Perceiving the Invisible

Creativity, Education, MSU MAET

To perceive is to not only use the entirety of the senses to observe an object or an idea, but to also create a mental model that can be recalled, manipulated, and transformed into something original. This level of perception can lead to a expertise that allows new understandings to be reached before they can even be expressed (Root-Bernstein & Root-Bernstein, 1999).

I thought it difficult at first to perceive an abstract concept such as algorithms. It was easier to explore my feelings about them, using words such as “rigid”, “cut-and-dry” and “repetitive.” Algorithms seemed to be the antithesis of creativity, that if they played too much of a role in teaching, learning in classrooms would become color-by-number. Our everyday word for it, that we follow a routine, is to be stuck in a predictable but hollow loop of behavior, day-in, day-out.

Reflecting on Paul McCartney’s lyrics in A Day in the Life provided a shift in perspective. As he sang about a typical morning routine that resulted in “going into a dream”, I was able to begin to think about the value algorithms can play in our lives that allow us to transcend or even celebrate the mundane. Without a routine, getting out of bed and out the door would be a challenge every morning. Algorithms allow us to deal with well-defined tasks easily, freeing up mental cycles to devote elsewhere, including finding ways to tweak algorithms and use them in creative ways.

Algorithms are usually invisible, such as what happens when performing a Google search, but they can appeal to the senses. Bees and Bombs provide an example of how algorithms can be used to create visual effects. In thinking how to hear an algorithm, I realized that most pop music can be described as formulaic and discovered David Cope’s algorithmic music. To taste, smell, and touch an algorithm, one need only try different chocolate chip cookie recipes and note the differences when eating the results.

I chose to challenge my perception of the Pancake Sort problem since I had spent significant time with it in another course, yet I was stuck on this image of flipping pancakes when visualizing it in my head. By translating it into sound, the transition from disorder to order could be heard and identified in a more intuitive way than relying on visual images. The third tune was of an algorithm that created clusters of notes in order, which sounded more lyrical than the other two tunes by avoiding creating a scale until the end, yet achieved the goal faster.

Moving forward, I can start to think how multiple senses can be engaged when being asked to create an algorithm. How could the feeling of composing a symphony or sculpting clay be included? How can I make the invisible able to not only be seen, but observed? Could polysensual coding appeal to a wider range of learners? I hope to arrive at answers as this project proceeds.



Root-Bernstein, R. S., & Root-Bernstein, M. M. (1999). Sparks of genius: The thirteen thinking tools of the world’s most creative people. Houghton Mifflin Company.


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