My wonder button is being pushed all the time.
Unlocking the jujitsu of innovation.
"One of the stranger articles Inc. magazine ever ran was a 2002 piece about the neuroscience of innovation. Actually, it wasn’t really about innovation as much as where and how innovators get their ideas. Only it wasn’t that either. It was really about what kind of peculiar mind-hacks top innovators use to come up with their ideas and—the strange part—it opens with a discussion of inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil’s employment of lucid dreaming to solve vexing engineering problems.
Here’s a bit of the story:
Every evening before bed, Kurzweil plucks out a vexing problem—perhaps a business strategy, a technical conundrum, or even an interpersonal issue. First he posits the characteristics of a potential solution. Take, for example, the extraskeletal walking system for paraplegics that he’s considering developing. He wants it to be simple enough for a user to put on without help. Lying in bed, Kurzweil begins to fantasize about such a system, sometimes imagining that he’s giving a speech about how he reached his conclusions. “This has the purpose of seeding your subconscious to influence your dreams,” he says. Then he drifts off to sleep.
All night, snippets of the solution filter in and out of his dreams. At the first glimmer of consciousness, Kurzweil returns to the problem. It is then, during the brief quasi-conscious state known as “lucid dreaming,” that he merges the logic of his conscious thought with the relaxation of inhibition engendered by his dreams to arrive at many of his most startling insights. “The most interesting thing about dreams is that you don’t consider it unusual when unusual things happen, like a room floating away,” says Kurzweil. “You accept this lack of logic. And that [irrational] faculty is needed for creative thinking. But you also need to be able to apply a critical faculty, because not every idea that’s different and out of the box will work.”
Over the past few decades, a number of researchers (most famously Stephen LeBarge) have done outstanding work in the field, including pioneering well-validated techniques for learning how to wake oneself up mid-dream. What hasn’t been so well-studied is the other thing that I find curious: the idea of using lucid dreams as a creative problem-solver.
First a little background: Pattern recognition is the term cognitive neuroscientists use for the brain’s ability to lump like with like—thus helping us make sense of our world. It is a capacity, as NYU professor of neurology points out in The Wisdom Paradox, that is fundamental to our mental world.
Without this ability, every object and every problem would be a totally de novo encounter and we would be unable to bring any of our prior experience to bear on how we deal with these objects or problems. The work of Herbert Simon and others has shown that pattern recognition is among the most powerful, perhaps the foremost mechanism of successful problem solving.
But as was pointed out in this recent blog, the brain actually has two different overarching pattern recognition systems at its disposal: the extrinsic and intrinsic. Here’s my earlier description:
Human beings have evolved two distinct systems for processing information. The first, the explicit system, is rule-based, can be expressed verbally, and is tied to conscious awareness. When the pre-frontal cortex is fired up, the explicit system is usually turned on. But when the cold calculus of logic is swapped out for the gut-sense of intuition, this is the implicit system at work. This system relies on skill and experience. It is not consciously accessible and cannot be described verbally (i.e.—try to explain a hunch).
The explicit and implicit system are often described as “conscious” versus “unconscious,” but that’s not entirely accurate. What’s really going on comes down to networks. When the explicit system is involved, the neurons that are talking to one another are usually found in close proximity to one another. When the implicit system is at work, far flung corners of the brain are chit-chatting.
Creativity, meanwhile, depends on those broader implicit networks putting together information in new ways. I know this is a big broad statement and I’m not going to bother backing it up here (though if you’re curious Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine or David Eagleman’s Incognito are both great places to start). What’s most important here is that this is not often a conscious process. Certainly, we can use the extrinsic system to reason our way to a novel solution, but for our more significant “Ah-Ha! revelations,” what researchers term “sudden insight,” the broader networks of the intrinsic system are required.
And a lot of people, myself included, use this fact to our advantage. It is pretty easy to ask the intrinsic system a question—simply, like Kurzweil does before sleep (though, I often do this mid-day and wide awake), literally, ask a question. Out loud or silently, doesn’t seem to matter.
For me it’s usually along the lines of “how do I open this article?” or “what’s the most important thing my readers need to understand first?”, but I know CEO’s who do this when trying to figure out how to boost sales and scientists who do this when they’re trying to solve physics puzzles.
Then do something that makes you forget all about asking the question. Long walks, crossword puzzles, other work… whatever… and sooner or later the answer just shows up.
Sure, it sounds like magic, but it’s just pattern recognition. The secret, if there is one, is just about being able to relax enough for the intrinsic system to do its stuff. This is a pretty simple mind hack used by a lot of creatives.
Yet it has a drawback—there’s a time delay. I’m not sure how much this varies from person to person, but for me it’s usually between 5-48 hours. But Kurzweil has found a way to hack the hack. Lucid dreaming allows himself to directly ask questions and get answers.
This leads me to suspect that there are other hacks possible. I’m on the hunt. If anyone else has figured out a way to speed up this process, please comment here or email: firstname.lastname@example.org”
Throw over your man….and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads…
Virginia Woolf in a letter to her lover, the poet Vita Sackville-West
Over the past few months, writers from Charles Murray to Timothy Noah have produced alarming work on the growing bifurcation of American society. Now the eminent Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and his team are coming out with research that’s more horrifying.
While most studies look at inequality of outcomes among adults and help us understand how America is coming apart, Putnam’s group looked at inequality of opportunities among children. They help us understand what the country will look like in the decades ahead. The quick answer? More divided than ever.
Putnam’s data verifies what many of us have seen anecdotally, that the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities. Decades ago, college-graduate parents and high-school-graduate parents invested similarly in their children. Recently, more affluent parents have invested much more in their children’s futures while less affluent parents have not.
They’ve invested more time. Over the past decades, college-educated parents have quadrupled the amount of time they spend reading “Goodnight Moon,” talking to their kids about their day and cheering them on from the sidelines. High-school-educated parents have increased child-care time, but only slightly.
A generation ago, working-class parents spent slightly more time with their kids than college-educated parents. Now college-educated parents spend an hour more every day. This attention gap is largest in the first three years of life when it is most important.
Affluent parents also invest more money in their children. Over the last 40 years upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extra curriculars, by $5,300 a year. The financially stressed lower classes have only been able to increase their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation.
As a result, behavior gaps are opening up. In 1972, kids from the bottom quartile of earners participated in roughly the same number of activities as kids from the top quartile. Today, it’s a chasm.
Richer kids are roughly twice as likely to play after-school sports. They are more than twice as likely to be the captains of their sports teams. They are much more likely to do nonsporting activities, like theater, yearbook and scouting. They are much more likely to attend religious services.
It’s not only that richer kids have become more active. Poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached. Social trust has fallen among all income groups, but, between 1975 and 1995, it plummeted among the poorest third of young Americans and has remained low ever since. As Putnam writes in notes prepared for the Aspen Ideas Festival: “It’s perfectly understandable that kids from working-class backgrounds have become cynical and even paranoid, for virtually all our major social institutions have failed them — family, friends, church, school and community.” As a result, poorer kids are less likely to participate in voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Their test scores are lagging. Their opportunities are more limited.
A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs. Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world. Working-class jobs were decimated, meaning that many parents are too stressed to have the energy, time or money to devote to their children.
Affluent, intelligent people are now more likely to marry other energetic, intelligent people. They raise energetic, intelligent kids in self-segregated, cultural ghettoes where they know little about and have less influence upon people who do not share their blessings.
The political system directs more money to health care for the elderly while spending on child welfare slides.
Equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern. If America really wants to change that, if the country wants to take advantage of all its human capital rather than just the most privileged two-thirds of it, then people are going to have to make some pretty uncomfortable decisions.
Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.
Political candidates will have to spend less time trying to exploit class divisions and more time trying to remedy them — less time calling their opponents out of touch elitists, and more time coming up with agendas that comprehensively address the problem. It’s politically tough to do that, but the alternative is national suicide.
(Source: The New York Times)
authority is magic
When you think you’ve got it
wax wane decoination
feel the movement under your hand
one summer morning
as you observe it set
then rise that night.
Always use a well-sharpened pencil
followed by a good eraser.
Watch the white emerge.
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
It’s time to identify and deal with the creativity killers. Through our surveys of thousands of workshop participants from a range of backgrounds and experiences over more than 20 years, we have narrowed down the list of suspects to 7 key profiles. By recognizing and managing these effectively, we believe it will be possible to revive and nurture creative thinking. Allow us to take a creative approach to interrogating these murder suspects:
Creativity killer profile 1: the Control Crew
Also known as bully oppressors, the control killer profile tends to stifle creative thinking through suppressing the ability to think freely and independently. When systems are set up that restrict freedom of thought, and when individuals perpetuate those systems through controlling approaches and actions, creativity has no room to flourish. Like the real mafia, the control killers can operate through a coercion which instills fear, which can then itself become a killer.
To deal with this killer:
Recognize areas in your life that may have become suppressed, and identify why this has happened and how this can be dealt with.
Develop a mindset that is open to exploration.
Ask open-ended questions to challenge established beliefs and assumptions without expecting specific outcomes or solutions.
Creativity killer profile 2: the Fear Family
An often unsuspected killer that can intimidate the most intrepid, this highly prolific villain thrives on anxieties about trialling new ideas and the possibility of failure. A childlike ability to take risks and risk failure without fear is critical to creative thinking, but when anxiety intervenes the fear can be crippling. It’s not surprising that one of Apple’s guiding innovation principles is to “fail wisely.”
To deal with this killer:
Have the courage to face fears of possible failure and uncertainty. Learn to see them as an important part of the creative process.
Learn to accept and embrace apparently opposing ideas (ambiguity) to open up new possibilities.
Creativity killer profile 3: the Pressure Pack
This seductive assassin dispatches its victims by exercising a stranglehold of real or perceived expectations. The faster pace of life, a greater reliance on technology, and significantly increased communication speeds, have all contributed to its prevalence. Under pressure, the body’s instinctive response is “fight, flight or freeze.” The constant adrenaline need for the “fight” response can lead to dangerous physical and psychological symptoms and ultimately literally shut down the brain, and the “flight” and “freeze” responses can lead to an inability to face up to the pressure and deal with it effectively. By using up precious mental energy at the primitive brain stem simply for survival, thus limiting access to the pre-frontal cortex where real creative thinking can occur, this killer restricts the ability to be creative.
To deal with this killer:
Identify your own typical responses to pressure.
Stand up to pressure – recognize that you have the power to stay in control of the impact of external circumstances, and find specific ways to balance your time and energy more effectively.
Be proactive in designing your life to control pressure: eg try drawing up a fresh schedule for yourself that gives you the time and space to do the things you would like to do as well as fitting in the things you need to do.
Prepare a platform to unleash your imagination – trial ‘brain teaser’ exercises designed to stretch your mind into exploring a range of possibilities.
1. Maya Angelou- “Phenomenal Woman”
2. Anne Waldman- “Matriot Acts, Act I [History of Mankind]”
3. Carol Ann Duffy- “Queen Kong”
4. Margaret Atwood- “Siren Song”
5. Lyn Hejinian- “My Life” (excerpt)
6. Alice Walker- “Our Martyr”
7. Katha Pollitt- “In the Bulrushes”
8. Susan Howe- “Rückenfigur”
9. Carolyn Kizer- “Fearful Women”
10. Marge Piercy- “To Be Of Use“
I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.
George Orwell, Why I Write
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