Electromagnetic theory is an interesting model for thinking about the relationship between knowledge and imagination. The former involves flows of physical energy, the latter flows of psychic energy.
Just as a flow of electrons creates a magnetic field, a flow of knowledge (eg, a stimulating discussion) creates an imaginative field and just as a changing magnetic field creates a flow of electrons, a changing imaginative field (a properly placed “what if?”) creates a flow of knowledge.
An electric potential also causes electrons to flow and potential is what gets knowledge to flow. According to Jonathan Baron in “Thinking and Deciding” (p 8), “Thinking is, in its most general sense, a method of finding and choosing among potential possibilities” and knowledge is the basis for evaluating those potentials.
Electric potential consists of a charge. An interesting idea attracts our thinking because it has potential and gets us charged up.
Any system needs to be aware of these two different dynamics for stimulating knowledge flows: Interesting ideas and changing the imaginative field.
Useful flows of electrons (electricity) are organized into circuits, which can be a metaphor for the way we structure knowledge flows.
The flow of electrons is the net flow. Electrons are always wandering about in random directions, but this random movement doesn’t accomplish anything because they cancel each other out.
Knowledge potential will be used most effectively when it maximizes the net knowledge flows. Conversations in which the participants aren’t moving together aren’t very productive. They need to be moving in the same direction to accomplish something.
Two conversations that are going in opposite directions can each be very productive, but if you combine them, you might just be left with a lot of static.
Lightning, unstructured bursts of electric energy, can light up the sky and have very powerful effects, but aren’t very useful. Similarly, unstructured discussions that are all over the place can contain bursts of illumination, but accomplish very little.
A circuit can be destroyed when two parts which are meant to be on opposite sides of the resistance are “short circuited.” A discussion can be destroyed when an edict from the chair bypasses the resistance to a topic. Real work in an electric circuit is only accomplished when the electric potential causes the electrons to flow through a resistance. Real knowledge work is only accomplished when the potential of the ideas pulls the conversation through all the objections.
The electric potential decreases as it causes the electrons to flow and needs to be replenished, either by more charge stored in the battery or the electric generator on the grid.
Similarly, one interesting idea can’t keep a discussion going. Either it needs to generate other interesting ideas to replenish the psychic charge or other, relevant knowledge needs to be pulled out from memory or other storage.
What do you think? Any other metaphors?