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Look it up: the value of unsearchable questions

learn how to seeWhenever my 7-year-old daughter has a question that I cannot answer immediately, her typical response is “Look it up.”  Even with her purposefully limited exposure to the Internet, she knows that there is an answer somewhere there hiding behind the keyboards and screens.  What she does not realize is that I cannot easily look up the meaning of made-up words, the habitat of imaginary animals or what the weather is going to be on her birthday, which is in December and still months away.

In the world where many answers are available at our fingertips, there is wisdom and learning for all of us in pondering things that are not easy to look up. As speakers, teachers, trainers, and facilitators, it is perhaps our mission to challenge the audience with inquiries that cannot be solved by a piece of technology.  As neuroscientist Stuart Firestein suggests in his TED talk “The Pursuit of Ignorance,” “high-quality ignorance” – the appreciation of what we don’t know – is a fuel of discovery.  While we can and should incorporate searchable facts, statistics, theories, and conclusions into our presentations, the growth potential often lies in unique, emerging connections initiated by the leaps into the unknown that the audience is willing to take.  Here are three strategies to help your audience “to make better ignorance” – to tinker with ideas for deeper insights.

Offer questions for reflection. A question is a mirror for the mind. A search for an answer can reveal new associations and pathways that may not surface otherwise. Questions help to make your message relevant to your audience. They challenge the audience to think about how your main points relate to their lives and personal experiences. As Immanuel Kant  observed, “Every answer given on principle of experience begets a fresh question.” What can you ask your audience to highlight the relevance of your message?  In which contexts are they most likely to apply your ideas?  Make your questions open-ended to invite a broader inquiry: who, what, where, how, when, why.  Give enough space and silence for the insights to percolate to the surface. Invite your audience members to share their responses and listen actively for new connections to explore. Make reflection an essential part of the learning experience you create for your audience.

Explore life’s what ifs through scenarios.  Scenarios are mini-stories co-created with your audience. They provide hooks for your audience members to hang their own assumptions, beliefs, fears, and hopes. Scenarios offer a unique way to determine how a set of factors or a specific context can influence outcomes.  You can change things up, explore alternatives, brainstorm solutions without being threatened by negative consequences.  Scenarios help to overcome the “groupthink” and invite contrarian opinions.  In real life, we don’t always have the luxury of testing things out.  Scenarios offer an opportunity to take risks while still playing it safe.

Gamify your message. Our brains like playfulness. The desire to play may be wired in our mammalian brain as many animals exhibit playful behavior and learn the intricacies of social interactions through play. Play can relax the brain and make us more open to experiment, prepare for the unexpected and produce a more diverse repertory of behavior. In a role-play, we can assume various roles, put ourselves through different kinds of experiences, learn to better understand other perspectives and explore our own identities. Invite your audience to play, be silly, poke fun at themselves and laugh. Reward your audience members for their contributions. Random rewards boost motivation and learning as they trigger the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. Playfulness is a way to create the state of “flow” and full engagement with people and ideas. As Plato once said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

By | 2013-10-01T14:31:32+00:00 October 1st, 2013|Communication, Creativity, Public Speaking|0 Comments

5 strategies to silence your inner critic and boost creativity and self-expression

yogadanceHave you ever tried yoga dance?  Yoga dance is different from what most people think of when they hear the word “dance,” or “yoga” for that matter.  There are no specific steps to follow or routines to worry about.  Instead, our yoga teacher offers a storyline with elements, such as “welcoming yourself to the space” by dancing your way around the room in different directions, “building a fire” in an exuberant circle moving with the sound of drums, or the “souls and hearts” dance with scarves.  Yoga dance is all about self-expression in a harmonious, non-judgmental way when you bring your body, your sense of rhythm and your emotions into a delicate alignment.  It is also about the power of being open, spontaneous, creative and fluid. It is about the community and trust in your ability to be yourself, no matter how sweaty or goofy you may feel.  In other words, yoga dance offers one of those precious moments when your inner critic becomes quiet, giving in to the power of music and movement.

We should all practice silencing our inner critic more often. Neuroscience research suggest that we become more creative when the the parts of the brain that are responsible for cognitive control – in particular, the left prefrontal cortex – become less active.  In one study,  researchers non-invasively manipulated neurons in the participants’ left prefrontal cortices through the method of transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, thus suppressing the activation of these specific areas of the brain.  Participants saw a sequence of 60 objects, one every nine seconds, and were asked to quickly come up with uses for them that were out of the ordinary.  The researchers measure how long it took for the participants to come up with a valid response, or if they were unable to do so before the next picture appears. The participants with the inhibited right prefrontal cortices missed an average of 8 out of 60 objects, compared to 15 objects missed by two other control groups.   They were also able to provide correct responses an average of a second faster than the control groups.

Another study indicates that when musicians are improvising, the part of the brain that plays a role in self-restraint and evaluation is also powered down, while an area associated with self-expression becomes more active, compared to when the musicians play music they have memorized.

How can you silence the inner critic in situations that benefit from a creative flow of unfiltered ideas?  Here are five practices to boost your creativity and self-expression:

1. Role-play your way to different scenarios.  Play boosts creativity, imagination, and social agility not just in children, but in adults as well.  As adults we become overly concerned with opinions of others.  The fear of embarrassment and social rejection inhibits our creative expression.  Play can relax the brain and make us more comfortable to take risks and experiment.  Play helps us prepare for the unexpected and produce a more diverse repertory of behavior. In a role-play, we can put ourselves through different kinds of experiences, learn to better understand other perspectives and cultivate empathy. Are you feeling too shy to play? Try a hand-puppet to get your over the discomfort of assuming a role.

2. Give yourself a permission to be absurd. Brainstorm bad ideas and poke fun at your own assumptions.  It will take the pressure off and allow good ideas to percolate into your conscious mind. Don’t take yourself too seriously.   “Think like a fool,” advises Roger von Oech:

“It’s the fool’s job to extol the trivial, trifle with the exalted, and parody the common perception of a situation. In doing so, the fool makes us conscious of the habits we take for granted and rarely question. A good fool needs to be part actor and part poet, part philosopher and part psychologist.”

3. Let your mind wander. The daydreaming mind continues to work on your problems, increasing the likelihood of an insight. A recent study shows that the times when we are naturally less productive may be optimal for solving insight problems. In those off-peak times when we are more distracted, our brains can tap into a wider range of information, find new connections, and see more possibilities.

4. Ditch your meeting room and head to a coffee-shop.  Experiments showed that a moderate level of ambient noise (70 dB) enhanced subjects’ performance on the creativity tasks, compared to a relatively quiet environment (50 decibels).  However, if the place is too noisy (85 dB), it will hurt your creative problem-solving. Coffitivity can even “deliver the vibe of a coffee shop right to your desktop.”  This web application allows you to combine your own music and ambient noises to optimize your creative process.

5. Find a solution in your dreams. Michael Michalko, the creativity expert and author of “Thinkertoys,” once said, “Ideas twinkle in dreams like bicycle lights in a mist.”  A  study conducted by the University of Alberta and the University of Montreal of 470 psychology students revealed that dreams that occurred six to seven days after the remembered event often reflected “interpersonal interactions, problem resolution and positive emotions.”  These findings suggest that people continue to work through personal difficulties in dreams.

Sleep psychologists claim we have about six dreams each night during rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep).  We often forget our dreams, but there are things we can do to recall dreams better and capture any creative ideas that emerged in the dream state:

  • If you’ve been working on a problem for a while, bring it back into focus right before you fall asleep.  Think about a question related to your problem that you’d like to get an answer to in your sleep.
  • When you awake, don’t get up immediately.  Instead, lie quietly as you reflect on your dream.  If you have trouble remembering your dreams, try waking up thirty minutes earlier.
  • Have a dream journal next to you bed so that you could promptly record any thoughts that came to you after you woke up.  Don’t censor, just write down anything that comes to mind. Your ideas are often triggered by your dream even if you can’t remember the dream exactly.  After all, the contemporary scientific method was first reveled to René Descartes in his dream, which he promptly recorded in his dream journal.
  • You can later go over your dream journal again to see if any patterns, ideas, or insights emerge from your dream entries.

And you can always check out yoga dance.

How do you silence your inner critic?

By | 2013-03-22T12:41:02+00:00 March 20th, 2013|Brain, Creativity, Peak Performance|0 Comments

10 ways to gamify your thinking to make it better

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
~ Plato

Have you ever played with kaleidoscopes – those tubes of mirrors with colorful beads?  You turn and shake them, and the stones form different patterns, reflecting off the mirrors.  Our minds can be like kaleidoscopes.  We receive the same pieces of information, but they get reflected off the mirrors of our experiences, attitudes, beliefs, and form our own, unique patterns of understanding.  We can use play to shake up some old patterns and beliefs that no longer serve us to improve our thinking and decision-making.

Play delights the brain. Some neuroscientists believe that play is a central part of neurological growth and development. Play allows children to build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept, and cognitively flexible brains.  Play has also been identified as one of the primal emotional systems of animals through brain stimulation.  Many believe adults can also benefit from play as a way to boost creativity, imagination, and decision-making.

As adults we become overly concerned with the opinions of others.  The fear of embarrassment and social rejection inhibits our creative expression.  Play can relax the brain and make it easier for us to take risks and experiment.  Play helps us prepare for the unexpected and produce a more diverse repertory of behavior.  When we play, a part of the brain that is involved in self-restraint and evaluation – the inner critic – is powered down, allowing for a fuller expression.

Through role playing, we can put ourselves into different kinds of experiences, learn to better understand other perspectives, and cultivate empathy.  Finally, play is also a ritual with its sets of rules and scripts.  As with any ritual, play sets expectations for a certain kind of behavior and prompts the brain to give commands in accordance with these expectations. Here is how you can gamify your thinking to make it better:

  1. Connect the dots to solve your life’s puzzles. Scan your past for repeating behavior patterns, causes and effects.  Learning is the anchor of our experiences, both good and bad.  Without it, we are just drifting through life.
  2. Remove the invisibility cloak: you can’t change what you can’t see.  Develop self-awareness.  Pay attention to context.
  3. Play hopscotch with your own stream of thoughts: know where to land and what to overlook.
  4. Master Jeopardy: your power lies in the questions you ask.  The answer is always closer than you think.
  5. Find your good luck charm. The belief anchored in a symbolic object may cause you to perform better.  The power of suggestion makes the brain respond as if it were true, triggering a placebo effect.
  6. Be a  storyteller. Nothing captivates a human brain more than a good story.  Stories engage us on the emotional level.  Experiences accompanied by strong emotions are more memorable.  When the story resonates with the listener, the brains of the speaker and listener may synchronize, suggesting a deep human connection.
  7. Use a box to think “outside the box.”  Acting out creativity metaphors makes us more creative.
  8. Think on your feet, literally. Let your body guide you when you need to make a decision.  If you experience muscle tension, a “pit” in stomach, or a sudden headache, perhaps, your body is telling you that you are moving in a wrong direction.
  9. Play dress-up.  Clothing affects not only other people’s perception of us, but also our own thoughts.  For example, if you need to pay more attention to detail, you may want to don a scientist’s white lab coat.
  10. Sharpen your thinking through doodling. Doodle, sketch, illustrate your ideas.  Pictures are easier for the brain to process and remember.  Get inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci’s illustrated to-do list.

From uncertainty to emergent meaning: How the brain tells stories

“Our perception of the world is a fantasy that coincides with reality.”
~ Dr. Chris Frith, neuropsychologist and author of “Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World”

Design of John W.Karapelou

Conflict management by its nature involves a lot of uncertainty. The paradox is that uncertainty can be both a threat to the brain and a fuel for its creativity.  The brain has an important job of keeping us comfortable and secure in the world by making sure that we understand what is going on around us.  We want to know or be able to predict what happens next.

When uncertainty undermines our sense of control over our environment, it can cause stress.  People would rather know the worst than fear the worst.  The anticipation of negative emotional states influence our behavior and decisions. The dread of not knowing may be paralyzing.

Perhaps, it can explain, in part, why people get stuck in protracted conflicts.  The conflict stories, identities, and behaviors, no matter how dysfunctional they may be, are familiar to the parties. The brain knows what to expect and what behaviors to choose.  In contrast, the outcomes of the conflict resolution process are uncertain.  They may require changes and adjustments in the usual behavior patterns.  They brain is wired to avoid losses and conserve mental energy, which may mean the preference for the painful status quo.  The change is more likely when the cost of being in conflict becomes too much to bear or when the current situation is so destabilized that there is no more certainty left.

At the same time, the brain is equipped to deal with ambiguity, search for patterns, and create meaning.  So, what happens when the brain encounters information gaps?

Research conducted by neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga sheds light on how the brain strives to create a complete picture.  His experiments involved split-brain patients whose left hemisphere and right hemisphere were separated and didn’t communicate to each other due to a rare surgery procedure performed to treat severe epileptic seizures.

Researchers showed a spit-brain patient two pictures:  a chicken claw was shown to his left hemisphere, and a snow scene was shown to his right hemisphere.  The patient then was asked to choose from an array of pictures in front of him.  He chose a picture of the shovel with the left hand, which was controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain, and the picture of the chicken with the right hand, which was controlled by the left hemisphere.  When asked why he chose those items, the left-brain interpreter explained, “Oh, that’s simple.  The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.”

Evidently, the right brain that saw the picture of the snow sent an impulse to the left hand to pick up the picture of the shovel.  The left brain observed the fact that the left hand picked up the picture of the shovel and had to explain it.  Because it didn’t know about the snow scene shown only to the right hemisphere, it came up with a story, which, in fact, wasn’t the correct interpretation.

Similar experiments have been done with mood shifts.  When a frightening picture was shown to the right hemisphere, the patient got upset.  And while she denied seeing anything, she felt the emotional response and said that she was upset because the experimenter was upsetting her.  Once again, the left hemisphere, which knew nothing of the sad picture but registered the emotional response, had to offer an explanation, and it turned out to be inaccurate.  These experiments show that the left hemisphere of the brain will offer an explanation even if there are gaps in information although the interpretation may not be accurate.

On one hand, the propensity of the brain to spin stories may account for disagreement in how parties in conflict see the situation.  On the other hand, it also offers the key to changing the stories that don’t serve the parties well.  When we design a process that allows for new interactive patterns to emerge, we engage the natural power of the brain to create new interpretations and fresh solutions.

Here are some thoughts on how to make conflict management more brain-friendly:

  • Encourage free exchange of information to minimize stress-generating uncertainty.
  • Let the parties express their feelings and concerns regarding possible future scenarios to understand the impact of anticipatory emotions.
  • Incorporate practices that support emotional regulation into the conflict management process.
  • Promote the use of meta-cognitive skills, i.e. thinking about thinking.
  • Relinquish the desire to fix and control. Adopt the mindset to experiment, learn, and improve.
  • Give enough time and “white space” for the emerging understanding and insights to percolate to the surface.
  • Allow for new modes of thinking and patterns to emerge through active listening, storytelling, inquiry, journaling, mind-mapping, role-play, improv, etc.

What else?  Let your brain fill in the gaps.

By | 2011-08-27T20:32:18+00:00 August 7th, 2011|Conflict Management, Creativity, Perception|0 Comments

The Art of Adversity

“Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.”
~ William Ellery Channing

As a young boy with a severe learning disability, Chuck Close was told not to even think about college. Nevertheless, he went on to get his MFA from Yale and became a world renowned artist.  Even though he has a condition called face blindness and can’t recognize faces in three dimensions, Chuck Close is known for his portraits and his unique technique of painting on a grid.

Artist Janet Echelman goes to India to exhibit her works and discovers that her paints went missing in route from the U.S. to India.  This experience forces her to learn a new art material.  Now, she makes monumental, fluidly moving sculpture for urban airspace that responds to the environmental forces of wind, water, and sunlight.

Dale Chihuly is a glass sculptor and entrepreneur.   His story is described in the book “Iconoclast:  A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently,” by Gregory Berns.   In 1976, while Chihuly was in England, he was involved in a head-on car accident during which he flew through the windshield. He was blinded in his left eye and has been wearing a black patch over the injured eye since then.  The loss of depth perception forced him to look at the traditional art of glassblowing differently.  Ultimately, he departed from the traditional symmetry standard, experimenting with asymmetric sculptures he is now known for.   A few years after the accident, Chihuly dislocated his arm while surfing.  Unable to blow glass himself, he hired a team of artists to work in the hotshop he supervised.  This change in the work process led to large-scale operations and his commercial success.

We often hear that we need to think outside the box to be creative.  Adversity can lead to innovation in art and life because it destroys the proverbial “box.” Adversity forces people to perceive the world differently.  Some get lost without the “box.”  Adversity can unleash a whirlwind of emotions and sweep people off their feet into the dark tunnel of fear, denial, blame, shame, surrender.   Some, however, are capable of emerging on the other side stronger, more resourceful, and more creative than before.  They go on to construct a new “box” – their new reality where they continue to develop, probe, and fine-tune their new identity and understanding of the world.  The brain needs the “box” as a mental pattern and a symbol of control over our environment.   The brain is a prediction machine and the “box” makes things predictable.  Sometimes, the act of building such a “box” out of a new fabric of beliefs, in a new place, with new tools, among new people becomes a creative process in itself.

By | 2011-06-22T15:41:27+00:00 June 22nd, 2011|Books, Change, Creativity, Perception|0 Comments