Thursday, February 25, 2010

An experiment to see our brains at work

Here's an experiment to explore what A.R.Luria, the Russian neurophysiologist identified as right brain (simultaneous) and left brain (successive) processing.

I use Soundball, my favorite Improv routine, as a warm up for my interactive workshops. To get the dopamine and the creativity flowing. And to observe how our brains work.

I begin by forming and throwing an imaginary ball to a  member of the audience, and make a sound like "whee" or "whooo". She catches the ball with the same sound, then throws the ball to another person, with a different sound. And we keep the process going for as long as possible, with as few mistakes as possible.

At the beginning, chaos reigns! People become frozen, unable to move. Some catch the ball and forget what to do. Others throw the ball to no one in particular, so no one catches it. Some correct their mistakes. Some make the same sound coming and going. Others don't make a sound atall.

Then, as we learn what to do, our performances improve and soon the whole room is synchronized perfection. But if I start too many new Soundballs going too early, it all fizzles out.

It seems like we can't pay attention to too many moving targets at the same time.

Usually, after a few minutes, our collective performances improve, even when we never get to throw the ball in rehearsal. We learn by imitation, via Broca's area of the brain, just above the left ear, where the same mirror neurons fire off when you watch and perform an activity. So, watching is almost as good as doing.

Last week I ran a session for about 90 people. I was in a hurry, and started too many Soundballs going without enough practice or feedback.  The result. Chaos. Too much diverted attention.

The problematic result started me wondering if practicing in small groups would help. Or co-visualizing success could be even better, in the same way that athletes practice winning by rehearsing their performance in their "mind's eye".

So here's an experiment and some feedback questions to test this theory:

1. The facilitator explains how Soundball works. Create an "imaginary ball" with both hands. About 12 inches in diameter and demonstrate to the room the purpose of the game. You throw the ball with a sound like "yabba dabba do", they receive the ball with the same sound as the sender, then send the ball to another person with a new sound, such as "Wowee".
2. Experiment 1 - Ask the participants to observe their performances. Start a Soundball in one part of the room. Then start another somewhere else.
3. Feedback - What happened when people began to receive and send soundballs?
4. Feedback - What explanations can you offer for the success or failure of the exercise?
5. Experiment 2 - Ask the group to divide into threes to practice Soundball. One person in the triad starts the Soundball, each takes it in turns to receive with the same sound, send with a different sound, and keep the exercise going for 2-3 minutes. Observe your performances.
6. Feedback - What happened when people practised Soundballs in threes.
7. Experiment 3 - Now repeat Experiment 1 with the whole group. Again observe your performances.
8. Feedback - What happened when people began to receive and send soundballs?
9. Feedback - What explanation can you offer for the success or failure of the exercise?
10.Experiment 4 - Ask the group to divide into threes, then all close their eyes and imagine the group of three playing Soundball according to the rules, until they are mentally performing the task perfectly. After 2-3 minutes practice, repeat Experiment 1.
11. Feedback - Thinking about our performance, when did we perform poorly and what was happening at the time?
12. Feedback - Thinking about our performance, when did we perform really well and what was happening at the time?
13. Theory development: Explain what was/not happening in terms of left brain processing (simultaneous processing, dealing with novel situations), right brain processing (automatic learned routines, successive processing), and mirror neuron processing (empathy, imitation) for each experiment.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Bridging the great spiritual divide

Oh, what a waste of time and energy. Of the fire and brimstone kind. On the question "Is there a God?" One side says emphatically Yes! The other, just as loudly. No!

If only the energy invested in attacking each other were devoted to a more creative cause.

I recently invested a whole evening to hear the conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza deliver a lecture, "What's so great about Christianity?", the title of one of his books. He spoke to a "home-town" audience at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix Arizona, which very successfully offers a university education with a religious flavor. It's one of the fastest growing universities in the USA.

D'Souza, a darling of the Reagan Administration, is noted for challenging prominent atheists and philosophers in public debates. He takes on the likes of Christopher Hitchens (God is not Great) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) as well as "radical" philosophers Dan Dennett (Breaking the Spell - Religion as a Natural Phenomenon) and Peter Singer (Practical Ethics).

He lays the blame for some of history's biggest debacles squarely at the feet of non-believers. In much the same way that atheists set out to show religion as the root cause of much human conflict and misery.

Yet, when the beliefs of both sides are subjected to closer examination, you discover they have more in common than each might imagine. Both are interested in "who am I?" and "what is my place/role in the universe?" "Is there life after death? "How did the universe, life and everything come into existence?' "What are the best rules for living and being?"

Imagine if organizations had a Department for Deciding and Promulgating New Beliefs. Atheists and believers would probably both be hired for the jobs in the same way that computerists or programmers - Mac, Windows, Linux and Cobol - work in IT, or copy writers, PR writers and artists work happily together in Public Relations and Advertising or accountants, economists, actuaries and managerial finance graduates co-exist in Finance.

So what if both sides joined up to explore what could be done together, to heal the rift? And then go looking for better solutions for humanity and the planet, that combine the best of what each has to offer. What if we could more deeply understand life, the universe and everything by starting out with an open mind and a preparedness to take on-board new knowledge we collectively create, and narrow the gap between what we know and don't know?

So here is a workshop to explore the gulf between us, no matter what you believe:

1. What big questions do atheists and believers in God both ask e.g. What is the purpose of life?
2. If the answer is 42, what is the question? (P.S. Thanks Douglas Adams, deceased, author of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy).
3. Brainstorm a list of urgent projects of immense importance to human society which atheists and those who believe in God could profitably address. Jointly.
4. If someone/something e.g. Douglas Adam's Electronic Monk could do your believing for you, who and what would you be?
5. How do we know what we know?
6. Describe the differences between concepts, theories, knowledge, faith and justified true belief?
7. What new kinds of Wisdom Age (wise application of knowledge) products or services could be created  that would serve the interests of atheists, those who believe in God, and the rest of us?
8. Brainstorm a list of options for the creation of the universe, e.g. self-organizing, a designer/creator of some kind, and explain how each would work.
9. What is the purpose of life? And how does this relate to the purpose of the universe?
10. What is the difference between a mystery and a miracle and how might the two be reconciled?
11. What might be the rules of engagement, standards of proof etc. that might be adopted by atheists and those who believe in God in order to pursue useful joint investigations?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A new breed of entrepreneur

If you have made up your mind about something and refuse to budge, watch out!

The Wisdom Age entrepreneurs are heading your way. To convert your theories and beliefs into products and services that incorporate conflicting and contradictory world views, even the beliefs of your most entrenched foes.

These "connectapreneurs" use contradictions as the creative source for their new-to-the-world products and services. They mix the old with the new, the traditional with the leading edge, the beautiful with the ugly, the happy with the sad. Think atheism vs a belief in God. Or monarchy vs anarchy. Or Glamour vs. Glitz.

They search for and discover over-arching ideas that resolve the contradictions between models, theories and beliefs, and in the process, invent new knowledge. Then work out how to apply it wisely.

Wisdom work - and the tools that help people make wise decisions - is one of the fastest expanding sectors of the economy. Which will automate your Knowledge Age job, as well as jobs in IT, mining, construction, manufacturing and agriculture. Because they've found an even smarter way to do stuff than anyone could possibly have imagined.

Google any of these kinds of jobs and see what you find: green, ethical, renewable energy, corporate governance, humanitarian, peace or conflict resolution, social responsibility and social justice. These jobs are designed to solve some of our worst, most wicked problems.

There's a whole bunch of websites which advertise ethical and green jobs. Like, and Certified ethical hacker. Sustainability engineer. Healthy eating specialist. Ecological footprint auditor. Ethics officer. Organic food quality tester.

Don't for one moment think these people are righteous do-gooders who want to ban dangerous, risky, weird or downright crazy activities. No, not at all. This new breed of entrepreneur merely seeks to trawl the depths of your desires as the creative inspiration for new businesses that are highly connected, empathic, playful, engaging, exciting and downright amazing, that eliminate the pain and misery created by greed, corruption and fundamentalist beliefs that take people back to before the Dark Ages.

They are all for extremes, just so long as they are dialectically resolved into a higher order principle or concept, and  tempered with the mantra, "in what ways can you do it wisely" so it is of benefit not only to yourself but to others. So that it helps to bake a bigger cake for all.

There are five rules for the creation of these new products and services:
  • Combine: Mix multiple ideas from different fields, especially contradictory ideas, theories, concepts etc and jump to a higher level to create an over-arching idea that contains and respects the vital essences of their forebears/ancestors/subsidiary ideas.
  • Complete:  Incorporate all the bits of the jigsaw. Don't leave any out that are inconvenient or don't fit your personal model or world view. There has to be a bigger and better world view that ensures you don't make giant mistakes like the big banks or auto makers, who ignored inconvenient truths.
  • Fit: Make sure all the parts of a new product or service are a compact, neat, beautiful, elegant solution. There are very few best fit designs. For example, the tail, wings, fuel, pilot, passengers and engines of an aircraft all have their own unique place in the overall schema.  
  • Wise: The new product or service must serve, not only the needs of the maker and the user, but all others. A win-win-win outcome.
  • Connected: All new-to-the-world products or services need to live within a nested ecology of other products and services. e.g. the motor car goes with shopping malls, freeways, gas stations, tires, engines etc. So when you develop your product idea, develop what goes with it at the same time or otherwise it may never get off the ground. Like electric cars need charging stations everywhere, or fax machines only work when a critical mass of people have one.
This new kind of entrepreneur wants to keep people out of prison by creating products and services that help young people develop the language, leadership and team work skills that allow them to be fully engaged in society, as valuable contributors to wealth and wellness creation. Ensure you are fit and healthy and live to a ripe old age. Help politicians get out the the rut they are in, and change the rules of the game, so the clammy hand of government plays less of a role in our lives, simply because personally and collectively we are all more capable of doing stuff for ourselves.

So what are some of the ways to success as an entrepreneur in a Wisdom Age world? It pays to remember these five principles:
  • Change is accelerating. 
  • Complexity is running rampant. 
  • We all collectively create the future together. It's not someone else's responsibility. 
  • New simple stuff arises from unusual complex combinations.
  • Play is the way to create new ideas and road test each scenario.
Here's some strategies that use these core principles:

Solve big world problems: Some of the best opportunities resolve major world problems simply because they remain unsolved.

Find solutions in strange places. Some of the best product and services ideas come from the most unlikely places. Look to the boundaries between major conflicts, where no one dares to look. For example, to create a spiritually satisfying technology, look at what religious fundamentalists and atheists have in common.

Integrate multiple unique ideas, methods and technologies:  Breakthrough products attack many categories at once. For example, the photocopier attacked carbon copy paper, spirit duplicators and small offset printers. The computer dealt a blow to calculators, adding machines, typewriters and fax machines.

Productize services. Create products that add a knowledge creation or ethical dilemma resolution tool, or embed complex thinking or decision making processes in silicon or biology.

Co-invent with the customer. Collectively create the future together. Involve the customer as a prod-user or localizer-customizer. Work with customers so their customers get to experience your product or service.

Run simulations. Play games to try out the possibilities. Check which is the one most likely to attract customers and support or complementary products and services. What other products are a perfect fit in a new ecology?

Start many projects. Some will win, most will lose. Back the ones that race away the fastest, that garner the most support, that are contagious.

Plan, Plan, Plan. Never stop planning. Do it daily, if necessary hourly. Rethink your strategy constantly. Learn from every customer or supplier, because they will help you perfect the product or service and how to take it to market. Perfect the vision until you live it. And be prepared to scrap a plan if it's wrong.

Sell prototypes. Start making money as soon as possible. There's no point waiting around for an investor. You are the investor. Promise your first customer free upgrades to the next three versions. Your first website and product leaflet don't need to be glossy. They can be a single page with the basics. The features. Benefits. Price.

Discover and promote new uses. You may believe you thought of everything, but people discover new uses you never ever considered.

Work with others who have resources. There's a whole bunch of people out there who have the skills and tools you need to get started. And they won't cost as much as you think. Or they may be prepared to contribute to the project, especially if they stand to gain revenue from your ongoing success.

Loyalty pays. Be really loyal to the people that help you and forgive those that fail you.

Don't delay. Start today. Don't worry about the patents and trade marks: It may be handy to get a patent for your new idea or a trade mark for your logo/brand, but it costs a lot of money and takes a very long time, as long as a decade, and if someone infringes your patent, it costs even more money and diverts your attention to pursue them.

So here's an unstructured workshop to create a new Wisdom Age opportunity. Just apply the rules and go for it.

You have been given the task of creating a new Wisdom Age product or service? What is it and how will you take it to market?

Or a structured the short session we ran this week with Professor Abe Tawil's business class at Baruch College, City University of New York. Thanks everyone! You were great!

1. Brainstorm a list of things that make you as a customer unhappy, angry, concerned or frustrated?
2. Describe a problem that is being created for people and society by accelerating change and increasing complexity.
3. Brainstorm a list of the world's UNSOLVED PROBLEMS e.g. poverty or war or CONTRADICTIONS e.g. disputes between atheists and religious people?
4. Give an example of a product or service which 20 years from now people will laugh at and explain why it is silly, clunky, quaint or ridiculous.
5. Make a list of things people valued 50-1000 years ago that we no longer value, but might value again.
6. Brainstorm a list of products/services which are commodities (all the same) and may be ripe for re-invention.
7. Choose 1 or 2 new technologies that have yet to be widely implemented (eg. biomimicry, nanotechnology, ethical dialectical discourse) to add to your mix.
8. Craft an idea for a wisdom age product/service that overcomes a customer dissatisfier, solves a major world problem or contradiction, that people will no longer laugh at, was ripe for reinvention, revisits old values, and includes a new technology and helps people APPLY KNOWLEDGE WISELY.  (Name + 25 word description please).
9. How can you get all the products and services to fit together as an ecology, interdependent, connected as a self-supporting, self-developing system. Choose one or two of the product ideas and describe how to connect them?
10. Choose one of the new product ideas and develop new ideas for connected products and services that could support it as part of a new system.
11. Write a four-line rap song for your best idea to explain how it works/benefits the customer. e.g. The new Apple Ipad, really is glamorous, it makes us want to be, platonically amorous.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The recursive brain

Imagine it. Create it. That's what humans do. We make tools that continue to upgrade the human brain, to ever-higher levels of capability.

Alexei Nikolaevich Leont'ev (1903–1979), the Russian psychologist who is regarded as a father of Cultural-Historical Activity Theory shows our unconscious automatic actions eventually becomes crystallized as tools.

The finger used to dig a hole in the ground, is replaced by a stick. We learn to use a sharp rock to cut materials. Then someone realizes that a sharp rock attached to a stick makes it easier to catch a fish or kill a wild beast. We make the switch from diggers and cutters to spearers and throwers.

Each new improvement to a tool displaces an earlier activity performed by a body part or a simpler tool.

More powerful tools are created out of new combinations of simpler tools, and the method of use changes. A motor car may have wheels similar to a chariot but it has an engine and drive train instead of a horse, a steering wheel instead of reins, and a horn instead of a shout.

Human brains and tools co-invent each other to ever-higher levels of capability, in a kind of race to the top. Christiansen & Chater, in a paper available from the Santa Fe Institute website (a research center that studies the laws of complexity), say that the brain and language are symbiotic (co-dependent) and one helps to co-create and leverage the other, recursively. I have added the tool development steps to their original diagram to show that tool development closely follows language development. In fact, as new technologies become more widely adopted, so do the words that describe them and their use.

When the method of use changes so does the nature of work. This determines the roles we play in life. A stick can be a sword (soldier/warrior), or a digging implement (farmer/miner) or a baton (policeman), wand (witch/magician), a conductor’s baton (musician/conductor of an orchestra) or joystick (computer gamer/pilot).

This is how the brain-tool partnership works. When we face a new situation that instinctive or automatic left-brain routines can't handle, the right frontal lobes help develop a new way to deal with the problem, using what the Russian neurophysiologist, A.R. Luira (and colleague of Leont'ev) called "simultaneous processing". The left frontal lobes automate the new sequence, in a process Luria called "successive processing". So the next time we encounter the same situation, our left-brain automatic "zombie" will play the action sequence for us.

Over time, we begin to use tools in new ways the original designer did not anticipate. We find ways to use the tool with less effort, or new tasks. Some are inspired to develop smarter, faster tools that combine our tool with other new tools. We use the simultaneous processing capabilities of our right frontal lobes to discover a new way of doing things, automate the process, then using the planning capabilities of our right frontal lobes, develop a plan, a step- by-step process to make an even better tool. See the picture below.

It takes two trips through the brain for a new set of automatic thoughts to become a tool! It's like double-loop inventing.

Then, by combining several tools we create more complex tools. We can, for example, take our simple man-powered "sharp-stick" plough and add a horse, leather straps and harness to create a better tool. Our role shifts from tiller/digger to ploughman. Then, if we want our new tool to be really useful, we can create an ecology of interdependent tools that act in concert with the tool. Paddocks and fences to isolate the crop from foraging animals while it is growing, silos to store the grain so it is safe from weevils, animals or thieves and tools for crushing the wheat and turning it into flour, ready to be baked as bread, biscuits or cakes. 

And so the tool becomes more complex, powerful and the work more automated.

It’s recursive. The outputs from the last round of invention become the inputs to the next.

As any doctor, facilitator, university lecturer or jumbo jet pilot will tell you, it takes 20 years of education and then many years of practice to operate at the highest levels human society has to offer.

And which has little to do with genetics, because people are able to rise to these exalted heights from any race or socio-economic status, given the same opportunities. Basically human brains start off very much the same with minor variations, but with equal potential to develop.

But what makes a difference is how effectively you are nurtured and what you learn along the way. It also has much to do with how many specialized words you know, and whether your earliest interactions with others were positive or negative. And of course the opportunities that you were presented with and choose to (not) take up.

So here are some questions to explore how we can capitalize on this knowledge:

1. Brainstorm a list of words that came into use with the invention of the motor car e.g. engine, hood, freeway.
2. Brainstorm a list of words that fell into disuse with the replacement of the horse and buggy by the motor car. e.g. harness etc.
3. Make a list of all the high-level actions that you perform automatically (do without thinking), especially the really complex ones like facilitating a group meeting, teaching maths or programming, that are easy for some to do, but not for everyone.
4. Choose a very complex, high level process and describe a product that could automate it.
5. Thinking about how our thoughts and the actions they control ultimately become tools, invent a new innovation process that capitalizes on this idea.
6. What kinds of tools could we create to help make our brains even smarter than they are now and ready for a Wisdom Age world with what competitive advantage?
7. Make a list of the kinds of chores that you would like to see automated, that waste your time, are irrelevant to your life, and which you would love a new tool to help you do it faster and better.

Christiansen, M.H., &; Chater, N. (2007). Language as shaped by the brain. SFI Working Paper, Retrieved April 13, 2008 from the Santa Fe Institute website,