Suspending Disbelief

Everything we know, our strongly held beliefs, and in some cases, even what we consider to be “factual,” creates the lens through which we see and experience the world, and can contribute to a critical, reactive orientation.  This can serve us well.  For example:  Fire is hot; it can burn me if I touch it.  These strongly held beliefs can also compromise our ability to observe and to think in an expansive, generative way.

Every year, John Brockman, asks a community of academics and thought leaders, a question, and posts the responses on  This year’s question was:

What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

My response:  Suspending Disbelief

Barbara McClintock was ignored and ridiculed, by the scientific community, for thirty-two years before winning a Nobel Prize in 1984, for discovering “jumping genes.” During the years of hostile treatment by her peers, McClintock didn’t publish, preferring to avoid the rejection of the scientific community. Stanley Prusiner faced significant criticism from his colleagues until his prion theory was confirmed. He, too, went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1982.

Barry Marshall challenged the medical “fact” that stomach ulcers were caused by acid and stress; and presented evidence that H. Pylori bacteria is the cause. Marshall is quoted as saying, “Everyone was against me.”

Progress in medicine was delayed while these “projective thinkers” persisted, albeit on a slower and lonelier course.

Projective thinking is a term coined by Edward de Bono to describe generative rather than reactive thinking. McClintock, Prusiner, and Marshall offered projective thinking; suspending their disbelief regarding accepted scientific views at the time.

Articulate, intelligent individuals can skillfully construct a convincing case to argue almost any point of view. This critical, reactive use of intelligence narrows our vision. In contrast, projective thinking is expansive, “open-ended” and speculative, requiring the thinker to create the context, concepts, and the objectives.

Twenty years of studying maize created a context within which McClintock could speculate. With her extensive knowledge and keen powers of observation, she deduced the significance of the changing color patterns of maize seed. This led her to propose the concept of gene regulation, which challenged the theory of the genome as a static set of instructions passed from one generation to the next.

The work McClintock first reported in 1950, the result of projective thinking, extensive research, persistence, and a willingness to suspend disbelief, wasn’t understood or accepted until many years later.

Everything we know, our strongly held beliefs, and, in some cases, even what we consider to be “factual,” creates the lens through which we see and experience the world, and can contribute to a critical, reactive orientation. This can serve us well: Fire is hot; it can burn if touched. It can also compromise our ability to observe and to think in an expansive, generative way.

When we cling rigidly to our constructs, as McClintock’s peers did, we can be blinded to what’s right in front of us. Can we support a scientific rigor that embraces generative thinking and suspension of disbelief? Sometimes science fiction does become scientific discovery.



Published by Linda Stone

I coined the phrases continuous partial attention, email apnea, and screen apnea. I write about attention and our relationship to technology.

5 thoughts on “Suspending Disbelief

  1. I will be thinking about this post for days… Thank-you. And I could not agree more.

    I would argue that “suspending disbelief” might be THE key skill for innovation in virtually any area. In my tiny examples, the longest-running computing/tech bestsellers today would not have happened if Tim O’Reilly had not been willing to suspend disbelief. Perhaps the next key skill, then, is to help others learn to suspend disbelief, though good filmmakers/novelists have that one nailed already :).

    Which is precisely why I used screenplay guides when writing computer programming books…

  2. “suspending disbelief” is halfway to “no mind”. that should take the rest of the century for the science boys to get their heads around.

    and btw, fairly depressing set of answers on that edge question. so few paradigm-breakers in the leading edge of the status quo.

  3. Yes! You are so right!
    When we brainstorm we allow ourselves to push limits aside just to imagine for a minute how things could be different, this allows us to create other solutions in our minds. Perhaps the scientific method has gone beyond its place, we should always imagine possible solutions beyond it, the method should only be used to prove facts, not to limit posibilities in our minds. But we are so afraid of not being rational. We ignore the fact that imagination and intuition maybe the reasons why we are still here!

  4. Scientists are so accustomed to their secular monothetic environment, they have no patience for eccentricities that invade the consensual objective reality and threaten their irresponsible fact-mongering. Send them to church, or better still, India, where people and ethics – arguably what really matters – takes precedence over the blind idealist ratiocination that has thrown this world into turmoil.

    There they will seek out, through humility born from the recognition of the immeasurable, unprovable reality that is their own mind, the forerunner of all experience, a guru, who will guide them in bridging that fearful gap of irrational and subjective nature, the space between thoughts, so long repressed by endless clouds of cognition.

    Knowledge being infinite, they will instead capture the fortress of that one phenomena they could never grasp, the mind, and through the one they will know all, and then act in some bizarre ways that will make everyone laugh and cry with untold benefit before their last admonition to keep the faith sees their unestablished aggregates finally dissolve into the timeless bliss of emptiness.

  5. This is an awesome post Linda. I heard Eben Pagan mention you talking about continuous partial attention. I think it’s a phenomenon and am experimenting diligently with creating solutions to untrain that kind of.. partial attention conditioning.

    Anyway, I think you have a great point. It’s refreshing to see other people talking about this. I’ve been noticing more and more that the rigidity of people’s perspectives, and convictions blocks the reception of new information.

    I believe firmly in a constant and never ending expansion as an extremely imperative, but not often enough used ingredient in the recipe of both happiness and fulfillment as a human being. (on an individual level and collectively)

    I love what you’re talking about.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: