Analogical transfer Idea

A method of problem solving

Despite much evidence to the contrary, people are problem solvers. The ability to solve unknown or unfamiliar problems can take many forms, from banging enthusiastically on a computer monitor, to navigating the complexity of the response to the question does this dress make me look fat? Analogical transfer is one method we have of coming up with creative solutions to some of life's problems. So what is this thing that you talk of, I hear you ask, O.K. listen, but I will say this once and only once.

When presented with a new problem, an individual will draw from their existing source of data, i.e. memory. If the problem is in an unfamiliar domain, it is sometimes possible to take the underlying structure of a solution to another problem and modify it to work with the new problem. By stripping away the surface details, such as facts, numbers and names, and instead focusing on the underlying processes involved, the individual then maps this solution into the new problem, reattaching new surface data to match the problem involved. This is much easier to understand with an example, so here is a classic.

Dunkers(1945) Radiation problem

A Doctor needs to destroy a tumor deep inside a patient. She has available rays of radiation. If the ray is too weak it will not kill the tumor, but if too strong will kill healthy flesh. How can this be done non-invasively?

At this stage only about 10% of people can creatively solve this correctly, congratulations if you are one, smarty pants. Now consider this story about a general.

A general has to attack a fortress, there are several roads leading to the fortress, but they are mined to explode if too many men attempt to cross. The general however must attack with sufficient numbers to overpower the guards. She solves this by splitting her army into several small parties, and arranging a simultaneous attack across all of the roads at once. No wonder she got a promotion.

Now you can solve the radiation problem, can't you?

If you can't, think about the processes involved, not the surface data. Ignore armies, roads and tumors. Think about convergence. By sending several low intensity beams of radiation at the tumor from different directions, the site of convergence has the high level damaging radiation necessary to kill the unhealth tissue.

Having heard the general story, 80% of people were able to solve the problem. (don't worry if you didn't, this example was incomplete and did not contain all the information the test subjects had.)

Analogical transfer can be seen at work in the Rutherford model of the atom, based upon the solar system, or in the common comparison of the human brain to a computer. Before computers, the brain was likened to a telephone exchange, before that the abacus. Recent research suggests analogical transfer can be taught, if children are given strategies and explanations on why they work, certain problem solving exercises can be improved, but this area is not yet clearly defined.

Example taken from Eysenck and Keane, Cognitive Psychology 1992

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