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”
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.
Noted science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov predicted that one day, we’d “have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries where anyone can ask any question and be given answers, be given reference materials, be something you’re interested in knowing, from an early age, however silly it might seem to someone else,” and with this appliance, be able to truly enjoy learning instead of being forced to learn mundane facts and figures. His insight has proven to be amazingly accurate, as we now live in a world with the Internet, where nearly the entire wealth of human knowledge can live at our fingertips or even in our pockets. Such an amazing feat, of course, doesn’t happen without impacting our lives, and scientists have begun to note that the Internet has not only served to fulfill our brains’ curiosities, but also rewired them. So what exactly is the Internet doing to our brains?
Click the links below for more information on each-
The act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process. Before we can find the answer — before we can even know the question — we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach. We need to have wrestled with the problem and lost. Because it’s only after we stop searching that an answer may arrive.
Jonah Lehrer on the importance of frustration in the creative process, live-illustrated by Guggenheim Fellow Flash Rosenberg.
What Dostoevsky has to do with the hunchback of Notre Dame, Muhammad Ali, and dandelions.
Disruptive Thinking asks you to look at a problem in a new, counter-intuitive way. Disruptive Thinking might just be the most powerful tool in the creative thinking arsenal.
“It is often appropriate to represent the thinking of the typical human as something that is linear; something that does not and indeed often cannot, deviate from the path it sets out upon, much like a Roman road.
With linear thinking, the outcome is almost always known before it is necessarily arrived at – there is no real scope for choice of deviation. Your options are to go forward along your pre-defined path, go backwards across ground you have already covered, or to stay still, not progressing.
Fan thinking, or The Peacock, offers you the opportunity to broaden and change the final outcome, whilst allowing you to hold on to some of the comfortable values and ideas you have invested in over the years.
The peacock’s tail, when closed, is much like the path above: narrow, linear and therefore limited or without possibility.
When a peacock opens its tail, the impact is quite astonishing. A very simple creature becomes both beautiful and intimidating, but more importantly it demonstrates to us, metaphorically at least, how easy it is to switch from the linear to a varied, multi-faceted approach of thinking.
The peacock’s feathers all originate from the same place, but each feather now represents either a widening of that single path, or perhaps many different paths or options that are now available to the creative thinker. The wider the peacock’s tail spreads, the more possible outcomes you have.
The important question of course, is what must one do, to open up the peacock’s tail?
The answer is:
- Ask questions
- Make suggestions
- Find multiple solutions
- Anything – including what is obvious
So what is Disruptive Thinking?
Disruptive Thinking is a concept that is based upon doing the opposite of what is expected/what convention tells you will be successful.
Disruptive Thinking is not the solution to every problem. But, understanding it, utilising at the right times and allowing it to be a part of your problem-solving-creativity arsenal will make you a more exciting and innovative thinker.”
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