Machine Learning (Theory)

7/10/2005

Thinking the Unthought

Tags: General jl@ 9:10 am

One thing common to much research is that the researcher must be the first person ever to have some thought. How do you think of something that has never been thought of? There seems to be no methodical manner of doing this, but there are some tricks.

  1. The easiest method is to just have some connection come to you. There is a trick here however: you should write it down and fill out the idea immediately because it can just as easily go away.
  2. A harder method is to set aside a block of time and simply think about an idea. Distraction elimination is essential here because thinking about the unthought is hard work which your mind will avoid.
  3. Another common method is in conversation. Sometimes the process of verbalizing implies new ideas come up and sometimes whoever you are talking to replies just the right way. This method is dangerous though—you must speak to someone who helps you think rather than someone who occupies your thoughts.
  4. Try to rephrase the problem so the answer is simple. This is one aspect of giving up. Failing fast is better than failing slow.

There are also general ‘context development’ techniques which are not specifically helpful for your problem, but which are generally helpful for related problems.

  1. Understand the multiple motivations for working on some topic, when they exist.
  2. Question the “rightness” of every related thing. This is fundamental to finding good judgement in what you work on.
  3. Let a little bit of chaos into your life. Once in awhile, attend a random conference, talk to people who you would not otherwise talk to, etc…
3 Comments to “Thinking the Unthought”
  1. The creative idea might be something like linking different domains of knowledge to make a new whole. Adding a bit of chaos, as you mentioned, would help finding this linkage. It reminds me simulated annealing or chaotic neural networks.

  2. Brian says:

    There is an episode of The Outer Limits called “Final Exam”, where in the end, the big voice says that once the necessary information is public, by the time someone thinks of an idea, there are hunderds of people around the world who would have thought up that same idea simultaneously.

  3. Michael Schröder says:

    Some years ago, Donald Knuth gave a lecture at the University of Tübingen. Asking him how to find new research ideas, he answered: Read a new paper, but only the beginning until the problem is clear. Think about how you would try to solve the problem. Only after this continue reading and compare it with your own ideas…

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