. Intuitive thought, says Kahneman, is often marvelous but frequently flawed. So often our thinking is subject to cognitive biases. As quiltmakers, we meet that every day when people automatically assume we are little old ladies sitting in a church hall sewing squares of calico together. Their intuitive response is incorrect for they have responded only to the word “quilt”.
Valid intuitive thinking is immensely helpful in situations were very quick and accurate thinking is necessary – the experienced driver who automatically does the right thing when the car skids – or the nurse who recognizes a presenting symptom and acts immediately without having to say to herself oh that symptoms means X and therefore I must do Y. People who have had a lot of experience with composition and design are able to take a quick look at a piece and immediately just “know” that the balance is off, or more contrast is needed, or if there were just a touch of blue “right there” it would all pull together.
Such a skill is called “expert intuition” and while it looks like it is an amazing gift or talent, it’s actually not. All of us have intuition in some situations and not in others. So, what is it? Herbert Simon made an exhaustive study of master chess players – people who can just glance at a board and “see” the right move. They are the ones that play several games at once, walking along the tables where their many opponents crouch fixedly over their boards. Along comes the expert and flick ,flick, flick ,perfect move after perfect move! After all his research Simon reported that, as the expert walked along, each chess board “provided a cue; this cue [gave] the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information [provided] the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.”
Intuition is the result of countless hours of study and analysis (slow thinking) leading to many memories and connections which the “expert” can access very quickly. It is not a gift that is given to us (or not) at birth, it is not like performing a magic spell that will happen when we say nan-see-cro! and throw the fabric at the design wall, it is many hours of study and learning i.e. System 2 thinking. The tennis player perfects their “intuitive” response to a situation by practicing such responses in such situations over and over.
So don’t feel hopeless if it seems as if your intuition is not as effective as the next person’s, it’s a matter of experience. If they have more experience than you, they’ll have more memories of solutions to problems and be able to access them more easily. And experience can be gained…though, as Kahneman points out, it takes work and we do tend to resist it.
“Valid intuitions develop when experts have learned to recognize familiar elements in a new situation and to act in a manner that is appropriate to it.”
I’m sure I’ll want to write more about Kahneman’s work and how it applies to the artist’s task – but do take a look for yourself, it’s a recent book published in 2011, though the research he describes goes back many decades.
And if, you have been, thanks for reading! And send in your comments! what role d’you think intuition plays in creativity?
Great analysis. And enjoy your sitting.
Found your blog recently and this is a great post! I've been asked before how I choose which colors, and how I balance compositions. I've never been able to explain how I intuitively know while also defending that it didn't always come naturally. This post describes it so well!
I love that book, but I never made this connection!
I think it's not just a memory thing - it's having built a mental model that enables you to predict what is happening in parts B,C,and D even if all you see is part A - even if you have never seen that particular version of part A before!
I just wrote a blog post on ways to approach "rules" in design that I think you might find interesting - it's at http://www.tienchiu.com/2012/10/how-to-think-about-design-rules/ . It's basically about approaching design as a system of descriptive rules that collectively describe how the eye takes in an object, rather than as a set of prescriptive rules like "don't put blue next to orange".
I thought of it when I read your blog post because having that mental model - integrating the descriptive rules into your thinking so you can predict what will happen when you change one aspect of the design - is exactly an example of Type 2 thinking transforming into Type 1 thinking.
Great read. It links back to how we say practice makes perfect- just keep doing it, the more times the better.
Thanks for writing about the book. I bought it, and have it on the pile I plan to get to. Your review has made me move it up the pile!
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