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The origins of common sense.

The Origins of Common Sense

Everything we do in life is aimed toward solving problems. A simple task like getting luch requires a chain of problem solutions, from finding food to preparation to the actual act of eating. When we have already learned how to solve the problem we encounter, we need not even think about it. Our mind has already set up the mechanisms (networks) to handle the problem, but somewhere back in earlier life we actually had to learn to solve the task. "Solving is not "native"; it is learned.

It is learned networks of thoughts and capabilities that constitute the basis for common sense. The more a person has learned things well, and the better that person can search his or her mind for workable alternatives, the more efficient and effective the mind will be when it is presented with a new problem.

Our minds are blessed with the ability to lick learned actions of the past that have been used to solve one type of problem and adapt them to the solution of a new, yet similar problem. The mind looks for similarities between stored information and new situations and then finds the best alternatives. But one cannot merely learn alternatives. One also must learn to manage alternatives appropriately so that the right one will be chosen for a particular situation.

Fortunately for some, unfortunately for others, our alternatives are based on everything we have compiled in our memory banks since birth. We layer our alternatives by selecting what works and then add other successful working alternatives, each matched to similar (yet somewhat different) past learned problem solving techniques.

Think of writing. It you are like most people, your first exposure to an instrument that you could move on paper and leave a mark was crayons. Your mind learned that crayons could be controlled by your mind and hand to make patterns. As time went on, you learned that certain patterns made letters. These letters, once learned, could be turned into words. A pencil or pen replaced the crayon, and words became sentences. Attached to these lessons were alternatives, such as chalk can be used as a pencil or a soft stone can be used to write on a driveway.

What is true for the evolution of crayon scribbes to intelligent writing is also true for attitudes, values, beliefs, personality traits, math capabilities, and everything else we "know." By the time we reach adulthood, we have established tens of thousands of layers and interconnected networks, each based on what someone taught us as the primordial lesson. If we were fortunate enough to have good teaching early, we built sound foundations for developing future alternatives.

Having the right foundations early had a lot to do with what our parents planted as seeds of learning for us. If we got good ideas from our parents, we tend to have better networks to build on. If parents confused us or gave us "bad" networks, we may have a hard time using common sense to build from. The only way to remove a bad network is to replace it with a better system of solutions. This requires wiping out tens of hundreds of layers of habits. Habits knly change when the habit itself is erased and replaced with a better habit.

The actual practice of common sense requires more than just layers of thoughts. We have to be able to define a problem, prioritize it, and let the brain find a closely linked "match" that will allow a potential solution to emerge. Common sense requires good foundations--or replacements of bad ones. It requires recognition of the roots of the problem to be solved and a system to aid the brain in finding effective matching processes.

Common sense is a learned skill. The only reason that sense is common at all is because we are able to communicate ideas. Every solution we learn leads us closer to being able to solve similar problems in the buture. But what if the new problem is totally strange to us?

Recall that we use memory to recollect how we (or others) solved particular problems in the past. The difficulty is that no new problem is ever identical to a previous problem. We may need to pick aspects of two or three past problem solutions from our memories and adapt them to solve the new problem. The trick is in teaching the mind to turn away from the physical realm and into images and fantasies (so-called "what-ifs").

Common sense solutions to new problems come from old solutions to similar problems, applied with imagination. In short, an analogue is found. Analogues for the memory are known as metaphors. Metaphors are what allow us to replace one thought with another. Classical metaphors may read: "Life is like a bowl of cherries," or "He's as think as a rail." Suppose you want to "hammer" a loose nail back into a face, but have no hammer. A hammer is hard and heavy. Your mind recognizes that a rock is also hard and heavy. The metaphor, then, is, "A rock is like a hammer." Alas, there are no rocks. What else is hard and heavy? The search begins again.

The wonderful thing about metaphors is that there are only self-imposed boundaries between metaphorical thought and ordinary thought. The use of metaphors is open to any sort of analogy you want, so long as you open up your mind by removing any barriers. Some people seem to lack common sense because they have self-imposed constraints that keep them from effectivenely and efficiently finding workable metaphors to solve problems.

Good metaphors are handy because they transfer a thought from one realm into another. Such cross-realm correspondence within the brain allows us to transport entire families of problems into other realms, where we can use previously established skills. It has been said that nothing is really new in the world, and that all new ideas come from new applications of old ideas. This points out the singular importance of listening to ourselves and to others, learning from past experience, and finding new metaphorical applications from old data. Unsolvable problems are, for the most part, the result of self-imposed constraints. If the goal is a common sense solution, constraints must be identified and deliberately removed.

First, definite the problem as exactly what it is, by its effects, not by labeling it. Second, you must remove or relax the constraints by changing the assumptions. This requires "thinking backwards."

Thinking backwards demands that you determine the desired outcome before you even look for how to get there. The desired end should be the "ideal" you wish to achieve. Setting an "ideal" is done by listing all traits or qualities one sees as ideal in the solution of the problem. So-called "logical" solutions are often nonideal results derived from self-imposed constraints. Logic, as wonderful as it is, cannot create innovations unless you first use your creative skills to develop ideals.

To develop common sense:

1. Define the problem by the effects it has.

2. Define the ideal you want as an end solution.

3. Define the assumptions.

4. Define the constraints created by the assumptions.

5. Deliberately remove the constraints through metaphorical thinking. How is the problem like other problems? What can be adopted from old solutions?

6. Enter into the logical thought phase to finalize plans.

Finally, don't ignore the importance of "practice making perfect." Like becoming a great tennis player, becoming a great common sense thinker requires persistent practice at problem solving.

Rick Burton, MD, is Director, Communications, Pikes Peak Emergency Specialists, Colorado Springs, Colo.
COPYRIGHT 1990 American College of Physician Executives
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Title Annotation:management practice
Author:Burton, Rick
Publication:Physician Executive
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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