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Using Other Minds for New Ideas

One of the more creative and fascinating ways to generate new ideas and to see things from new perspectives is to think using other people's minds. That may sound a bit obscure, so I'll clarify it right now. When you imagine how another person would respond in a given situation, or what that person would say about some issue, you are effectively thinking using his mind.

The examples you are probably most familiar with are among the many characters who inhabit your dreams at night. If you are like most people, you strongly identify with some dreams and in particular with some characters who represent real-life friends and family in your dreams. So much so, in fact, that it's likely you have more than once spoken of these people as being "in" your dreams.

Now, it is obviously metaphorical to say something like, "He was in my dream last night." But the truth is we do not really think of it as a metaphorical description at the moment we say it. It seems like the person really was there in our nighttime theater, even if, when we stop to reflect on it for a moment, it's clear that it was an entirely invented character who simply represents what we know of that person.

Still, while it's only your own subconscious mind and its creations walking and talking in your dreams, those created characters are recognizable both in the dream and later as you reflect on it. They are recognizable both by appearance and personality. This is an indication of how powerful your unconscious mind is. After all, it can determine what your brother or friend or anyone else you know well would do or say in all the novel situations a dream presents. This may not be accurate in relation to what the real person represented would do if the situation actually occurred, but your mind keeps it consistent and close enough to reality that even others would likely recognize who the dream character represents.

(That last part could be tested if you recall the details of a dream well enough; just relate the situation and dialog to someone else who knows the person the dream character represents, and see if he can guess "who" it is.)

This consistency of character is there despite the otherwise nonsensical nature of most dreams. Since you are able to recreate someone whom you know well enough to animate him or her in the dream world, you must have some idea of that person's thought processes. To put words in the mouths of your characters you must effectively tap into other minds. Of course it is your own mind imagining what their minds would think, but the fascinating part is that it comes so naturally, and produces scenarios and thoughts that you would not have had without the use of those characters.

This suggests that in a sense we can develop--if only for a moment--another mind inside our own, and use it in various ways. The most obvious example of this is the question, "What would ______ do? Insert in that blank the name of anyone whom you suspect would have a useful response to a given situation, and you get new ideas about what to do. Yes, they came from your mind, but if you care to try it you'll find that you wont get nearly as many new ideas when repeatedly asking "What would I do?" as when asking the question ten times over with a different character's name each time.

That's perhaps the simplest way to "use other minds," but it is not the only way. You can imagine seeing through the eyes of others. You can imagine living as they do. You can talk to anyone you like in your imagination, to see what he or she might suggest.

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) practitioners discovered long ago that you can more effectively tap into the thought processes of others by modeling not only their speech, but even their body positions. So if you know a brilliant chess player and you want to improve your game, you might want to note how he sits, how he holds his hands and head, and even the expression on his face. It's possible you'll play better when you copy all of this in your own posture.

If you want new ideas, at least try this simple experiment: The next time you need a specific problem solved or you want a new approach to some creative task, pretend to be someone else; preferably an expert in the subject matter or at least a very creative person. Work on the matter for a few minutes using this other mind you have just created. The results might surprise you (in a good way).

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Other Minds