Losing the ability to abstract. 

When humans first evolved into their present form, they found themselves in a world where the use of symbols was all important for communicating with others. Early man's ability to create symbols was then an essential part of his/her ability to survive. This ability is still essential for babies and young children that have not yet learned to talk. If they could not abstract objects and ideas into a single element that can symbolise, they would never learn to talk, because they would not be able to communicate enough to learn it. As with imaging the need for abstracting no longer is essential to survival and communication once a verbal language is learned. Verbal language is so important for human communication and comes with a ready made set of symbols. Thus most children begin to lose the ability to make abstractions, as any they made would be dismissed as being wrong. The more there ability to use language improves the less need they have of the ability to abstract. It follows then, that because children no longer need to be able to abstract in order to survive, most of them tend to gradually lose this useful aid to understanding and genius.


Abstraction is one of the essential ingredients in creation. It is that way, by which we decide to portray the whole of something as a single element or aspect of itself. We take some aspect and highlight it and make it noticeable, we bring it into the foreground where before it was invisible, lost in the complexity of something. Often it is an effort to find the essence of something. It is always a simplification. It is deciding what is important and what can be left out. So called scientific laws are simplifications of some very complex phenomena. It is often seeing past the detail into what is the essential structure.

Abstracting the Question.

You cannot find the answer if you do not know the question. Abstraction is often a way of finding questions. There is often, especially in science, an enormous amount of information available and the only way to discover what is important is to disregard, or at least temporally forget about most of it. This process of finding some kind of essence is the process of abstraction and it often comes in the form of a question rather than an answer. But this is a good thing, because finding the right question, finding the right problem to solve, is usually the hard part. Sometimes, once the right question has been found the answer is almost obvious, and most of the other time the answer will be apparent after some hard work.

Scientific Abstraction.

Scientists continually make use of abstraction to isolate elements or characteristics from background noise. Gregor Mendel's findings in hybridization gave us the beginning of what became the science of genetics and they are still considered fundamental in biology. He did this by ignoring most of what changes from generation to generation and confined himself to studying the effects upon single particular characteristics, and also he didn't take, as his predecessors had done, only a summary view a whole generation of hybrids but examined each individual plant separately. He basically pared away the chaos and confusion of too much information and isolated the essential information by the process of abstraction.

The use of abstraction in science is often much more understandable to ordinary people. This is because the things exposed by abstracting in science can be shown to have immediate practical use. In their book "Sparks of Genius" the Root-Bernsteins give the following very clear understandable example from science:

"Santiago Ramon y Cajal demonstrated that the differences between scientific observation and art also disappear through abstraction. The artistically talented neuroanatomist, who studied painting as a teenager, eventually took the first color photographs at the turn of the twentieth century. He drew all his own illustrations for his studies of brain anatomy. Most people probably assume that he drew directly from what he saw, but they could not be more wrong. Ramon y Cajal explained that he would spend the morning preparing and observing dozens of sections of the brain or the spinal cord.

Then after lunch, he would draw what he remembered. Then he would compare his drawings to his preparations. He would analyze the differences, then draw again, repeating this process over and over and over. Only when the drawings he made from memory captured the essence of what he saw in an entire series of preparations would he consider them finished. The result was not a specific representation of a particular slice of a particular brain but a picture of what could be expected of any such slice of that portion of the brain taken from any individual - the abstract reality of the anatomy underlying the unique reality of each individual.

Ramon y Cajal's example puts the lie to the old adage that scientists simply record what they see. In fact his drawings so accurately captured the essence of neuroanatomy that even in this day of sophisticated photography, high-tech stains, and three-dimensional representations of the brain's structure, many textbook writers still prefer his drawings for their clarity and conciseness."

Artistic Abstraction.

Artists who abstract tend to try to make apparent, something that is not really possible, and thus it is always somewhat debatable if they have succeeded. Some people look at abstract art and see nothing, where for others some profound vision may be apparent. Picasso talks about trying to capture the footness of a foot or the movement of a person in motion. It is a delicate balancing act. The artist simplifies and simplifies till perhaps the meaning begins to disappear. For some people it disappears all together. Despite this all people recognize the genius of being able to covey some clear image with a few deft strokes of a brush. All creative people and especially geniuses use and make use of abstraction.

Artists in their search for more abstract ways of expressing this essential structure have turned to the art of primitive peoples and that of children. There is good reason for this. Primitive peoples have less knowledge and technology about how things may be represented and thus have to find simple ways of expressing things in art. Likewise children with less technical ability have to find ways of representing things simply and directly.

Learning and Abstracting.

Abstracting is all about learning in such a way as to be able to communicate it to others. Abstracting is about representing something by something else that is simpler. Abstracting is about commonality. Concepts are abstractions. They are those characteristics or properties, objects or other concepts have in common. This commonality is testable, repeatable and thus communicable.

Language and Abstraction.

The words of language are abstractions. As words become more abstract more and more of the properties of whatever is being referred to are pared away. This is in fact how concepts are formed and thus how words obtain their meaning. When we are infants with no understanding of a word we notice how it is used and in reference to what. We then take all those things that have been referred to by the word and we try to pare away from those objects all those characteristics they they do not have in common. What we are left with is those characteristics, elements, properties, or aspects that are common to them all. This then becomes the concept that is symbolized by the word. In this way we form categories and classes that fit neatly inside each other.

Children and Abstracting.

Children perhaps not surprisingly tend to very good at abstracting and do it effortlessly. Children love to make up words, to represent simply in drawing and painting and to find and question what is important. As with many of the abilities of children, this ability to abstract tends to disappear as we get older. This happens because we learn about how things may be represented more and more exactly and the ability to abstract seems a poor substitute. But it is not a poor ability. It is rather an ability that is essential in creation.

Practice as iterative improvement is a necessity for life long creativity.

Like imaging and observing, abstracting needs to be practiced with improvement throughout life, if it is to harnessed in the service of creation. The thing is, at the moment such activities in the home and school are generally thought to be unimportant and thus discouraged. If however, we continually try to abstract the world around us we will find this ability does not fade but rather becomes stronger until in the hands of a creative genius it is used to pave the way to a revolution in knowledge. Darwin for instance found the essential information in evolution by distilling information, by examining generations of creatures and discarding the unessential till he arrived at survival of the fittest and natural selection. This changed the world of knowledge as has no other discovery. 

Needs Interest Method Reality Keys How to Help Creative Genius Future What is Wrong Theories Plus
Prodigies Genius Creativity Social Creativity Thin Slicing Observing Imaging Recognizing Patterns
Forming Patterns Analogizing Enaction Empathizing Dimensional Modeling Playing Transforming Synthesizing