Published Categorized as Insights

From Margaret Boden

A heuristic is a form of productive laziness. In other words, it is a way of thinking about a problem which follows the paths most likely to lead to the goal, leaving less promising avenues unexplored. Many heuristics take the current map of conceptual space for granted, directing the thinker on to this path rather than that one. Others change the map, superficially or otherwise, so that new paths are opened up which were not available before.

The study of heuristics as an aid to creativity has a long history.

Pappus of Alexandria, our fourth-century friend encountered in Chapter 3, mentioned them in his commentary on Euclid. The twentieth-century mathematician George Polya has identified a wide range of heuristics, some so general that they can be applied to many sorts of problem. 3 Advertising agents and management consultants use them continually, and often explicitly, in trying to encourage creative ideas by ‘brainstorming’, or ‘lateral thinking’. And several educational programmes, used in schools around the world, use heuristics to encourage exploratory problem-solving.*

Most heuristics are pragmatic rules of thumb, not surefire methods of proof. Although there is a reasonable chance that they will help you solve your problem, they can sometimes prevent you from doing so. For example, ‘Protect your queen’ is a very wise policy in chess, but it will stop you from sacrificing your queen on the few occasions where this would be a winning move.

Some heuristics are domain-specific, being the ‘tricks of the trade’ used by the skilled expert. These may be of no interest if one is concerned with a problem of a different type. ‘Protect your queen’, for instance, is useless as advice on how to play poker.