Tag cognition

{ Rethinking Cognition } Is Moving the Key to Deeper Thinking?

Heart Poster

What if we are meant to be moving while we are thinking?

When I was a teenager, I spent many winter weekends shoveling the snow off a very small pond in western Massachusetts so that I could ice skate. I wasn’t a particularly good skater, and because the ice was generally bumpy and scarred and hemmed in by snowbanks, I had to keep a constant eye on the ice as I moved forward. I would skate around and around on that little pond for hours in a pleasant sort of trance.

As a freshman in college, I took an introductory graphic design class that allowed only “hand work,” no computers. I vividly remember one particular assignment, a pair of posters. For one, I cut and glued a grid of thirty identical paper arrows trained on a heart. For the other, I cut and glued thirty or forty identical hearts taking a precipitous and bouncing fall. (I guess it was Valentine’s Day.) I stayed up till dawn, contentedly cutting and gluing, cutting and gluing. I was focused but relaxed. Time flew.

After college, I was introduced to Peter Elbow’s practice of “freewriting” by my Riverdale colleague David Nicholson, a veteran member of the English department. Freewriting is a 10- to 15-minute spell of writing by hand, without stopping or editing. As such, it’s useful to focus on the constant motion of the hand to ward against self-editing. For me, freewriting works like a dredger, hauling ideas from the depths of my mind.

Those simple, repetitive motions  — watchful ice skating, repeated cutting and gluing, writing by hand — required a low level of attention that seemed to draw out ideas with greater fluidity than usual. It was as if the physical activity quietly occupied the dominant region of my brain, allowing a more remote realm to emerge without obstruction.

Whether gluing pieces of paper, chopping vegetables, or mowing the lawn, repetitive motion may create a constructive form of distraction that gets us out of our own way. It might even help give rise to flow.

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I didn’t link the three experiences I describe above until I came across the research of art educator and Teachers College professor Andrea Kantrowitz. She studies the cognitive basis of drawing, in particular how the physical experience of sketching gives experienced artists access to ideas and understanding. In an 2012 article entitled “The Man behind the Curtain: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Drawing,” she examines the important place of drawing and sketching in many artists’ thought processes.

[Drawing] is a powerful tool for nonverbal inquiry, for thinking through problems and analyzing experiences. Beginning to draw, you immediately discover that you understand far less about what you see than you had assumed and that there is much more there than you had imagined. Drawing enables the drawer to see and comprehend that which is beyond words.

Could that understanding come, in part, from the physical movement drawing requires?

 […] Human thought is often continuous. Quick, gestural drawing—that is, sketching—unlike these other symbol systems, is also continuous…. As neuroscientist Vinod Goel explains, sketching is replete and dense. Its indeterminacies and gaps reflect the way we actually think through problems and provide openings for the new and unforeseen. Ambiguity is not only tolerated but cultivated by expert practitioners in order to make room for the draftsman to be surprised by her own work. 

Cognitive scientists have studied the drawing practices of experts who use rough sketches to inspire new design solutions. More than a mere aid to short-term memory, sketches are not just about lightening cognitive load, or even making new combinations. Sketches support radical restructuring of percepts and concepts, stimulating new analogies and leading the way to innovation and invention. Through disassembling and making new combinations, old sketches may generate new ideas.

This area of research draws on the theory of embodied cognition, which holds that cognition doesn’t reside exclusively in the brain but rather is the integration of brain activity and bodily experience.

As I sit and write this — not having risen, or effectively even moved, for a couple of hours — embodied cognition makes intuitive sense: we probably evolved to do our best thinking in action, not in perfect stillness. As a species we have never led less physically active lives than we do now, at least in the developed world. Think of the dozens of daily tasks that machines have largely taken out of our hands: plowing, threshing, kneading, mending, weaving, and so on. The sedentary way in which we live — and experience school, for that matter — is entirely new to our species, and it may be cutting us off from deeper thinking and ideas.

Doodling and fidgeting by certain students are increasingly tolerated by educators who understand that such habits actually help those learners concentrate. Might a limited degree of physical activity enhance the thinking of every student?

If so, how might we constructively bring movement into our thinking, particularly in schools? What physical activities would enhance students’ cognition — rather than dissipate it?

Tim Brown On Nurturing Your Creative Capacity Through Relaxed Attention …*

IDEO‘s Tim Brown has just published a great post over on LinkedIn about the importance of relaxed attention to creative problem-solving :

During relaxed attention, a problem or challenge is taking up space in your brain, but it isn’t on the front burner. Relaxed attention lies somewhere between meditation, where you completely clear your mind, and the laser-like focus you apply when tackling a tough math problem. Our brains can make cognitive leaps when we’re not completely obsessed with a challenge, which is why good ideas sometimes come to us when we’re in the shower or talking a walk or on a long drive.

Unfortunately, our education system provides ever shrinking opportunities for students to engage in the types of activities that lead to relaxed attention:

in both the UK and US education systems, since the late 1980s, the trend has been away from unstructured play and time studying the arts—both prime times for switching gears into relaxed cognition—and toward more structured, standardized National Curriculums. According to the report, this focus on finding the single right answer for the test instead of exploring many alternate solutions has resulted in “a significant decline in creative thinking scores in US schools. Using the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT), and a sample of 272,599 pupils (kindergarten to fourth grade), evidence suggests that the decline is steady and persistent [affecting] teachers’ and pupils’ ability to think creatively, imaginatively and flexibly.”

Luckily, Brown offers three suggestions on how to enhance your own and your students’ creative capacity through engaging relaxed attention.

Source: Why Daydreamers Will Save the World, published February 24, 2014.

The Moxie Institute’s “Cloud Filmmaking” & The Science of Character ~ Let It Ripple Series

I recently came across the trailer for the The Moxie Institute’s upcoming film, due out this winter, The Science of Character, for which Dominic acted as an advisor. For those unfamiliar with The Moxie Institute, it is the brainchild of filmmaker & founder of the Webby Awards, Tiffany Shlain, and UC Berkeley robotics professor and artist Ken Goldberg. The Moxie Institute team is pioneering a new form of collaborative filmmaking, “Cloud Filmmaking”, through its series Let It Ripple: Mobile Films For Global Change.

 Cloud Filmmaking By The Moxie Institute  | Published

The Cloud Filmmaking Manifesto by Tiffany Shlain & The Moxie Institute

The 5 Principles of Cloud Filmmaking

  1. To use the cloud to collaboratively create films with people from all over the world.
  2. To create films about ideas that speak to the most universal qualities of human life, focusing on what connects us, rather than what divides us.
  3. To give back as much as is received, by offering free customized films to organizations around the world to further their message.
  4. To use the cloud to translate films into as many languages as possible.
  5. To push the boundaries of both filmmaking and distribution by combining the newest collaborative tools available online with the potential of all the people in the world.

There have been three Let it Ripple films to date, with the fourth, The Science of Character, due out this winter. The Science of Character explores why character matters. Can you shape who you are? Who you will become? New research suggests that you can — that we can teach and shape character strengths (things like optimism, self-control, and curiosity). So if you can build your character, who do you want to be? 

The Science of Character – Film Trailer | published October 9, 2013.

 

To tie you over until The Science of Character is released, here is Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks, the second film in the Let It Ripple series, which  is a 10-minute film and accompanying TED Book. Based on new research on how to best nurture children’s brains from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child and University of Washington’s I-LABS, the film explores the parallels between a child’s brain development and the development of the global brain of Internet, offering insights into the best ways to shape both. Made through a new crowd-sourcing creativity process the Moxie team calls “Cloud Filmmaking,” Brain Power was created by putting into action the very ideas that the film is exploring: the connections between neurons, networks, and people around the world. 

BRAIN POWER: From Neurons to Networks | published November 5, 2013.

I highly encourage you to head over to LetItRipple.org and explore further the principles of Cloud Filmmaking, the Moxie Institute’s other films in the series and the inspiration and stories behind the movement, and, of course, ways to get involved. Enjoy this fascinating and brilliant rethinking …* of the potential of storytelling and filmmaking in the interdependent age.

Friday Link Fest…*

Friday Link Fest...* | rethinked.org | Photo by Elsa Fridman

“I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into the learners and the nonlearners.” -Benjamin Barber

READ

Five Ways that Games are More than Just Fun ~ They make us more social; They empower us to be creative; They help us develop empathy; They make us act playful and silly; They force us to tinker.  via GOOD, published August 1, 2013.

How Your Morning Coffee Can Make You a Better Designer ~ Tim Brown on how conscious observation, followed by iterating and testing potential solutions, can transform activities we take for granted. via GOOD, published August 2, 2013.

Why Some Great Ideas Catch And Others Don’t ~ Anesthesia caught on overnight, while antiseptic took decades. Why? via FastCo.Design, published July 30, 2013.

Literature Therapy Program Delivers Personalized Reading Lists ~ Bibliotherapy is a prescription reading service from the London-based cultural enterprise The School of Life that offers curated reading lists tailored to an individual’s struggles or personal situation. Patrons of the service book one-hour assessments with The School of Life for an in-person, telephone or Skype session with a well-read advisory team composed of an artist, a novelist and an independent bookstore owner. Instant prescriptions of recommended fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction are given at the end of the consultation, with a full prescription following within a few days. via PSFK, published July 29, 2013.

A Do-It-Yourself MBA? This Guy Did It–and So Can You ~ Victor Saad wrote his own masters-level education plan before becoming an entrepreneur. Now, he has founded an institute, The Experience Institute, to help others do the same. via Inc., published July 29, 2013.

The Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers ~ via James Clear, published July 29, 2013.

Five Ways to Ease Your Envy ~ Envy is a state of desiring something that someone else possesses. It’s a vicious emotion that can crush self-esteem, inspire efforts to undermine others’ successes, or even cause people to lash out violently. It also just feels horrible. So what can we do to disarm the green-eyed monster when it strikes? Here are five suggestions. via Greater Good Science Center, published August 1, 2013.

How to Kill Creativity ~ Teresa Amabile on the three components of creativity and the six general categories of managerial practices that affect creativity: challenge, freedom, resources, work-group, features, supervisory encouragement, and organizational support. via Sage Publications,  published July 12, 2006.

Unstoppable Learning ~ Learning is an integral part of human nature. But why do we — as adults — assume learning must be taught, tested and reinforced? Why do we put so much effort into making kids think and act like us? In this hour, TED speakers explore the ways babies and children learn, from the womb to the playground to the Web. via NPR TED Radio Hour.

Organize an Office Recess and Create Your Own Game ~  A toolkit to organize an office recess and create your own game. via GOOD, published August 1, 2013.

LOOK

Babilawn: Ornamental Air Conditioning Attachments ~ American designers Daniel Licalzi and Paul Genberg have developed a solution to help aid the visual pollution caused by air conditioners sticking out from one’s window. Influenced by the hanging garden’s of Babylon, ‘Babilawn‘, the faux grass mat attaches to the top of the A/C unit, giving users the opportunity to decorate their ‘lawn’ with miniature ornaments such as a white picket fence, yellow or blue daisies, and even a garden gnome. via designboom, published July 30, 2013.

“Uncarriable Carrier Bags” Remind Us, Cheekily, Not To Carry Bags ~ Mother London really wants you to stop carrying plastic bags, and the ad firm will shame you into compliance if necessary. Their yellow Uncarriable Carrier Bags are overlaid with pictures of objects that you wouldn’t want strangers on the street–let alone your own mama–to see you with. via FastCo.Create, published July 31, 2013.

Cakes Shaped Like Planets Have Scientifically Accurate Cross-Sections ~ via design taxi, published July 31, 2013. 

14 innovative & practical solutions to today’s most urgent education challenges ~ The 2013 WISE Awards Finalists from around the globe represent some of the best and most creative work being done in education by non-governmental organizations, charity groups, cultural institutions and the private sector. The 14 projects demonstrate practical solutions to today’s most urgent education challenges. Selected by a pre-Jury of international education experts, the project Finalists showcase unusual approaches to issues of access, quality, and employment needs. via WISE.

Could This Cardboard Furniture Replace Your Ikea Chairs And Bookshelves? Cardboard furniture for the urban nomad. Chairigami’s furniture is made from recycled cardboard and there’s no assembly required: They don’t use any glue or fasteners.~ via FastCo.Exist, published July 29, 2013.

Nobel Prize Winners Are Put to the Task of Drawing Their Discoveries ~ “The idea was, basically, to portray them in a way that was fun, personal and creative,” says Volker Steger. “I wanted to visually link them directly to their discoveries.” via Smithsonian Magazine, published July 23, 2013.

Look, No Grid! NYC Reimagined As A Circular Metropolis ~ Mapmaker Max Roberts‘ original designs aim to challenge conventional map dogma, a lot of which he says are outdated. Rather than emphasize straight lines, clean angles, and geographical accuracy, Roberts’ maps embody a more nuanced approach to mapping, one that combines aesthetics with usability. via FastCo.Design, published July 29, 2013.

WATCH

Find Your Creative Flow State ~ “Happiness is absorption.” – T.E. Lawrence. via Jason Silva’s Shots of Awe project, published July 30, 2013.

8 Things We Simply Don’t Understand About the Human Brain ~Despite all the recent advances in the cognitive and neurosciences, there’s still much about the human brain that we do not know. Here are 8 of the most baffling problems currently facing science. via io9, published July 29, 2013.

HMI Create a Framework for Embodied Curiosity in my Everyday Life? {rethinked * annex | Integrative Thinking}

Those of you who kept up with my rethinked*annex project in the fall, in which I attempted to translate the tools, processes and frames of reference of design thinking to my everyday life, might have been wondering what happened to the next phase of the project: integrative thinking. I had originally intended to post each week of the challenge (December-March) about various thought experiments that I would do in an attempt to assimilate the cognitive discipline into my daily life. I soon found out however, that the nature of integrative thinking did not lend itself to quick reflection, so I rethought…* my original plan, and decided instead to steep in integrative thinking, think/work it out for myself and allow some time for ‘digestion’ before trying to organize my thoughts about the experience. This is the first article in a series of posts synthesizing my insights and observations from these past three months spent attempting to assimilate integrative thinking into my everyday life.

THE ONTOLOGICAL CONSTRAINTS OF BEING HUMAN
The problem when one attempts to think about one’s own thinking, let alone try to change that thinking, is that one runs into myriad cognitive hurdles designed and implemented to keep us from questioning the equilibrium and understanding that we create for ourselves in our daily lives. I’m not talking about politics or culture but about the core ontological constraints of being human: our inability to process the constant influx of reality and our perceptual and cognitive need to parcel it into salient bits, which we craft into overarching frameworks and models through which to experience our subjectivity and every day encounters. Because of the infinite malleability of our appraisal of reality, we have the ability and the need to fashion our own understanding of it. The issue with this is that, as Roger Martin put it in his terrific book, The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking,

“this tendency makes it difficult to know what to do with opposing and seemingly incommensurable models. Our first impulse is to determine which one represents reality and which one is unreal and wrong, and then we campaign against the idea we reject. But in rejecting one model as unreal, we miss out on all the value that can be realized by holding in mind two opposing models at the same time.” (55)

INTEGRATIVE THINKING
Integrative thinking is an effective method for countering this human tendency to simplify and reduce our understanding of reality to opposing binaries. Martin offers the following working definition of integrative thinking: “The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.” (15) Integrative thinking, according to Martin, stems from our inherent capacity to simultaneously hold two opposing ideas in mind, a concept he explores through the metaphor of the ‘opposable mind’, which:

“we can use to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension. We can use that tension to think our way through to a new and superior idea. Were we able to hold only one thought or idea in our heads at a time, we wouldn’t have access to the insights that the opposable mind can produce. And just as we can develop and refine the skills with which we employ our opposable thumbs to perform tasks that once seemed impossible, I’m convinced we can also, with patient practice, develop the ability to use our opposable minds to unlock solutions to problems that seem to resist every effort to solve them.” (7)

After rereading Martin’s book, which is filled with keen observations and insights on the mental patterns of effective integrative thinkers, I decided that the first step in my attempt to practice integrative thinking on a daily basis should be to take an honest and in-depth look at my personal knowledge.

PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE | STANCE, TOOLS & EXPERIENCES

Martin defines personal knowledge as a tripartite coalition of stance, which “is your most broad-based knowledge domain in which you define who you are in your world and what you are trying to accomplish in it.” (93); tools, which, “range from formal theories to established processes to rules of thumb.” (97) And experiences that “form your most practical and tangible knowledge. The experiences you accumulate are the product of your stance and tools, which guide you toward some experiences and away from others.” (99) A thoughtful balance of the three elements of this cognitive coalition is key to effective integrative thinking.

“Operating at their best, the three elements of the personal knowledge system will reinforce each other to produce an ever-increasing capacity for integrative thinking. By the same token, though, stance, tools, and experience can conspire to trap perfectly intelligent and capable people in a world where problems seem too hard to solve and mere survival is the only goal.” (104)

Before I could start thinking about integrating components of conflicting models or ideas with my own, I had to gain a solid understanding of what my model was. But how to break past the blind spots and recognize my own assumptions to take an honest look at my stance, tools and experiences?

CREATING DISRUPTIONS

The first few weeks of December, I created all sorts of disruptive thought experiments for myself, which I hoped would allow me to experience the ordinary, common sensical and taken for granted dimensions of my life as unknown. I decided to write down 100 assumptions I had. I walked up and down my street taking pictures of each building from various angles. I went on a scavenger hunt around my apartment looking for ‘unexpected typographies.’ I tried to photograph and catalog every color and shade I could find in my home. I attempted to count how many different logos were scattered in my immediate surroundings. I was looking for a way to disrupt my perceptual routine.

Many of these little exercises proved to be fun and engaging, and the results were at times astonishing. Noticing the discrepancy between what I think I see and what I actually notice (and the vast amounts of things I don’t) was, forgive the dreadful pun, eye-opening. But at the end of the day, I found that all of these exercises provided little more than isolated disruptions and I was left frustrated, unable to understand how to take this to the next level.

If I was to assimilate integrative thinking into my everyday, I needed to find a hypodermic way of creating ongoing disruptions in my noticing and thinking practices. Tools and exercises would not be enough, what I needed was a paradigm shift. To go beyond isolated disruptions to a sustainable, adaptive and iterative process of integrative thinking, I would have to approach this challenge as a design project and consider the wider landscape of interrelated terms and concepts within which integrative thinking is embedded.

NEED FOR A PARADIGM SHIFT

Any time we talk about a paradigm shift, what we are really talking about is a moment in time and thought, in which ideas and concepts open up, become tangibly more malleable, and beg for new connections and definitions. Before I could move forward, I had to formulate in my own terms a synthesis of the drives and assumptions underlying the discipline, to refine my understanding of what it was I was after when seeking to ‘do’ integrative thinking. I had identified the constraints, which could all be summed up as ‘being human’—need for order and meaning, inability to process reality as is, uncomfortable with ambiguity, etc. Now I needed to identify the frame through which I would explore integrative thinking and make it mine.

Integrative thinking is the ability to suspend your framework—the core model through which you make sense of the world and your place within it—and to willingly place yourself in a space of unknowing, ambiguity and uncertainty. It is the ability to separate yourself from your ideas and the organizing narrative of your life, the willingness to look at all the things you have explained to yourself and admit that perhaps none of them are true. Of course, this is not the goal of integrative thinking. In its ideal form, integrative thinking is not about subtraction or substitution, it’s about remix and enhancement. But being able to entertain the notion that your model of reality is ‘wrong’ (not in an absolute sense, but in terms of it not being optimized to your life and practice) is an essential prerequisite to integrative thinking. If your ideas are too precious to you, and if you are unwilling to “kill your darlings” you will never be able to practice integrative thinking effectively.

Integrative thinking stems from our capacity for cognitive empathy, the ability to place yourself in someone else’s mental framework and view the world from their perspective. In my understanding of it, empathy starts with curiosity. The goal of my integrative design challenge, therefore, was to move past creating isolated events to creating a process by which to induce, nurture and maintain a cognitive state of hyperawareness and receptivity or ‘beginner’s mind’ in myself.

SHOSHIN | BEGINNER’S MIND

Martin alludes to the powerful possibilities of beginner’s mind and the hyperawareness it creates:

“When we learn something new, we’re acutely aware of features that more experienced practitioners take for granted. Think of your self-consciousness when you learned a new sport or took your first driving lesson. This hyperawareness of yourself and the skills you’re learning does not last long. Over time, practice transforms conscious acts into automatic habits characteristic of mastery. Think of your anxiety at stoplights when you first learned to drive using a standard shift, and the unthinking ease with which you now put the car into first and drive off. The better we get, the faster we forget about what we are doing. Our awareness of what we are doing and how we are accomplishing it quickly becomes as intuitive and inaccessible as the knowledge we use to tie our shoes or ride a bike.” (100)

Famed Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, summed this up beautifully with the remark, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.” Shoshin is a Zen Buddhist term, which translates to beginner’s mind and is characterized by a very open attitude, free of preconceptions and fueled by genuine curiosity and eagerness. Shoshin does not describe a temporal event (the first time one does something) but rather an emotional and cognitive state of openness, optimism, creativity, curiosity and zeal. Shoshin can (and should) be achieved at all levels of practice.

EMBODIED CURIOSITY

It seemed that no matter how I went about trying to break down integrative thinking for myself, I kept zeroing in and coming back to this concept of ‘embodied curiosity.’ A term that, at this stage, was little more than a vague contour overflowing with possibility. I had finally found my entry point into integrative thinking. And so, the formulation of the challenge went from the general and unhelpful “how might I practice integrative thinking” to the more focused: How Might I create a framework for embodied curiosity in my everyday life?

 

Look for part II next Thursday.

Walter Murch on the Human Need To Render Visual Reality Discontinuous…*

At any rate, I believe “filmic” juxtapositions {the cut} are taking place in the real world not only when we dream but also when we are awake. And, in fact, I would go so far as to say that these juxtapositions are not accidental mental artifacts but part of the method we use to make sense of the world: We must render visual reality discontinuous otherwise perceived reality would resemble an almost incomprehensible string of letters without word separation or punctuation. When we sit in the dark theater, then we find edited film a (surprisingly) familiar experience. “More like thought than anything else, in Huston’s words.” – Walter Murch, In the Blink Of An Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing 

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