The observable examined

Archive for the ‘creativity and problem solving’ Category

Are humans unique?

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We have all interacted with animals, seen them at zoos, marveled at them (watching Nat Geo documentaries). If you are like me, you may have wondered whether they are programmed automatons (“fixed action patterns”) or alternately have a “rich” inner life (don’t accuse me of anthropomorphism just yet). I have always held they view that while animals are well adapted to survive their niches, they are able to do more than execute programmed actions.  Also, along the way, I have tired of the notion that “man was made in the image of God”, in the sense that humans are unique and special, given our extraordinary “cognitive” capacities. But then we humans have succumbed to “confirmation bias” by only looking at evidence that confirms this view (as in the tremendous achievements ranging from agriculture to space research). But we also need to review our history of violence and catalog our behaviors collectively as a species (witness terrorism, territoriality, in group/out group, biases, etc.,) and it becomes quickly evident that our “mental” apparatus has a lot in common with other species.

Frans de Waal argues, that this is indeed in the case, in his essay “What I learned from tickling apes” that appears in the NYTimes. Well worth a read. As always, I find it informative to also peruse the reader comments .


Moms are the best

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This is a shout out to all the Mothers out there. Happy Mother’s day! You are the best type of human there is….period. Normally, I would have been a little down on this day, because my daughter has had the “miraculous love” of a mother for a very short period in her life. This year, I feel better.   My daughter, like all other kids in her class, had to make a gift for Mom. She wrote this. (I served as the proxy – substitute Mom instead of Dad) .

Dad who…..

Dad who gives me energy like the tornado, it keeps going around.

Dad who has the gift of art like Van Gogh painting the night sky

Dad who gives his best effort in everything he does

Dad who has a bright colorful personality like a box of crayons

Dad who has eyes like ebony pearls in a mine

Dad who loves me more than shimmering emeralds

Dad who is sneaky like a lion tip toeing in the high grass

Dad who dreams big like a baby going to the moon in an hour

Dad who has the best kid in the whole universe

(She told me it was directed to me because she had nobody else. This was a poignant moment. I know she misses Mom…a lot) .  This, coming from a 10-yr old is a humungous shot in the arm to lift the spirits and keep going.

I also wanted to share yet another of her creative outputs (Thanks are due to her teacher Terri, who inspires them in so many ways). The context here is a field trip to the Legion of Honor museum. After the tour, the kids had to pick an object and write a short poem…

Wine Glass

The elegant glass shimmers in the light,

the rim glistening in the shadow,

blue as dark as the ocean,

and white as clear as day,

all sealed up in a hollow empty glass.

This would have made Mom very, very proud indeed!

Written by asterix98

May 12, 2012 at 4:41 pm

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

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