The Patterns Prison By HK Loi

Thinking is a mental process that originates in the mind (and the heart too, claims others!).  There are some 20 definitions of thinking in the Webster’s dictionary, mostly having to do with the thought and mental processes. All of us think, whether we are normal or otherwise, or whether we are awake or asleep. Thinking is time-consuming and is not as easy as it seems, as Henry Ford rightly observed, “thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason why so few of us engage in it.” Hard work aside, our mind has a particular preference in that it is only prepared to see what it wants to see, so much of what we see or think is a matter of perception and very much conditioned by patterns.


Dr. Edward deBono, in one of his earlier books, “Mechanism Of The Mind” (1969) postulated that the main function of our mind is to act as a “self organising information system”. Most of us would think that the main function of the mind is to think, but thinking is the natural activity of the mind, much like our other five senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing, which are the natural activities of our eyes, nose, mouth and tongue, hands and ears, respectively. Once our mind “sees” or “senses” something, an image or an impression of the subject is formed in the head, becoming what is termed as “patterns”. Just like the computer, these patterns get imprinted into our mind and repeated or frequent exposure to these patterns transfixes our thinking. Unlike a computer, which is the cold machine, the human mind is not a passive self-organising information system as it actively processes the information flowing into the mind and by using logic and perceptions, attempts to make sense out of these externalities. The human brain, according to Sir Charles Sherrington “is an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern, though never an abiding one. It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance”. In fact, our brains can make more patterned inter-connections than the capability of atoms in the universe. Nevertheless we, undisputedly abuse our brains by underusing them.

These patterns formed by our minds are very useful to us, as they (the patterns) provide the framework in which we view reality and also allow us to make sense out of the numerous things we come into contact in any single day. Patterns allow us to remember the route we would take daily from our house to our work place. It also affords us the comfort of knowing the sequence of getting dressed up every time the need arises. Without patterns, we would not remember that our underpants and undergarments must be put on first, before we wear our shirts, dress or pants. Patterns also avail us the comfort of being able to identify’ the durian when its inviting (or pungent) smell wafts to our nostrils from the stalls selling the fruit during its season! Patterns are therefore very useful and comforting to all of us - we would be reduced to a nervous wreck if not for the stability provided by patterns in our mind!


Nevertheless, patterns can be debilitating and obstructive. In an interesting experiment by Harvard University professors, a group of cats were kept in an enclosure for a period of time. This experimental enclosure had only vertical bars. After a short period of time, these cats were released into the real world. As expected, these felines kept on bumping into objects, like chairs, tables and other furniture. The patterns of vertical bars that have been imprinted into the cats’ mind, resulting in their immediate inability to make sense of any other patterns except for vertical lines and bars! When situations are fairly stable, patterns are of utmost importance (as when the cats were in the experimental enclosure), but when the context is one which is new (as when the cats were released into the real world!) or one which is constantly changing, we become entrapped, wallowing in our own comfort zones. Being a prisoner of patterns is not unlike the ostrich that has its head buried in the hole, believing in the misperceived notion that the hole is the safest place to hide in times of danger! In local Malay folklore, we would like be the frog that lives within the confines of the proverbial overturned coconut shell, oblivious of the swirl of activities and changes that are taking place outside it. In an organisational context, being trapped in patterns could be disastrous, if not for the individual, then definitely for the organisation. For executives who grew up before the age of computers, most of the processing work is done on typewriters and the speed at which typewriters are being replaced by the now ubiquitous personal computers is anything but phenomenal! For these executives with the typewriter mindset entrenched in them, changing their patterns becomes an imperative. Otherwise, they will be out of touch with the times and soon enough, they will become dinosaurs or should we call them “extinctsaurus”!


Patterns or variously termed as paradigms, mindsets or (as the Harvard University professors have it) “premature cognitive commitments” are neutral It is the context and the situation that determines whether one needs to change them or otherwise. In times when stability is required, like recalling and remembering places, routes, routines and daily chores, etc., patterns are indeed useful. However, during times when things are moving at the “speed of thought”, when new ideas need to be forthcoming, patterns become a challenge to our thinking process. As one advances in the years, the patterns become more and more fixed resulting in one becoming more risk-averse as one gets very comfortable with the status quo, thus risking being trapped into the paradigm prison. This is not to say that the younger generation is free from the paradigm prison, but their comparative inexperience of their years presents an advantage in seeing things from an entirely different perspective, and being relatively free from fixed viewpoints, if they are trained to be open-minded. The New Straits Times (1 February, 2000) carried an instructive yet interesting snippet about a couple of Argentineans (Fernando Lopez, 34 and Osvaldo Malvestitti, 64) who were refused a permit by the authorities in Hong Kong, to carry on their globe-trotting journey by car. Their European and Middle Eastern legs of their world leg were already accomplished, and they had wanted to drive from Hong Kong to Beijing in their two-wheel drive car (a small vehicle the size of a Volkswagen Beetle). The permit was refused to them because their car had no steering wheel, which violated the traffic regulations of this special administrative region of China. In place of the steering wheel, the car is steered by remote control or by using fingers on a dashboard sensor panel. So much for not being “mindful” of technological changes and variations, but focusing on the strict technical aspects!


Dr. Edward deBono defines thinking as “the deliberate exploration of experience for a purpose” and Ben. E. Johnson defines it as “the process of producing thoughts based on recall of remembered and memorised information”. Our thinking is therefore, a function of our patterns, which is based on the past, i.e. our experiences, culture, traditions and beliefs, ‘hat others tell us and knowledge acquired. This is very telling, in the sense that we would invariably dig into our past experiences to seek ideas and solutions to resolve problems at hand. The challenge to us in the new millennium is think differently from the past in order to seek new perspectives, because the concerns and challenges we are confronted with now are very different from that of the past. Things have indeed become more and more complex and sophisticated, highly competitive and moving at break-neck speed. To survive and succeed in this new environment requires quality thinking that must transcend the patterns, which are entrenched in us. This obviously is easier said than done! if our thinking is rooted in the past, but we are required to think in the future tense, the discrepancy is immediately identifiable. To bridge the gap, one needs to dc-pattern our thinking, a sort of a paradigm shift or a mindset change as the management literature would have it! We are now living in an era where creativity is no longer a luxury, but a necessary ingredient that will determine whether an individual or organisation will be successful, as well as being able to sustain and build on the success gained. This is an age where “creativity on demand” necessitates that ideas must be forthcoming as and when the demand or need is there. Whereas in the past, we can rely on our intuition, insight, gut feeling or sixth sense to get ideas, such a reliance is no longer adequate

or sustainable. The speed of change has put paid to such a luxury! Although we still do get ideas from moments of inspiration, we don’t seem to get enough of those! Oftentimes, too, we ignore such moments of insight. The era of forward thinking has arrived!


A useful way to look at the patterning process is by looking at one’s need for thinking when driving a car. Before the need to drive a car arose, we have no patterns whatsoever of the way of driving it. In fact, we did not realise that we need to be skilled in driving. Psychologists call this phase, the stage of unconscious incompetence. When in our teens, we suddenly became aware of the need to be mobile, especially to “have our own wheels” (largely due to peer pressure and the pervasiveness of the television). This is where the awareness of our lack of skill in driving becomes apparent (the stage of conscious incompetence). Being conscious of our lack of skill drives one to acquire the desired skills, so we enroll at a driving school in order to learn the ABCs of driving skills and thereafter obtain a driving licence from the authorities. After months of guided driving lessons, we acquire the technical know-how of driving, i.e. how to engage the gears, which pedals to step on to accelerate or to brake and so forth. This is the stage of conscious competence, where one is very much aware of the newly acquired skills. After a few awkward starts much of it through trial and error, one gets the knack of driving. After getting the driving licence and being in the driver’s seat, driving day in and day out, the act of driving becomes a routine and no thought is given to the very mechanics of driving it. Once in the car, everything goes on automatic — the hand pushes in the key into the ignition, engages and changes the relevant gears, the legs press on the appropriate pedals and the vehicle moves. This is the stage of unconscious competence, where one is not even aware that one is in possession of the skills. In terms of thinking, the stage of unconscious competence is fraught with dangers in the sense that no more thinking is required at this stage, where everything goes automatic! Translated into the organisational setting, one settles into the stage of unconscious competence once we get comfortable with the job that one has been doing after learning the ropes. Imagine if one is ten years or more in the same job! Not much of thinking goes into how to do the tasks assigned to us, because the patterning process of our mind has completely overtaken the need for doing things any other way! At this stage, when some form of change occurs or when someone (usually a new colleague, boss or even subordinate) suggests another way to do our tasks, our immediate response would be to retort with the familiar response “I have doing this job for the last 10 years, and I know what to do!” or “That’s how things are done over here!” and the like.


Creativity means bringing into existence something, which did not exist before, and this connotes newness, uniqueness, novelty and originality. These are the qualities which our minds are not accustomed to, having being lulled into comfort by the powerful pervasiveness of patterns. Also, as Dr. Edward deBono puts it succinctly, out minds are only mildly creative. Much of our creativity would have been lost when (at the school-going ago of seven years) we troop into the vast assembly line of education factories, called schools. Education everywhere, aims to transmit traditions, culture and value through mostly rote learning. What is left behind after being churned out of the education factory (of at least six years of primary school and more years in secondary school and university) is a person who has been taught to conform and be part of the crowd. How to think effectively is never taught in our schools. To be creative means being able to break out of the pack, and to a certain extent, being unreasonable, especially in the area of thinking. Our education system imposes the patterns. of logical and critical thinking and most of us find it extremely difficult to unshackle ourselves from the grip of the patterns. Until and unless we consciously make efforts to break out of our self- imposed pattern prison, creativity will be latent within us. In effect, thinking skills must be taught as a living skill subject in schools, so our students are capable of thinking on their own feet. Furthermore, people in groups (teams, communities and societies, etc.) tend to think alike, a sort of “group-think”. This allows for stability in any community or country, but as we progress into this exciting and challenging millennium, where Alvin Toffler’s “Third Wave” civilisation will be overtaken by the “Fourth Wave” of biotechnological advances (the world of cloning, genetically modified food, human automaton, etc.) the need for creative thinking has never before been more urgent!


To consciously break down the self-imposed pattern prison walls requires us to be in possession of certain tools. The more tools we have, the better the chance to break out of the shackles of the patterns prison. This is where the acquisition and use of thinking tools come into the picture. Thinking tools or techniques allow us to consciously break the patterns in our minds so that we can progress into the stage of generating ideas. . At this stage, it is pertinent to point out that generating ideas and solution finding should be viewed as two different matters in our thinking process. For too many of us, we equate both as one ad the same, resulting in the mistaken notion that ideas are solutions. Ideas are the springboard for solutions, although some ideas may be solutions in themselves. In the past, ideas came mainly from intuition, but as our world progresses the need for thinking tools, which is within the reach of every manager has became very real. In the earlier years, thinking tools like brainstorming (1930s) by Alex Osborne was much in vogue and until today it still is very much in use, although slightly dated. Many other techniques are now available. There are as many thinking techniques as there are writers and experts in the field of creativity, as evidenced in such techniques as Synectics, Morphological Analysis, SCAMPER, and lately the Seven Quality Control Circles (QCC) tools and the New Seven QCC Tools, Creative Problem-Solving Method (David Treffinger and others), Breakthrough Thinking (Shozo Hibino), Radiant Thinking or Mind-mapping (Tony Buzan), and of course, Edward deBono’s Lateral Thinking, Six Thinking Hats, and others.


The use and practice of these thinking tools or techniques is based on the new management thinking that creativity is no longer a quality that is inborn, or what is commonly termed as talent. It is now recognised that thinking is of a skill, something that can be learned and acquired, and of course, be taught. Which is indeed good news for the majority of us, who though mildly creative, can now take comfort in the fact that the seeds of creativity in each and every one of us can be nurtured and developed. In fact, Ned Herrmann, (The Creative Brain) is of the opinion that creativity is 30% nature and 70% nurture. By utilising his Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI) one would be able to better understand the dominance of our thinking styles which impact upon our behaviour and ultimately competence. Being aware of creativity as more of a nurture issue affords us an opportunity to break out of the “learned helplessness” syndrome and take positive and affirmative steps to unleash the creative potential that is latent in all of us. Remember that we are as creative as we want to be, so the choice is ours. No one can force us to be creative. Creativity is more, than being a matter of our mind, it is a matter of conscious awareness of challenging the status quo so as to bring about betterment, in terms of practice, processes and products. Creativity is not a function of age. It is our erroneous perception that with brain cell loss with age, our thinking capabilities (and with it our creativity) will decline. Recent research on our brains indicate that if our brains are used and trained properly, there will è a biological increase in its interconnective complexity, which means that our intelligence cap be raised, irrespective of age. For those of us who are still complaining that our brains are getting “crusty and rusty” with each advancing year, its time for us to reexamine our misconceptions and start using our brains. Use your mind optimally and wisely or you risk losing it!


Buzan, Tony. (1977). Make the Most of your Mind. Cambridge: Colt Books

Buzan, Tony.(l991). Speed Reading. Plume! Penguin Books, 7

DeBono, Edward. (1970) Mechanism of the Mind. Penguin Books

Herrmann, Ned. (1994) The Creative Brain. The Ned Herrmann Group: Brain Books

Johnson, Ben E. (1998) ‘Stirring Up Thinking’