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Red Thread Thinking
Weaving Together Connections for Brilliant Ideas and Profitable Innovation
By Debra Kaye, Karen Kelly
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Debra Kaye
All rights reserved.
A Significant Change of Mind
You are never too old to become younger. —Mae West
By Every Stretch of the Imagination
What we are learning now and what we will learn over the next decades about the brain will surpass our knowledge from the preceding 50,000 years or so. Brain research has moved beyond psychology and neurology and joined with biochemistry, physics, and computer science to create advances that enable us to know more about ourselves, and our brains, in ways that were unimaginable in the past.
You're reading this book because you have an innovator's heart—but, as you will learn, you also have (and can enhance) an innovator's brain. Not so long ago, scientists believed that the number of brain cells was fixed, and that when one of them died, it was gone—and irreplaceable. It turns out that our brains are not hardwired; they are changing every second in response to the environment and our experiences. In the 1990s, neurobiologists discovered that new neurons sprout in different areas of the brain, and that this activity continues into old age; it's called neurogenesis.
You can enhance the activity in specific areas of the brain by what activities you engage in. For example, regular exercise causes neurogenesis to occur in the hippocampus, the center of learning and memory in the brain. As neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson and science journalist Sharon Begley explain in The Emotional Life of Your Brain, all kinds of activity, both active and passive, can result in positive changes in your "brain muscles."
When looking at brain scans of virtuoso violinists, they report, neuroscientists noted a measurable increase in the size and activity of the areas that control the fingers. Likewise, the brains of London taxicab drivers, who must learn to navigate an extremely complicated network of streets, show a significant growth in the hippocampus, which is also associated with context and spatial memory. In addition, you can change particular areas of the brain by consistently thinking about specific activities. For instance, scientists at Harvard University asked a group of volunteers to imagine practicing a simple five-finger keyboard piece over and over for one week. Afterward, the researchers compared the volunteers' brain scans to scans that had been taken before they started thinking about the music, and found that the region of the brain's motor cortex that controls the fingers of the right hand had expanded.
The abundance of brain research indicates that much of our ability to have insights, see connections, be creative, and innovate better is governed by controllable factors. Your brain can reinvent itself through many thought- and activity-based actions that spark the creation of new pathways that reroute, readjust, and otherwise change the brain's networking and connections.
No More Right-Brain-Left-Brain Thinking
Before we go further into recent findings about the amazing capacity of the brain, let's break away from old ideas about our minds, starting with the idea that creativity is the exclusive domain of the right side of the brain. For many years, this notion was a pop psychology staple. The right-brain-left-brain or "split-brain" theory, which said that the two sides of the brain work independently, has been around since the 1800s, when doctors noticed that brain- injured people often lost certain capabilities, depending on which side of the brain was damaged.
The idea was further codified after the work of Nobel laureate Roger Wolcott Sperry, a neuropsychologist and neurobiologist, became widely known. Sperry studied four epilepsy patients who had undergone an operation developed in 1940 by William van Wagenen, a neurosurgeon in Rochester, New York. The surgery involved severing the corpus callosum, the area of the brain that transfers signals between the right and left hemispheres. In effect, the brains of these patients now had truly separate and distinct hemispheres that did not communicate with each other.
Sperry and his colleagues tested the patients by giving them tasks that were known to be dependent on specific hemispheres of the brain. It turned out that these split-brain patients couldn't name objects that were processed by the right side of the brain, but were able to name objects that were processed by the left side of the brain. From this, Sperry hypothesized that the left side of the brain controlled language; was analytical, logical, and rational; and understood the sequential nature of things, while the right side of the brain could synthesize information, understand relationships, integrate disparate knowledge, and arrive at intuitive insights.
Sperry wrote, "Each hemisphere is a conscious system in its own right, perceiving, thinking, remembering, reasoning, willing, and emoting, all at a characteristically human level, and ... both the left and the right hemisphere may be conscious simultaneously in different, even in mutually conflicting, mental experiences that run along in parallel" (emphasis mine).
This idea morphed into the concept that some people are born "right-brained" and "creative," while others are born "left-brained" and "analytical." This way of categorizing people was taken up enthusiastically by the business world because it offered a tidy way of explaining why some people were better at analysis and others were better at creating things. "We need a left-brainer on the data study," a manager might say. Or, "Let's put Jane on this design project, she's right-brained."
The belief that you could become more creative by focusing on tasks that were right-brained led to one of popular culture's most enduring bestsellers, Betty Edwards's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. First published in 1979 and an immediate hit—it spent a year on the New York Times bestseller list—it uses drawing as a way to develop the right brain so that people can become more artistic and creative. Edwards, now a retired professor emeritus of art at California State University in Long Beach, California, has revised the popular book several times—once in 1989, then in 1999, and again in 2012.
Categorizing people as right- or left-brained turns out to be a lot of bunk as far as identifying someone's ability to create is concerned. Sperry's work is still important—newer research has confirmed that the two hemispheres of the brain do operate differently, with one function complementing the other. However, the activity is now thought of not as "parallel" but as conjunctive. It's not as if you were born right-brained and thus will never be good at data analysis, or that if you're a creative type, you'll never be able to keep your files straight. In 1998, Brenda Milner, Larry Squire, and Eric Kandel published "Cognitive Neuroscience and the Study of Memory" in the journal Neuron. This article pointed to the idea that all complex cognitive functions require the brain regions to work in an integrated fashion. More recent research has bolstered this view.
All information is probably processed in both the left and the right hemispheres, but in different and complementary ways. The right side of the brain tends to remember the gist of an experience or the overall concept, while the left side of the brain tends to remember the details. Intuition and analysis work together. This newer model of the brain is called intelligent memory, and it suggests that there are two systems, learning and recall, that work in the two parts of the brain in a variety of combinations—and that this is what making connections is all about. The breaking down and storing of information is analysis, whereas searching and combining information is considered intuition.
The brain has to evaluate a new idea to decide whether it's worth investing in. This sequence of activity requires the brain to constantly shift between divergent and convergent thinking to combine new information with old and even forgotten knowledge. The most innovative people aren't "right-brained"—in fact, they are naturally good at the dual activation of the brain that optimizes inventive thinking. Even if it were possible for you to "turn off" the left side of your brain and use only the right side of your brain to be creative, it wouldn't work. In fact, you'd probably be living in a world defined by perpetual frustration, because ideas would always be just out of reach—not quite attainable.
While some people seem to be less adept than others at firing up both burners, making them seem more left-brained than right-brained, most brain scientists agree that creativity is part of normal brain function. Moreover, and this is what's exciting, they believe that the ability to shift rapidly between divergent and convergent thinking, which is key to innovation, can be sharpened and improved. Rex Jung, a University of New Mexico neuroscientist and researcher, found that if you diligently practice creative activities, you can teach your brain to recruit its creative networks more quickly and effectively. Consistent habits will gradually change the brain's neurological pattern. Helping you shift between divergent and convergent thinking is what Red Thread Thinking does better or more deliberately than any other method of thinking. It lets you look at information in a different way, helps you to rearrange things in your brain, and makes you more attuned to new connections.
The results of a 2008 study published in the Creativity Research Journal reinforce these brain science concepts even further. By developing four core areas—capturing new ideas, engaging in challenging tasks, broadening knowledge, and interacting with stimulating people and places—people can enhance their brain's ability to innovate. In Orange County, California, 74 city employees participated in creativity training consisting of exercises that focused on these four proficiencies, which were developed by Robert Epstein, PhD, a psychology researcher, founder and director emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, and senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology.
Eight months after the training, the employees had increased their rate of new idea generation by 55 percent, bringing in more than $600,000 in new revenue and a savings of about $3.5 million through innovative cost reductions. The four core areas that Epstein identified are obviously general intellectual stimulation techniques. But he is on the right path, and it's exciting because he's shown that people who are generally thought of by the public as not being particularly creative (state workers) can in fact be incredibly inventive when they are given the opportunity to develop the right skills. If this broadly conceived strategy could achieve such a remarkable result, imagine what a holistic system like Red Thread Thinking can do for your innovation ambitions.
So perhaps Betty Edwards was not so far off but didn't go far enough when she encouraged people to take up drawing as a way to get better at solving other, non-drawing-related problems. In short, creativity or innovative thinking can be practiced, learned, and enhanced. To be the most successful at training your brain, you have to engage in multistage activities that force your brain to alternate maximum divergent thinking with short bursts of intense convergent thinking. Consistency over time is also key—just as with those sit-ups you do for a flat tummy. You won't have six-pack abs after a week; you have to do those sit-ups regularly over a period of time to see a difference. And then, once you've made it, you have to keep up the work to maintain your killer abs. Similarly, brain training has to be integrated into everyday life and maintained over your lifetime.
Expanding the Brain's Capacity for Innovation
There is a huge amount of interest in how the brain works to innovate, and there are numerous recent and ongoing research projects that test various ways to help us think more freely. Many of these studies give us a reason to be optimistic about developing our ability to innovate. Indeed, a lot of recent research confirms exactly what people have experienced when using Red Thread Thinking—that connections and insights can be had if they are approached in a deliberate manner. The proven practical application is now being backed up by scientific data.
Rex Jung and his colleagues helped to identify a phenomenon called transient hypofrontality that occurs in the brain when we work on tasks that require creative rather than logical thinking. When we work on creative pursuits, our powerful, organizing frontal lobes experience a down regulation that appears to foster creative cognition. This allows the brain to "wander," making new and unexpected connections that we associate with artistry, discovery, and innovation. "It's not the [frontal lobes] shutting down [completely], but it's allowing a freer interplay of different networks in the brain so that the ideas literally can link together more readily." Jung's finding correlates with a study of jazz musicians who, during improvisation, selectively "deactivate" their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, thereby impeding the inhibitory brain areas of logic and reason and allowing the musicians to play original combinations of notes without the fear or containment that this area of the brain may ignite.
"So with intelligence, you know, the analogy I've used is there's this superhighway in the brain that allows you to get from Point A to Point B. With creativity, it's a slower, more meandering process where you want to take the side roads and even the dirt roads to get there, to put the ideas together," he said during a live interview with On Being, on American Public Media in March 2012. This activity is transient, because "you need your frontal lobes later to push ideas forward in hypothesis tests. But transient hypofrontality appears to be conducive for extrapolating out and analogizing and looking at metaphor to pull different concepts that you have in your toolbox and put them together," he explained. Putting yourself in situations that force you to think beyond what is obvious may enhance the effectiveness of transient hypofrontality.
In February 2012, Anthony McCaffrey, a cognitive psychology researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Virginia Tech, published the results of studying common roadblocks to innovative problem solving in Psychological Science. He believes his Obscure Features Hypothesis (OFH) has led to the first systematic, step-by-step approach to devising innovation-enhancing techniques to overcome a wide range of cognitive obstacles to invention. McCaffrey won a $170,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to turn his technique into software that will first be used by engineers.
McCaffrey looked at more than 100 significant modern and 1,000 historical inventions, analyzing how their successful inventors overcame various cognitive obstacles to uncover the key but obscured information that solved the problem. According to his findings, innovative solutions require two steps: first, seeing an infrequently noticed, ambiguous feature, and second, building a solution based on that feature.
"I detected a pattern suggesting that something everyone else had overlooked often became the basis of an inventive solution," he says. "If I could understand why people overlook certain things, then develop techniques for them to notice much more readily what they were overlooking, I might have a chance to improve creativity."
Psychologists use the term functional fixedness to describe the first mental obstacle that McCaffrey investigated. It explains, for example, how one person finding a burr stuck to his sweater might say, "Uh-oh, a burr," then tear the burr off and discard it, while another person might say, "Oh, a burr ... look how it sticks to my sweater ... that's useful," and then goes on to invent Velcro. The first, and more common, reaction focuses on an object's typical function and its annoying or negative implications (the sweater has a pull in it). The second focuses on the possibilities of the function beyond its impact on the sweater.
To overcome functional fixedness, McCaffrey looked for a way to teach people to reinterpret known information about common objects to see beyond those objects' common functions. For each part of an object, the "generic parts technique" (GPT) section of this test asks users to list function-free descriptions, including an object's material, shape, and size. For instance, the prongs of an electric plug can be described in a function-free way to reveal that they might be used as a screwdriver. "The trick is how to unconceal the features relevant to your purposes," says McCaffrey.
McCaffrey designed an experiment to test whether GPT improved problem solving in a group of 14 undergraduates who were trained in GPT compared to a control group of 14 who were not. Both groups were given insight problems that are commonly used in psychological testing, as well as new problems developed by McCaffrey's colleagues.
Overall, the GPT group solved 67.4 percent more problems than the control group, a statistically significant improvement in performance. A follow-up study asked subjects to list features for the same objects independent of a problem. Even though the GPT-trained subjects were not working on a specific problem, they identified the key obscure feature required for its solution 75 percent of the time compared to 27 percent for the controls. This suggests that the GPT technique may help people uncover the key obscure feature more often.
Two ideas from philosophy inspired McCaffrey to create the tool. Nietzsche gave McCaffrey a broad definition of feature that doesn't limit a theory of creativity. From Heidegger, he borrowed the notion of unconcealment, the idea that any object can have an unlimited number of features that are gradually unconcealed within an endless array of contexts. "I want to help people to notice things consciously that they might not otherwise see, and remain open to the possibilities. Noticing is one thing, and building on it or connecting it to other things is the next step. Some of this can be learned and we now have a discipline for it," he says. This is really what Red Thread Thinking is all about—it teaches you how to observe and question, and to make connections that lead to innovative insights. It also shows you how to take the insight to the next step, product development.
Excerpted from Red Thread Thinking by Debra Kaye. Copyright © 2013 by Debra Kaye. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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