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Archive for January 2012

Brainstorming a myth?

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The Jan 30, 2012 issue of the New Yorker carries an article entitled Groupthink -The brainstorming myth (The science of team effort) by Jonah Lehrer. The intent, apparently, of the article is to debunk the myth that brainstorming is an effective creative process. Instead, the author’s hope is to convince us that we should be thinking of creativity as a social activity that needs a healthy dose of constructive criticism to be effective.

The article begins by introducing us to the work of Alex Osborn, who in the 1940s coined the term “brainstorming” and introduced it to the world through his book “Your Creative Power”.  Like any pioneering idea, Osborn’s concept was fairly simple – get people together, let them generate as many ideas as possible, do not criticize, do not provide negative feedback. IDEO a premier design firm is thought of practicing this in its original form.  The big problem according to Lehrer, it doesn’t work. He goes on to cite many studies:  Yale study of creative puzzle solving. Groups did worse than individuals.  Apparently, “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas”.

Later in the article, he attempts to build a case for his alternative to the brainstorming myth drawing from examples of team compositions of broadway musicals, collaboration in science as evidenced by large numbers of coauthors, studio design (Pixar Animation) affording chance encounters between personnel, and the legendary Building 20 @ MIT. Along the way he is also dismissive of virtual teams (a vigorously thriving model in a world is flat environment) and long distance collaboration in general.

Here in lies the problem. The article falls prey to confirmation bias. It also becomes abundantly clear that Lehrer has not spent anytime designing or developing products under the pressures of a business environment. Most of the studies he cites were conducted in an academic setting.  He devotes a significant portion of the article to Building 20 @ MIT and seems to be simply taken in by the happenings there.  The issue I have here is that the story compresses the timelines in which the serendipitous encounters produced groundbreaking ideas. Real businesses can never afford those timelines to deliver products profitably. If anything, real businesses operate on creative steroids. Lehrer also seems to have missed the whole Open Source revolution or the phenomenon of crowdsourcing.

Now, back to brainstorming.  Having designed multiple products and being involved in multiple problem solving scenarios, the creativity process can span the whole spectrum from brainstorming as Osborn conceived it to more nuanced, hotly debated interactions.  Where you operate in the spectrum is a function of the macro or micro scope of the problem at hand. In fact, modern day usage of the term comprehends the inclusion of debate and/or feedback as part of early explorations of an idea or a solution. Merriam-Webster online defines it as

: a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group; also : the mulling over of ideas by one or more individuals in an attempt to devise or find a solution to a problem

To be sure, there are kernels of truth peppered around the article. But Lehrer may have done well to brainstorm his ideas with his peers to gain some validity.


Written by asterix98

January 29, 2012 at 5:02 am

Placebos in the news

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The topic of Placebos – known to most people as sugar pills – has been in the news, lately.  At hand is the issue of whether placebos are an effective treatment option for some illnesses. Michael Specter’s article –the Power of Nothing – in the December 12 issue of New Yorker, provides a very nice overview of the status of placebos in the medical community. To most practitioners of medicine, placebos are pretty useless. In fact, this bias is obvious in the National Institute of Health’s definition: “placebo is an inactive pill, liquid, or powder that has no treatment value.”  Ted Kaptchuk, one of the key figures in the New Yorker article, would beg to differ and is taking on the establishment, with Harvard and guess what, the NIH’s blessing! Based on his many years of “healing patients” and their experiences, he is of the opinion that “….an important component of medicine….involves suggestion, ritual, and belief.”

In other parts of the article he makes a case for realizing the importance of the doctor-patient relationship and its impact on healing. For example, he agrees that acupuncture is not really an effective clinical intervention, but his patients found relief – “It’s about the man.” Sadly, in my opinion, this aspect of medicine – the doctor-patient nexus – is a lost art. Western medicine, as practiced today, is totally recipe driven with little to no human touch (owing in no small part to the specter of potential lawsuits, I am sure).

Researchers have also documented the fact that patient expectations seem to affect the placebo response. If you take Valium without knowing you took it, you do not obtain relief from anxiety. Other clever studies have shown that there is a biological component to the placebo response. It is true that the placebo response seems to be most effective is relieving pain. (This should not be all that surprising given that other studies have shown that distractions can diminish pain, if you assume placebo is such a distraction). However, more recently there is evidence that placebos are effective in weight loss programs, and in treating depression, migraines and Parkinson’s. For specifics you can read the Wall Street Journal article: Why Placebos Work Wonders. You can also go to ScienceFriday.com, which features an interview with Ted Kaptchuk and includes links to the mentioned articles.

The establishment’s beef with placebos seems to center around the issue of whether it is ethical to prescribe placebos to patients (it is deceptive if you don’t tell the patient that they are receiving “sham” treatments) and the fact that placebos cannot halt the progress of a disease (although some people use them interchangeably, illness has a distinct definition).  I suppose part of the worry is in managing expectations of outcome in an objective accountable manner.

But wait a minute. We just saw that placebos seem to work best when we are in the cognitive realm, as manifested by terms like suggestion, ritual, belief, and expectations.  Aren’t the placebo folks really arguing for a throwback to mind-body medicine? (Deepak Chopra started here and then found there were enough suckers to milk, with his spiritual nonsense, and has been happily laughing all the way to the bank ever since). Is the argument for mixing more psychologist style counseling as part of medical encounters?

But wait another minute. Don’t we live in a world filled with placebos: Astrology, Numerology, Superstitions, Miracles, and the biggest of them all God?

Written by asterix98

January 15, 2012 at 6:53 am

Sixth Sense Technology

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Happy New Year!!

In an earlier post, I provided a link to a video highlighting some exciting research at CMU on new ways of interacting with our digital world.  On a recent trip to Canada, my uncle alerted me to another really exciting piece of technology research, this from MIT, pioneered by Pranav Mistry, within the auspices of Pattie Maes’ laboratory.  Take a look at the video below..

Imagine the possibilities if this technology can be realized commercially. I think it will be. In the not too distant future. Looking forward to getting my hands on it !

Written by asterix98

January 3, 2012 at 2:52 am

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