SAN JOSE — Physicist Ransom Stephens gave attendees his perspectives on how to kick your problem-solving skills into high gear in his keynote presentation "The Keys to Innovation" at the Embedded Systems Conference, San Jose. Stephens based his presentation on his recently-published book The Left Brain Speaks, The Right Brain Laughs, from Cleis Press, which takes a look at the neuroscience of creativity. The presentation provided a six-step process for enhancing your creative response to challenges facing electronics designers such as debugging and new product creation.
"A frog, a dog, and Richard Feynman walk into your cranium" may sound like the opening line to a lame joke, but is actually the starting point for Stephens' description on how the brain works. The description is based on the triune brain model, which roughly breaks the human brain into three systems. In the theory, the brain stem (reptilian brain, i.e., the frog) handles autonomic systems such as heartrate and breathing, the limbic system (mammalian brain, i.e., the dog, specifically a puppy) handles emotional response and value judgements, and the neocortex (Feynman) handles conscious reasoning and thought. Knowing this structure and how to engage its capabilities, Stephens asserted, is essential to maximizing creativity and problem solving.
Stephens's advice to engineers (and other humans) calls for a six-step process:
- Balance stress -- The right amount of stress is essential to creating problem solving. Too much stress and we become overwhelmed – we can't think. Too little stress, on the other hand, and we aren't motivated to try all that hard – we don't think. With the right amount of stress, balanced by confidence, we get "in the zone" of maximum productivity.
- Analyze -- To pre-load our brain for problem solving, we need to gather and review as much information as we can manage. This helps pre-load the unconscious processing part of our brain, the one that does all the pattern matching that triggers insight.
- Open up to new ideas -- Our prejudices, preferences, and emotions can cause us to automatically reject insights that arise from the unconscious processing going on, often without even knowing about it. We need to be OK with entertaining ideas that might not work out.
- Defocus -- One way to help avoid automatic evaluation is to stop paying conscious attention to the problem for a while. Distraction, such as taking a walk, going to a ball game, or engaging in another activity unrelated to solving the problem can allow ideas to fully percolate without prejudice.
- Generate lateral thought -- As insights begin to make their way to consciousness, we have to let them surface and listen to them without judgement, as with team brainstorming. Meditation is one way to allow that surfacing to occur and generate the kind of lateral thinking that leads to innovation.
- Analyze the insights -- After the insights have come up, then (and only then) begin to explore their relevance and efficacy.
You may be surprised by the novelty of an idea that arises, or see the solution in retrospect as having been obvious even though it had, in fact, eluded you for some time. Either way, Stephens said, the six steps provide the keys to unlock answers the conscious mind didn't know it had.
—Rich Quinnell covers industrial control for EE Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org,