IS YOUR BRAIN READY FOR THE FUTURE?
I am often asked what Unconscious Innovation is about and why I do it. So here goes..
#climatechange. #artificialintelligence. Changing #global order. #space travel. #populism. You name it: there is little doubt that the future will look very different to the past or the present. Indeed, advances in #bioengineering, raise deep questions as to what it will mean to be human.
That’s not to say that today will look unrecognisable tomorrow or next week – that’s not how fundamental and deep-seated change occurs. A violent volcanic eruption is dramatic, causes disruption and might even form new islands, but it is the underlying, slow and relentless shifting of tectonic plates which creates new continents and shapes our world.
While many of us might pay sporadic lip-service to the changes which are happening all around us, the deep economic, social, political, environmental and technological plates are shifting more than we realise.
Take Artificial Intelligence, for example. When the likes of Elon Musk casually suggest that there will probably need to be some kind of universal basic income in future, is this an enlightened attempt to address mind bending levels of poverty in South Asia or Sub Saharan Africa? Or perhaps embracing the various bold social experiments under way in various countries to provide a strings-free basic income? Possibly. More plausibly, it is an acknowledgement of the profound changes that Artificial Intelligence will bring, putting much of humanity on the economic scrapheap. And this really is the mild version of the changes which AI will almost certainly herald (see, for example, Life 3:0: Being Human In The Age of Artificial Intelligence by the MIT Physics Professor Max Tegmark).
Again. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But 10 years? 20 years? 50 years? 100 years? All within the lifetime of our children or grandchildren and certainly mere blinks of the eyelid of history. And the trajectories are being set right here and right now as you read this.
But do we really understand the changes which are coming? Are we equipped for them? Who is going to map what the future looks like? The technocracy? Politicians with the greatest ability to appeal to humanity’s lowest common denominators? The invisible hand of ‘human progress’? It is an unknown journey, as we have never been here before and being truly open, flexible and innovative has arguably never been more important.
Of course, there are millions upon millions of people throughout the world working for social justice, developing new technologies and trying to shape a better future for all of us. But as our individual and institutional attention and energy shifts from putting out fires here to managing crises there, what chance do we really have to proactively shape the future while we seem to be barely managing the present? How can we stand back and see the both the wood and the trees?
Or, put another way, in a world of information overload, how can we direct our limited and precious cognitive attention to the places we want and in the ways we choose?
This is not an academic issue, as fundamentally our attention is all we have. And whether we choose to direct it ourselves or allow it to be directed by others will determine our actions. But it is not just where we invest our time and attention that will determine our ability to contribute to shaping our individual and collective futures; equally important is the how. Do we wish to be in narrow ‘spot-light’ mode or more sweeping and expansive ‘light-house’ mode? Do we want to be relaxed or stressed? Angry or compassionate? Do we want to be exploring new possibilities (divergent mode) or narrowing in on solutions (convergent mode)? Do we want to be dreaming or practical? Philosophical or all-in-action-hero?
Of course, we need all of the above, but at different times according to what we want to accomplish. And while these differences often come from diverse groups of people together, we also need this at the individual level. But all too often we are on auto-pilot, with only our own familiar and favoured cognitive and behavioural hammer at our disposal, resulting in every situation looking like a nail. Whether we are seeking breakthroughs in stem cell research or human rights, a richer, more flexible cognitive Swiss Army knife provides more of the options necessary to navigate and thrive in the face of change.
But this type of cognitive flexibility goes far deeper than labels around ‘leadership styles’ or ‘types’ as defined by the latest fashionable personality test. Rather, it is about how we use our brains and the physiological processes underlying this. It is not just about having new ideas, but about thinking differently. Literally.
Somewhat simplistically put, the advent of neuroimaging techniques in the last 30 years or so has allowed us to peer into our brains to see how they actually work, rather than relying on inference from observed behaviour. This has opened up whole vistas of how are brains are wired, the electrochemical pathways and intricate connections. It reveals the myriad of competing options, interpretations and meanings which are constantly at play and available to us. It has also revealed the brain’s truly astonishing plasticity, or ability to rewire itself. It really is not hyperbole when the renowned theoretical physicist Michio Kaku says: “With 100 billion neurons, each connected to 10 thousand other neurons, sitting on your shoulders is the most complex object in the known universe”.
As we understand more of the mechanisms of the brain, it opens up possibilities to tap into, or ‘hack’, our natural, automatic biological processes. For example, neuroscience shows the brain’s mechanism for seeing different physical perspectives is closely correlated to mentally seeing things from different perspectives; tap into one, and you can help activate and leverage the other. There is significant overlap between external visual pathways and internally produced imagination; using one can provide entry to the other. Our memories are essentially evolutionary planning aids for the future; modify the (often astonishingly unreliable and extraordinarily selective!) recollection and interpretation of past events and you change the options for the future. Etc., etc., etc.
Using various simple and real-time Cognitive and Perceptual Exercises, Unconscious Innovation (unconscious because the processes happen automatically rather than us being consciously aware of them) works to help people embrace and explore more of the Swiss Army Knife approach to perception, cognition and action (see footnote). In particular, to manage and switch between different ‘states’ (mental and physical), to help ensure that a much wider range of options and responses is available to us in real-time as the situation demands. Or, put another way, to enhance the capacity of our brains to create and innovate more effectively in the face of change.
So next time, before you choose to sign up to a course which promises to ‘unlock your super-human powers’ or decide to start micro-dosing Silicon Valley style to enhance your creative edge, just remember that there might be some very simple and short practices closer to hand which can help your evolutionary developed brain to perceive and act in the world in new ways.
And this is important, because whether it is for our own personal well-being, developing new technology or fighting for social justice, it’s ultimately going to come from our brains. And changing the way our brains deal with and process information can sometimes be much, much simpler than we realise.
Footnote on perception, cognition and action: One of the important developments in neuroscience is that there is actually much less difference between perception, cognition and action than we like to think, but the terms are used here because this is the terminology which is generally understood. This will be a topic discussed in a future newsletter