Saturday, June 13, 2009

Brain extensions

During the past 10,000 years, since we abandoned our hunter-gatherer existence for an agricultural way of life our tools have become an evolutionary juggernaut while our genes have been plodding along. During this time, the human genome has drifted a mere 0.1 percent.

In a feedback loop between our ever-smarter tools and the same old “stone age” brain, we humans have managed to invent our way from a clutch of very ordinary looking tools of vocalizations, sign language, spears and fire to a dazzlingly rich cornucopia of technologies - power and light at the flick of a switch, the ability to be anywhere else in the world in less than a day, instant communication anywhere at the click of a button or instant extinction with nuclear weapons some of us have at our fingertips.

Tools are like partners for our brains and exoskeletons for our bodies. When we “strap on” a new tool we gain extra powers, the power to send messages to the future or record memories of the past or the ability to invent more tools, so that both we and our tools become smarter. As Damasio points out, brain cells are different to all other cells, because they are not only themselves, but they represent other cells, and become unified with the “tools” you hold in your hand, or say with your larynx, or type with your fingers.

Think Ellen Ripley in Aliens played by Sigourney Weaver when she straps on the caterpiller tractor-type machine to take on the beast. When we fly as a passenger in a plane, or ride in a motor car, the pilot or driver is merely allowing us to take a ride in their extended body. The playwright uses the services of actors to extend his or her mind, so that the narrative becomes visible to others. The leaders of countries deploy armies to extend their power and influence at a distance.

The new roles we play are achieved by appropriating a new tool and, with practice, automating its use so we don’t even have to think about it. It also depends on how we use the tool….the rules of use. A stick can be a sword, a digging implement, a baton to conduct an orchestra or a toy that represents something else in childrens' play. Books can entertain us, teach us new things, fuel a fire when we have exhausted our firewood or prop up a bed with a broken leg. A jet aircraft can help us travel to exotic places for our holidays, run a global business or be used as a weapon of mass destruction.

When we choose both the tool and the rules of use, that determines our role. Often, using a tool to perform many roles. Consider how a computer can be used to play the roles of soldier, writer, artist, musician, lover, friend, pilot, software programmer, terrorist or academic.

Questions are some of the most powerful tools in our arsenal, that give us extra powers as leaders, facilitators, consultants or influencers.

At a low power setting, not much happens when we ask:

"What color is the sky?"

But if you ask a higher voltage question, such as:

"Think of the sky, in all its' different colors. What was happening each time? e.g. The menacing green of an approaching thunderstorm.

It's the difference between a photo/snapshot and a movie.

Here's a method to help you invent your own rich, attention-grabbing questions:

1. Brainstorm a whole bunch of rich, interesting or amazing questions to explore a topic, e.g. HAPPINESS (one or two questions each).
2. Present and collectively respond to each question, and at the end of the question, report how you reacted to the question.

Then complete this process:

3. What features/characteristics of questions grab our attention, get our brains excited, entertain us, get us talking to each other?
4. Make a list of the TOP 10 features/characteristics of great questions.
5. Now using the Check list from 4. craft a new set of fantastic questions to explore a different topic, e.g. WORK.

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