creativity

Blinded by the light

It has become a habit during our summer vacation to read the novels short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.  Unusually this year, we were not only unanimous in our choice of the best novel but we also agreed with the judges and selected the ‘The Power‘ by Naomi Alderman.  In another of the books, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, a Chinese composer called Sparrow thinks ‘about the quality of sunshine, that is, how daylight wipes away the stars and planets, making them invisible to human eyes, might daylight be a form of blindness? Could it be that sound was also be a form of deafness? If so, what was silence?’.  I felt some resonance between these thoughts and John Hull’s writings on blindness and my earlier blog posting on ‘Listening with your eyes shut‘ [on May 31st, 2017].  In our everyday life, we are bombarded with sounds from people living around us, from traffic and from devices in our homes and places of work.  We rarely experience silence; however, when we do, perhaps on holiday staying in a remote rural location, then a whole new set of sounds becomes apparent: waves breaking on the shore in the distance, the field mouse rooting around under the floorboards, or the noises of cattle enjoying the lush grass in the field next door.  Okay, so you have to be in the right place to hear these sounds of nature but you also need silence otherwise you are deaf to them, as Sparrow suggests.

The same is true for knowledge and understanding because our minds have finite capacity [see my post entitled ‘Silence is golden‘ on January 14th, 2014].  When you are bombarded with information and data it is easy to become overwhelmed and unable to structure the information in way that makes it useful or meaningful.  In our connected society, information has become like white noise, or daylight obscuring the stars and planets.  Information is blinding us to knowledge and understanding.  We need to aggressively filter the information flow in order to gain insight and knowledge.  We should switch off the digital devices, which bombard us with information constantly, to leave our minds free for conceptual and creative thinking because that’s one of the few tasks in which we can outperform the smartest machine [see my post entitled ‘Smart machines‘ on February 26th, 2014].

In a similar vein see: ‘Ideas from a balanced mind‘ on August 24th, 2016 and ‘Thinking out-of-the-skull‘ on March 18th, 2015.

The red crane

The red crane by Weimen He

One of my favourite institutions to visit is the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford.  I have written before about their rotating exhibition in the Treasury of unique books and manuscripts from their collection [see my post entitled ‘Pope and Austen‘ on September 9th, 2015].  A recent visit did not disappoint and included one of John Le Carré’s manuscripts showing his extensive editing as well as early texts written on birch bark.  However, it was in the shop that something really caught my eye.  The fusion of art and engineering in a postcard depicting a painting called ‘The red crane’, by artist in residence, Dr Weimen He, capturing the moments in time during the refurbishment of the library.  This level of fusion is rare in my experience and perhaps the ethos that created it is one of the reasons the Weston Library is such a pleasure to visit.

The Roman architect, Vitruvius identified the three principles of good structural design to be ‘firmitas, utilitas, venustas’ or durability, utility and beauty.  Too often utility, including value for money, trumps beauty and shortens horizons for durability; so that little is contributed to our culture and nothing worthwhile will be left for future generations.

BTW there is a very large bookshop next door to the Weston Library and I couldn’t resist buying ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage‘ by Anuk Arudpragasam.  It’s a beautiful novel of consciousness about love and war.

Wanted: user experience designers

A few weeks ago, I listened to a brilliant talk by Professor Rick Miller, President of Olin College.  He was talking at a conference on ‘New Approaches to Higher Education’.  He tolds us that the most common job description for recent Olin graduates was ‘user experience designer’ rather than a particular branch of engineering.  Aren’t all engineers, user experience designers?  We design, manufacture and maintain structures, machines, goods and services for society.  Whatever an engineer’s role in supplying society with the engineered environment around us, the ultimate deliverable is a user experience in the modern vernacular.

Rick Miller’s point was that society is changing faster than our education system.  He highlighted that the relevance of the knowledge economy had been destroyed by internet search engines.  There is no longer much advantage to be gained by having an enormous store of knowledge in your head, because much more is available on-demand via search engines, whose recall is faster than mine.  What matters is not what you know but what you can do with the knowledge.  And in the future, it will be all about what you can conceive or create with knowledge.  So, knowledge-intensive education should become a thing of the past and instead we need to focus on creative thinking and produce problem-solvers capable of dealing with complexity and uncertainty.

Walking through exams

As a student, in the run up to exams, I used to enjoy going out walking in the hills on my own.  This approach to exam preparation probably surprised my fellow students.  While other walkers that I came across probably thought I was mad because, in an age before mobile phones, they would see me talking to myself; because, as I walked, I was reciting material that I needed to learn for the next exam.  This technique worked for me but I have hesitated to recommend such behaviour to my students.  Now, I’ve discovered that psychologists have found that cognitive performance is improved in young adults while walking at a comfortable, relaxed speed.  This is probably connected to the neurogenesis that I wrote about in my post entitled ‘Gone walking’ on April 19th, 2017.

So, as the examination season is underway in many universities, I thought I should pass on my rather eccentric approach to exam revision.  No doubt, I’ll discover that I wasn’t so eccentric after all but none of us dared share such an unconventional approach to exam preparation.

Sources:

Schaefer et al, Cognitive performance is improved while walking: differences in cognitive-sensorimotor couplings between children and young adults, Euro J Developmental Psychology, 7:371-89, 2010.

Susan Greenfield, A Day in the Life of the Brain, London: Allen Lane, 2016.

Illusion of self

A few weeks ago, I wrote that some neuroscientists believe consciousness arises from the synchronous firing of assemblies of neurons [see my post ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016].  Since these assemblies exist for only a fraction of a second before triggering other ones that replace them, this implies that what you think of as ‘yourself’ is actually a continuously changing collection of connected neurons in your brain, or as VS Ramachandran has described it ‘what drives us is not a self – but a hodgepodge of processes inside the skull’.

According to Kegan’s schema of cognitive development, new born babies perceive the world as an extension of themselves.  However, as our consciousness develops, the idea of a ‘self’ evolves as a construct of the brain that allows us to handle the huge flow of sensory inputs arriving from our five senses and we begin to separate ‘self’ from the objects around us.  This leads to us perceiving the world around us as separate to us but there to serve our needs, which we see as paramount.  Fortunately, the vast majority of us (more than 90%) move beyond this state and our relationships with other people become the dominant driver of our actions and identity.  Some people (about 35%) can separate their relationships and identity from ‘self’ and hence are capable of more nuanced decision-making – this is known as the Institutional stage. About one percent of the population are capable holding many identities and handling the paradoxes that arise from deconstructing the ‘self’ in the Inter-individual stage.

Of course, Kegan’s stages of cognitive development are also a construct to helps us describe and understand the behaviour and levels of cognition observed in those around us.  There is some evidence that deeper more complex thought processes, associated with higher levels of cognition, involve the firing of larger, more widespread assemblies of neurons across the brain; and perhaps these larger neuronal assemblies are self-reinforcing; in other words, the more we think deeply the more capable we are of thinking deeply and, just occasionally, this leads to an original thought.  And, maybe the one percent of individuals who are capable of handling paradoxical thoughts have brains capable of sustaining multiple large neuronal assemblies.  A little bit like lightning triggered from multiple points in the sky during a (brain)storm.

How does this relate to engineering?  Well, we touch on Kegan’s stages of cognitive development in our continuing professional development courses [see my post on ‘Technology Leadership’ on January 18th, 2017] for engineers and scientists aspiring to become leaders in research and development because we want to advance their cognitive development and, also allow them to lead teams consisting of individuals at the institutional and inter-individual stages that will be capable of making major breakthroughs.

Sources:

V.S. Ramachandran, ‘In the hall of illusions’, in ‘We are all stardust‘ by Stefan Klein, London: Scribe, 2015.

Kegan, R., In over our heads: the mental demands of modern life, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Kegan, R., The evolving self: problem and process in human development, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.