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

Boosting creativity through passion, novelty and pleasure

I’ve just returned from Chicago, where I had the pleasure to present my program “Rewire Your Brain to Speak Your Mind: Neuroscience Insights for Conflict Management” at the Association of Conflict Resolution Chicago Area Chapter. It was wonderful to connect with other conflict resolution professionals and tap into our collective brain power for new ideas and approaches. Later, I got a chance to catch up with my Chicago friends and attend an amazing skating show – Ice Dreams 2011.

While the swirl of events from this weekend in Chicago is still fresh in my mind, I am going to anchor my breath-taking and brain-captivating experiences with words as I reflect on how passion, novelty, and pleasure can help us become better solution-finders:

1.   Remember to nurture and pursue your life’s passions. Passions have the ability to dissolve fear, doubt, and hesitation. They can give you the voice to speak your truth. And it doesn’t really matter what your passions are as long as they help you embrace your own identity and live your life more fully. Passions can disrupt the perpetual circles of victimhood, blame, and excuses by shifting attention to more pleasant experiences.  According to neuro-psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, the author of “Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive,” positive emotions make us more creative and resourceful. They open the mind to new possibilities and new ways of dealing with old problems. So, get connected to your passions.

2.  Expand your synaptic connections through new places, people, and experiences. It will help you keep your brain plastic and able to build new pathways that can translate into new behaviors and new thinking patterns. Exposure to varying cultural experiences and views increases the pool of ideas to draw from and makes people more acceptable of differing opinions. Novelty tends to attract attention and boost cognitive energy. The brain is wired to make sense of the outside world so that we can feel more comfortable in it. Novel information puzzles the brain as it tries figure out how this new piece of information fits into our worldview. The brain is motivated by curiosity and the search for patterns. That’s how we learn. When the brain is busy searching for patterns and making predictions, it produces more neuromodulator dopamine, which is responsible for more pleasurable experience. You can stretch your brain and build up your transformational capacity by introducing small changes to your routine through travel, new activities, and new friends.

3.  Nourish your senses and savor your positive emotions. What you feed to your senses has a profound effect on how you perceive the world and make decisions. A recent study, for example, reveals that people stereotype more in disorderly areas than in the clean ones. According to another study, the mere presence of plants in an office setting boosts one’s ability to maintain attention. Beautiful and luxurious experiences create a perfect neurococktail to envelope your brain in a pleasant, dopamine-induced buzz.  The feeling of awe is transformative.

Positive psychologists have discovered that one way to increase our well-being is to savor our life experiences. Savoring is a form of mindfulness.  According to Fred Bryant, the author of “Savoring,” we can anticipate future events, appreciate the present, or reminisce positively about the past. All three forms of savoring are helpful in producing positive emotions.

Rich sensory experiences that appeal to your eyes, ears, your senses of smell and touch make savoring easy. Find what makes your senses happy and indulge. But remember that people tend to compensate for distress by overindulging. Our willpower and self-control diminish when we are in a bad mood, while our search for pleasure and comfort increases. So, it is better to schedule your harmless infusions of beauty and luxury periodically to cultivate a positive outlook in the long run.

On this note, I am off to reconnect with my positive emotions as I savor the memories of the past weekend, new professional connections, good times with friends, and the immersive experience of dancing lights and music, combined with the mastery, speed, and power of the blades.

By | 2011-05-03T23:32:48+00:00 May 3rd, 2011|Books, Brain, Creativity, Perception|3 Comments

Your Brain or Mine? Collective Perceptions and Group Conformity

agreementMetaphors often reveal the hidden connections between our perception of the physical world and our mental constructs.   The expression “eye to eye” means “in agreement.”  It turns out that seeing eye to eye in the physical sense may explain our tendencies to conform and “follow the crowd” under  peer pressure.  Put differently, what others say may change what you see.

In the 1950’s, Solomon Asch, conducted a series of experiments designed to understand the phenomenon we know as conformity. In his experiments, a group of participants were seated in a classroom and asked to compare the length of vertical lines. They were then asked to tell the group which vertical line, A, B, or C, matched the test line. The catch was that all of the participants except one were Asch’s aids . The aids first gave the correct answers, but eventually all began to give incorrect responses. Amazingly, the test subject began giving the same incorrect answers as the aids. Overall, after 18 trials, only 25% of the subjects never gave a false answer, and 75% of the subjects conformed at least once.  However, in follow-up trials where one aid openly disagreed with the rest of the aids voicing the wrong answer, the test subjects easily identified the correct answer. So, it took just one dissenting voice to destroy the conformity spell.

Psychiatry professor Gregory Berns, the author of the book “Iconoclast:  A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently,” wanted to find out if people conformed because the peer pressure influenced their decision-making or because the group’s opinions affected their physical perception.  The use of fMRI, registering different brain activation patterns, allowed the researchers to distinguish the “seeing” stage from the “deciding” stage.  The experiments revealed that the peer pressure may actually shape the way we see things.  Moreover, those subjects whose perception remained unaffected by the opinions of others and who went against the group showed more activation in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear responses and emotional control.  It takes courage to disregard the fear and discomfort and go against the group.

So, how do we know whether we truly see eye to eye or we look at the world through the peers’ eyes?   What do we do to avoid false agreements?

Reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress, Part 2: Cross-Cultural Communication

MBB CongressI continue with my reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress and offer a few more take-aways from one of the workshops I attended, entitled “Essentials in Relating Across Cultures” by Ed Ladon and Alan Gross.

We began with the discussion of culture as an iceberg metaphor.  Only about one-eighth of an iceberg is visible above the water.  A larger section of an iceberg is concealed below the water. Similarly, we can observe some aspects of culture, but a big part of it remains almost imperceptible.  It can only be suspected, guessed, or developed as understanding of the culture grows.

We shared examples of how cultures differ in their perceptions of time, intrinsic human nature, social relations, attitudes towards Nature, among other things.

My take-away is to approach cross-cultural work with an open mind as a learning experience. You need to do your reading and get a network of local informants who can help you navigate the more subtle aspects of the culture. Even still, you are likely to make mistakes and embarrass yourself occasionally.  What helps here is a sense of humor and humility, and open communication.  Setting expectations from the start that miscommunication may happen, things may get tough, and people may get angry, but it is all manageable if there is mutual respect and the desire to work together.  As Ed Ladon put it, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, at least, at the beginning stages, i.e. to learn.”

When you are in the host country, it pays to observe, ask a lot of questions, and listen. Become a people-watcher.  Flexible approaches help when you work on a cross-cultural project while assumptions hurt.

On a side note, I can’t help but think about the influence of cross-cultural experiences on the brain.  Research shows that culture shapes the brain:

East Asians tend to process information in a global manner whereas Westerners tend to focus on individual objects. There are differences between East Asians and Westerners with respect to attention, categorization, and reasoning.  For example, in one study, after viewing pictures of fish swimming, Japanese volunteers were more likely to remember contextual details of the image than were American volunteers. Experiments tracking participants’ eye movements revealed that Westerners spend more time looking at focal objects while Chinese volunteers look more at the background. In addition, our culture may play a role in the way we process facial information. Research has indicated that when viewing faces, East Asians focus on the central region of faces while Westerners look more broadly, focusing on both the eyes and mouth.

Here are some additional resources on culture and the brain:

“Cultural Neuroscience – Culture and the Brain” by Daniel Lende provides a good summary of the current research.

“Culture and the Brain” by Nalini Ambady and Jamshed Bharucha is the research review paper [PDF].

“Culture and Systems of Thought: Holistic Versus Analytic Cognition” by Richard E. Nisbett, et al is another paper on the topic, including cultural, historic, and business perspectives [PDF].

“Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship Between Living Abroad and Creativity” by  William W. Maddux and Adam D. Galinsky is a paper on how living overseas boosts creative thinking [PDF].

“Culture and Attention: Comparing the Context Sensitivity between East Asians and Westerners” by Takahiko Masuda is a slideshow presentation with the summary of the current research.

Related posts:

Reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress, Part 1: Collaborative Informal Problem Solving

Reflections on the 4th Annual Mediators Beyond Borders Congress, Part 3:  Compassionate Listening

Can computer games help us make better decisions in life?

World of Uncertainty Supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a team at Queen’s University Belfast is exploring whether people can be trained to make better decisions by improving their ability to recognize and make allowances for their subjective opinions and biases. This interdisciplinary project harnesses leading-edge expertise in mathematics, statistics, critical thinking, knowledge management and educational psychology.  The team has developed a prototype that could be built on by commercial games manufacturers and turned into an e-learning or training tool for professionals and for the general public.  Here is how the researchers describe the “World of Uncertainty” game:

“The game uses multiple choice questions on a variety of subjects. However this is not just an ordinary quiz. Its main purpose is to improve and calibrate players’ certainty and sense of probabilities rather than subject knowledge. Thus the topic of the quiz or difficulty level became irrelevant so long as the player enjoys the quiz and is motivated to achieve higher score. On answering each question, the player has to indicate his/her confidence as accurately as possible using interactive slider. As a player adjusts the slider, corresponding payoffs for correct and incorrect outcomes will be shown. This payoff function designed to encourage the honest and accurate confidence judgment. In addition to immediate feedback, players can access results of all completed quizzes and calibration charts from personal profiles. Detailed feedback helps to correct over/under confidence in quantifying internal probabilities.”

Over 500 members of the general public, as well as many students from Queen’s and Dundalk Institute of Technology, have already tried out the prototype.  The prototype game allows you to increase your accuracy in answering questions and train to quantify your confidence.  It is available for anyone to try out at http://quiz.worldofuncertainty.org/.

By | 2011-01-20T18:37:02+00:00 January 20th, 2011|Learning, Peak Performance, Perception|0 Comments