Problem Solving 101

Shingles and the 2 A.M Musing
Over the past 2 weeks, I’ve had and for the most part gotten over shingles. Reading and hearing how most people find shingles to be extremely painful, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. The itching annoyed me more than the pain. My wife describes me as having an exceptionally high pain tolerance, but is it really accurate when my nervous system loses a lot of the signal on the way to my brain?
However, since I was encouraged to take some time off work to prevent spreading chicken pox and I was generally uncomfortable to the point of making extended hours of sleep but a distant dream, I had some time to think. As I let my mind wander, I came back to one of the areas I’ve spent a lot of time pondering. How do we think and problem solve?
There is the classic problem solving step of defining the problem which is one often skipped.  When researching why Stanford stopped CCVSI scheduled procedures, I was told it was because they had no idea whether the procedure would work, on whom it would work, or why.  Up to that point (end of last year), there was no research on whether the blockages were unique to MS patients or whether the blockages were the result of a problem which would continue to cause issues elsewhere after the procedure (assuming it worked). 
After the careful defining of the problem is a time tested approach. A to B to C to…solution. This is the way I was taught to think about most scientific problems, to treat them like a math problem requiring a proof. With a problem or hypothesis well defined, we can look to test A and each of the steps along the path .
As much as the approach above is my normal way of thinking, there are a few others.  There is the parallel thought process of because of A, B and C I know the answer is 42.  This method is also frequently used when trying to decide between two or more options as we make a list of pro and con arguments for each choice to better way trade-offs. 
There is also the circular logic of because A is true so is B, and because B is true so is C and because C is true then A is true.  I have trouble with this pattern because it makes me think of the homeless man saying, “the world is good because God is good. God is good because the word is good. The word is good because the world is good.” Maybe my issue with this thought process is I associate it with religions’ faiths which I don’t share.
However, what I almost never see coming is the intuitive jump A to B to XXX with nothing between B and XXX.  I think the normal logic chain approaches have the most hope in large part because my mind likes predictable progress. However, I do sincerely hope the inspirational jump behind treating MS as a vascular condition lands us somewhere closer to a cure.  Now sometimes the inspiration may be hocus pokus like a modern day bee sting therapy, but there is certainly a time and place for taking a chance on something which “might” work even if we don’t completely understand why.  If I had progressive MS for which there is no approved treatment, I could easily see taking the chance on a new procedure because any chance of change in direction is sometimes better than the “known” course. Who knows, maybe the leap will give us a new starting point from which the old chain methods of reasoning will succeed.

I think there is also a cultural think which from the outside may seem random.  Animals who have generations hunted in certain spots will avoid those spots long after any of the hunted generation are around to warn them of the danger.  Humans have something similar.  Think of the Ten Commandments.  Most of them existed in culture long before the Ten Commandments were written because they are the foundation of civilization.  We use these cultural norms to answer many problems and questions.  Our concepts of “Good” and “Bad” which we base many decisions on may qualify as a pattern which would seem random to somebody outside our culture. To an alien, the concept of “women and children first” may make no sense, but it is how we solve the problem of who goes first if there is no outside reasoning.  This type of problem solving is outside of the methods above, and for the most part we probably never consider it because for us it solves problems so well we don’t even think of them as problems.

Those are the 5 logic flows I recognize. I have read many who believe in a sixth way of thinking, chaos or random thoughts. I’ve thought of this visually like a game of pick up sticks where the thoughts/sticks are thrown around the room, supposedly in random directions with random amounts of force. My problem is my mind always tries to assign a pattern, to make un-random. Just because I don’t know the pattern doesn’t mean it isn’t there. If I walked into the room after the sticks had been thrown, I may not see the pattern. It doesn’t make them completely random as they all had a common origin. I’ve come to believe there is no “true random.” Even computer generated random isn’t a true random. Being beyond my comprehension or recognition may well feel random, and I may not understand the chaos in my head. However, not picking up on the pattern doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

Because I want to hope for progress, my chain logic mind tries to fabricate means to  a way forward for the next step in better understanding why MS has these reactions. I also want to understand and better define when I start to slip. I see it some now in my ability to multitask, but I also see the inspirational leaps as becoming ever less common. So to keep the faith, I sometimes have to look at the known possible ways forward…and believe.  How’s that for the circular logic I so often disparage?

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