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ESC Silicon Valley: Be creative by goofing off

-November 17, 2016

When do you have your "ah-hah" moments? They usually come not while you're at work, but while driving, walking, or showering, right? Why does that happen? It's because parts of your brain work differently than we've been led to believe, according to Ransom Stephens. Stephens discards the long-believed notion about your left brain and your right brain. Understanding the new model is the key to creativity and innovation.

While writing his new book The Left Brain Speaks, the Right Brain Laughs, Stephens looks into how to use neuroscience to solve your biggest problems. He'll discuss it all on Thursday, December 8 at ESC Silicon Valley during his keynote address, The keys to innovation: Priming your brain to percolate brilliant ideas.

Catch Ransom Stephens' ESC keynote on The keys to innovation on December 8, 2016. Click here to register now.

"Distraction plays a huge role in innovation," explained Stephens in an interview, "particularly in lateral thought. Our culture teaches us to work very hard, but you really need to back away."

Stephens developed a model that he will refer to in his address, starting with a description of how our brains work. The model, which Stephens calls "the oversimplified brain," consists of three parts: the inner frog, the inner puppy, and the inner Richard Feynman. "The inner frog is the reptilian part of your brain," said Stephens. "It's the part that regulates your heartbeat, keeps your balance, gets you to sweat, and so on. The inner frog part of your brain operates much faster than the other parts."


Your inner frog runs rapidly, without you noticing. Your Inner puppy is the brain's emotional part. The Richard Feynman part is where you make decisions. (Image copyright Ransom Stephens.)

The emotional inner puppy, according to Stephens, regulates your emotions. It's the part that barks, fights, and runs away. The inner Feynman, the cerebral cortex, is the part that does things such as planning. All of these parts play a role in innovation and creativity.

Beware the inner puppy, which can make you run away from good ideas.

Stephens will also present his "percolator model" for how ideas rise to the top. "Most of our thoughts aren't conscious. In fact, Neuroscience has yet to define a thought. We think of them as something the brain manufactures, but the truth is, we're not conscious of most of our brain's activities." For example, when you look at your child, you just see an image but your brain connects all the baggage that goes with that sight. We have many "stupid parallel processors" in our brains. They just operate on their own.

Stephens will tell the ESC audience that some of those thoughts will percolate up to our consciousness, but we can only handle, say, three-to-ten concepts at a time. "We just don't have the range to consciously process as many things as our less-conscious parallel processors can."


Ideas are like brewing coffee, some things percolate to the top.
(Image copyright Ransom Stephens.)

Because we can't handle too many thoughts at once, we tend to use our expertise and experience to filter them and formulate ideas that make sense to us. Experts have many prejudices because they know what will work and what won't. "We're prejudiced against things that we know won't work, but we need to drop those prejudices when we want to think about creating something new."

Stephens admits that some ideas are stupid, but if you try to discard all the stupid ideas, you'll eliminate some good ones as well. The problem is that we throw out many ideas before they even reach our consciousness. "We eliminate these ideas before we're even aware of them based on our expertise. We have to quiet that activity, reduce our idea prejudice, and let more novel ideas emerge."

Is that why people reject ideas out of hand saying it can’t possibly work? Stephens not only acknowledged that, but noted evidence that our inner puppy throws away ideas long before they reach our inner Feynman. We've trained ourselves to reject things as "not invented here," something Stephens noted in Reduce your prejudice to innovation.

Stuff information in your brain
So what can you do? "Assemble as much information as you can," said Stephens. "Stuff as much information into your brain without judging. If you're trying to solve an engineering problem, get all of your notes and read all those papers, just get it all into your brain, then get out of the office." Stephens suggests going to a sporting event (he prefers the Oakland raiders), a concert (he prefers a heavy-metal band), or meditate. You need to let the parallel processors make the connections to all the data you've acquired. That's how you boil up the insights. "Relax and let the ideas come. Don't let your expertise get in the way. I wrote the outline for my first novel in a hotel at 4 am."

"Many of our insights are dumb, Stephens continued. "You have to go back to the analysis part and figure out what makes sense. Once you get these ideas into your consciousness, that's when you see the novelty. You combine very different concepts into one solution."

According to Stephens, circuit design is an excellent example of a whole-brain process because you have to consider many things. For example, equivalent-series inductance, stray capacitance, trace routing, interference, amplifier gain and phase; the list is endless. You need to be focused and holistic at the same time.

"Because our culture emphasizes hard work, we tend to over-emphasize the focus. I'm now giving you permission to de-focus. Goofing off is acceptable. When the boss wants you to solve a big problem, go do something fun."

Part of the reason we're so successful at innovating is because of the analysis we do. "That's not just a right-brain thing," said Stephens, we need both sides. The model that your left brain is your inner accountant and your right brain is your inner artist is outdated. Neuroscience is full of oversimplifications." He claims that neuroscience is in about the same place that physics was in Franklin's time.

It's time for a new oversimplification: The left brain takes you out on crazy journeys and the right brain reels you in. Your left brain can’t see the forest through the trees and your right brain can't see the trees through the forest. Said another way, your left brain is a fascinated child, your right brain is an indulging parent. Put in EE terms, your left brain may be looking at the PCB trace you're laying down while the right brain is looking at the ground plane and how that trace will affect signal integrity. You need both sides to be successful. That's the point behind the artwork on Stephens' book cover: There's both a circuit diagram and paisley design on both sides of the brain.

Image copyright Ransom Stephens

Martin Rowe, Senior Technical Editor Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn page

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Join Ransom Stephens and over 2,000 technical professionals and embedded systems hardware, software, and firmware developers at ESC Silicon Valley Dec 6-8, 2016 and learn about the latest techniques and tips for reducing time, cost, and complexity in the embedded development process.

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