What Helen Keller taught us about creative thinking

We’ve all experienced that moment when something clicks, our perspective shifts, and we discover a whole new way of understanding the world. It is as if we’ve finally solved one of life’s most challenging puzzles, and we’re never quite the same again. These moments can be profound, especially when they involve our conscious attention, intention, and motivation. There are also the seemingly less profound puzzles that we encounter everyday, from coordinated movement to communication and language to interpersonal relationships. As an ability to create meaning, cognition is a dynamic and multi-scale puzzle solving process in which the pieces are units of information.

You may have heard the story of Helen Keller. She was blind, deaf, and mute from an early age and could not communicate. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, realized that the key was to somehow teach her a communicable concept. Sullivan taught her a kind of Morse code with finger play and would scratch the alphabet on her palm to form words. For a long time, Keller could not grasp what this was all about. She said later that she did not know Sullivan was scratching words on her palm; in fact, she did not even know words existed. She would simply imitate the scratches, making her fingers go in a monkeylike fashion.

One day Sullivan, as if in a game, caused Keller to come in contact with water in a wide variety of different forms and contexts, such as water standing still in a pail, water flowing out of a pump, water in a drinking glass, raindrops, a stream, and so on. Each time, Sullivan scratched the word water on the palm of Keller’s hand.

Suddenly Keller realized that all these different experiences referred to one substance with many aspects, and that it was symbolized by the single collection of letters — the word water — scratched on the palm of her hand.

What Helen Keller taught us about creative thinking | Michael Michalko