The Power of Patterns That Guide Our Thinking

Could creativity be as simple as following templates? In 1914 psychologist Wolfgang Köhler embarked on a series of studies about chimpanzees and their ability to solve problems. He documented the research in his book The Mentality of Apes. In one experiment, he took a newborn chimp and placed it in an isolated cage, before the newborn saw or made contact with other chimps. He named her Nueva.

Three days later, researchers placed a small stick in the cage. Curious, Nueva picked up the stick, scraped the ground, and played with it briefly. She lost interest and dropped the stick.

Ten minutes later, a bowl of fruit was placed outside of her cage, just out of Nueva’s reach. She reached out between the bars of the cage as far as she could, but to no avail. She tried and tried, whimpering and uttering cries of despair. Finally, she gave up and threw herself on her back, frustrated and despondent.

Seven minutes later, Nueva suddenly stopped moaning. She sat up and looked at the stick. She then grabbed it and, extending her arm outside of the cage, placed the end of the stick directly behind the bowl of fruit. She drew in the bowl just close enough to reach the fruit with her hand.

Köhler described her behavior as “unwaveringly purposeful.” Köhler repeated the test an hour later. On the second trial, Nueva went through the same cycle as before—displaying eagerness to reach the fruit, frustration when she couldn’t, and despair that caused her to give up temporarily—but took much less time to use the stick. On all subsequent tests, she didn’t get frustrated and didn’t hesitate. She just waited eagerly with her little innovation in hand.

Three-day-old Nueva created a tool using a time-honored creativity template, one of many used by primates—including man—for thousands of years. That template: use objects close by to solve problems. Once she saw the value in this approach, Nueva began using it over and over again.

Patterns play a vital role in our everyday lives. We call them habits, and, as the saying goes, we are indeed creatures of them. Habits simplify our lives by triggering familiar thoughts and actions in response to familiar information and situations. This is the way our brains process the world: by organizing it into recognizable patterns. These habits or patterns get us through the day—getting up, showering, eating breakfast, going to work. Because of them, we don’t have to spend as much effort the next time we encounter that same information or find ourselves in a similar situation.

Mostly, without even thinking about them, we apply patterns to our everyday conventions and routines. But certain patterns lead to unconventional and surprising outcomes. We especially remember those patterns that help us solve problems. Patterns that help us do something different are valuable. We don’t want to forget those, so we identify them and “codify” them into repeatable patterns called templates. You could say that a template is a pattern consciously used over and over to achieve results that are as new and unconventional as the first time you used it.

Even chimpanzees like baby Nueva can follow templates once they see the value. She used the stick to retrieve the fruit. Her template became “use objects close by for new tasks.” In fact, apes are quite good at this particular template; as Nueva did intuitively, they constantly use objects in their environment for unconventional ends. For example, they place sticks inside anthills so that ants crawl onto the stick for easy eating. Dr. Köhler’s research showed that apes not only find indirect, novel solutions but also overcome their habitual tendency to use direct approaches. They “repattern” their thinking. They generalize the pattern so that it becomes usable in a variety of scenarios.

Patterns boost our creative output no matter where we are starting from on the creativity scale.