This paper is about Interdisciplinary cognition (IC), a term I use to label a phenomena I have observed that involves the use of one discipline to foster problem solving in another. I will begin by discussing interdisciplinary science and problem solving. I will describe the phenomena (IC) as I have experienced it and offer my opinion as to why it is effective. Finally I will offer my ideas about how this phenomenon could be applied, and share some thoughts of collogues.


Interdisciplinary studies:

Interdisciplinary Science is defined in many ways. Many universities now have centers specifically to foster and encourage interdisciplinary work. Trinity College (Hartford, CT) describes their Interdisciplinary program as "The Interdisciplinary Science Program (ISP) is an innovative, non-major curricular program designed to broaden and enrich the study of science and mathematics by exploring the links between the various scientific disciplines and their connection with the external world. Designed and supported by faculty in Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Engineering, Mathematics, Neuroscience and Physics, (1)". Duke University has the "Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural Theory" and describes it as follows "Many of the most significant developments in contemporary research in virtually all disciplines involve issues that cross not only disciplinary lines but also the chasm that has traditionally separated studies in the humanities from research in the social, and even more, the natural sciences. Since its foundation in 1990, the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural Theory has fostered intellectual exchange between natural and social scientists in a broad range of fields and humanities scholars in fields such as philosophy, art, history, linguistics, and literature. The Center sponsors colloquia, lecture series, and conferences, and facilitates the teaching of interdisciplinary courses by Duke faculty. (2)". It is easy to see the importance that academics are beginning to place on interdisciplinary work. The focus in these programs is on issues that cross-disciplinary lines and the links between them. I am more interested in how studying one discipline effects problem solving in another.


Problem solving:

Problem solving is any goal directed sequence of cognitive events. Cognitive psychologists have made a distinction between creative problem solving and routine problem solving. Creative problem solving involves some insight. In computer science creative problem solving is imperative. Many of the problems one encounters are not knowledge specific but are abstract and are more akin to puzzles. A famous computer science problem is a good example. The problem is one of graph theory and was published in a paper by Leonard Euler. The problem is known as the "Bridges of Koenigsberg". To solve this problem Euler transformed it into a graph theory problem. The method for solving this problem is a well-known algorithm in computer science, that of finding a Euler circuit. Numerous examples such as this can be found in computer science. This type of problem solving involves first inventing new rules, new relationships, and applying them in innovative ways to arrive at a solution that was unobtainable using brute force application of known axioms, methods and rules.

Problem solving in all disciplines involves creativity. The disciplines that some might think of as not being creative (engineering, mathematics) simply involve creativity in a very constrained domain. The constraints placed on creativity in these fields are enormous. The designer of a new computer system needs not only to create something new but the creation must perform as expected (meet the constraints). The mathematician who finds a new proof must not only create something new they also must insure that it obeys the axioms and laws preceding it as well as being logical in its structure. The creative aspect of this problem solving is what professionals (and students) in the so-called hard sciences are in need of strengthening. Perhaps strengthening is not the right word perhaps they need to get that part of the brain active.


Interdisciplinary cognition:

What is "Interdisciplinary cognition? Well the dictionary defines cognition as "That which comes to be known, as through perception, reasoning, or intuition; knowledge. (3)" I define interdisciplinary cognition as perceiving, and reasoning about multiple disciplines in order to facilitate understanding and knowledge about a specific discipline. To be more specific I am interested in my observation that studying music seems to enable greater problem solving abilities in general. When I speak of studying music I refer mostly to the playing, and writing of it. The playing of music is effective when it is done impovisationaly I to not think it would be as effective if one was meticulously practicing a difficult piece trying to perform it perfectly (whatever that means).

In Computer Science classes, especially the theory classes, I have encountered many situations that required creative problem solving. My experience has been that I seldom arrive at the answer while I am actually concentrating on the problem. I think of a solution or an idea that might lead to a solution most often either while performing some other activity or coming back to the problem after performing some other activity. Cognitive Psychologist, and more recently Cognitive Scientist, have studied this phenomena for some time and it is well documented. I have observed however that if the activity I engage in while away from the problem is music this phenomenon increases by an order of magnitude. In other words studying (doing) music increases my chance of arriving at a solution and the speed at which I arrive at a solution much more so then any other activity I have tried. Although I do not believe this is unique to music, I believe that being creative in a less constrained domain is what is promoting the greater (creative) problem solving skills.

This utilization of Music to assist in Problem solving is not simply a casual, occasional, occurrence for me. It is something I actively seek when faced with complex abstract problems. It is something I use to great benefit in my graduate studies in Computer Science. I actively promote this idea to my peers and seek feedback from them as to its effectiveness.

I do not believe this is a one way street. Being creative in a less constrained environment helps to promote new approaches or "thinking out of the box" in a more constrained domain. Being creative in a more constrained domain might promote better structure, or organization in a less constrained domain. For example a writer who has a good idea of how the characters in a story should behave and what events should befall them but is stuck trying to tie all this together coherently might benefit from a break where math, or computer program design is toyed with. A musician who is having trouble organizing a piece might benefit in the same manner because the process of design and manipulation is so much more constrained in these disciplines (math, computer science).



Work/play in a creative less constrained domain has the side effect of fostering an "openness" to new ideas and approaches to problem solving in a more constrained domain. This might be because the freedom involved stimulates a particular part of the brain or it might be that utilizing the imagination in this manner makes one more likely to utilize it when approaching the problem. Work/play in a more constrained domain might have similar benefits in the reverse. I have experienced the benefits of interdisciplinary cognition and pursue it when ever possible. I believe that the use of this method should be explained and encouraged to all students/professionals.

Some thoughts from others

These were taken from e-mail responses to a request for thoughts on this subject.

Dr. Joseph Lewis SDSU

I share a conviction with many others (e.g., Hofstadter,Clark <I think>, Dennett, ...) that creative processes are engaging a very different quality of the human cognitive landscape. Singing taps into a kind of "internal flow" that comes very much from the body and feels transcendent of linear thought. Dancing is likewise. Composing music, despite its partially analytic quality, shares this quality. Certainly the intentionally induced meditative states of yoga and other practices does. Surfing, painting, even playing with a child with rocks and sticks in the dirt. These all activate mechanisms of knowing and relating and discovering that fall outside the production system model.

When we return to a problem shelved from such fatigue and habituation after a break that invigorates other ways of using the mind, we discover that we can indeed discover new rules and see new means of applying them


Dr. Lisa Maynes Desjarlais

there are professional "creativity facilitators" and a body of techniques and literature on how to induce creativity? Some years ago I attended a week-long session of the Creativity and Problem Solving Institute, and learned techniques for structured brainstorming. It is an ambition of mine to promote these techniques among engineers. A lot of the techniques try to introduce stimuli to free association, to keep people from filtering out ideas too soon as unrealistic, and to engage the subconscious.



W.W. Sawara, Mathematicians delight 1943

"One can begin to reason only when a clear picture has been formed in the imagination."


Final Note:








(1) Trinity College Web Site:



(2) Duke University Web Site: