NOTICING THE ‘NEW AND DIFFERENT’
Whether you are seeking breakthroughs in stem cell research, promoting human rights, introducing new business practices or want to rekindle a dying romance, you are trying to create a future which is different to the past. You are innovating. You are searching for the ‘New and Different’, as opposed to the ‘Old and the Same’.
The human brain – that astonishing 1.5 kg of meat between our ears which has 86 billion neurons, each connected to thousands of others – is responsible for everything we think, feel, do, say and believe. How we use them will determine our future, both individually and collectively, personally and professionally.
So let’s take a brief – and obviously very simplified – look at what modern cognitive neuroscience has to say about how our brains process the New and Different. Then we will look at a technique to leverage this.
In a nutshell, we experience the present and the future through the eyes of the past. On the one hand, this is obvious – it is called learning; we make sense of the present and plan for the future based on what we know. But it turns out it goes much deeper than this – it is hardwired into our deep biological architecture. It is how our brains work.
Rather than experiencing the world ‘as it is’ (like some kind of video camera), our brains create our experience by ‘predicting‘ what is happening (sort of a best guess) based on the limited data which is coming in through our senses. And this data is extremely limited – our eyes can perceive about 1% of light waves and we certainly cannot use echolocation like bats or dolphins or electromagnetic fields like lobsters or sharks. Based on this information, our brains then categorise this information from what we have learned from our past experience.
Take, for example, the picture below. Is it a duck or a rabbit?
A slightly different example: Imagine that you are extremely thirsty, you drink a glass of cool water and your thirst disappears almost immediately. But it takes about 20 minutes for that water to have an actual physiological impact on your body. Your brain is predicting your experience or state of your body being rehydrated through the mechanism of thirst.
The mechanism for this is ‘predictive coding’. Essentially, as sensory information comes in, through the eyes, for example, it is run against the databank of past experiences (mental models) which then presents the result (prediction) as to what it is. You then ‘see it’. As further information comes in, any ‘error’ or discrepancy between this data and what your brain has predicted needs to be updated. This can either be in the form of changing and updating the prediction (on second glance, it is not a snake; just a stick in the grass) or by minimising or explaining away the importance of the incoming sensory data (simply ignore it). This ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach of the brain based on past experience, makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. After-all, your brain’s job is to keep you alive and it is normally better to make an inaccurate quick judgement (e.g., better to first assume it is a snake and be proved wrong than try to pick up what you thought was a stick, only to find it wriggling in your hand).
This basic process occurs naturally and unconsciously with everything, every millisecond of every day. It is how our brains work, and the advent of neuroimaging techniques has allowed cognitive neuroscientists to look into our brains to observe this in ever increasing detail.
But what has this got to do with fighting climate change or being a better leader? Well the point is that we essentially see the present and the future through the eyes of the past. This does not mean that we cannot change the future; we obviously can. But it does mean that our vision of the future often looks more like the past and the present than we care to admit, however innovative and visionary we might think we are. It is not surprising, then, that we end up repeating the same old patterns and running the same old programmes over and over again, with only slight variations. This basic process happens whether in a relationship or in public policy making.
And this has worked well for us as a species, since most progress is incremental. But it has its obvious limitations given the levels of stress in society, obscene levels of inequality and the fact that many of our institutions seem threatened. Not to mention that we might end up destroying ourselves. Or, in short, we need a lot, lot more of the New and Different – innovation – if we are to build the future that we want, whether individually or collectively.
The more New and Different input we receive, the more we are able to perceive the world differently. And the more we are able to perceive the world differently, the more new options and possibilities open up to us. But as we have seen, the brain tends to minimise or ignore the New and Different if it does not fit into our existing mental models. Only rarely does it fundamentally change the models themselves, which is a good thing too, as it would be awkward it we had to have our world view shattered everyday before breakfast.
So how do we get this new information which can enrich our thinking?
Of course, we all know that travel broadens the mind, you enter new worlds through books, your world gets turned upside down on roller coasters, you spark ideas during brainstorming and you experience new tastes and sensations when you eat new food. All good and important things. But what about the more mundane bits in between? Is there a way to break out of the Old and the Same in our day-to-day experiences, and in doing so open up new possibilities?
There are probably many such ways, but here is one: Look for the New and Different. This isn’t an intellectual thing or about big picture, important issues (although it can be both). It is not even about a ‘particular thing’. Rather, it is about creating a ‘state of curiosity’, just as you might have a state of sleepiness or a state of joy.
This ‘state of curiosity’ is telling your brain that this is not business as usual. It tells your brain to keep on scanning the environment; that there is more information in the external world which needs to be absorbed before coming up with the final prediction as to what is happening and how to act. In short, it produces more ‘error signals’ between your expectations and what you sense, causing your to pay more thoughtful attention to what is going on.
But to do this continuously sounds exhausting and complicated. However, it is actually energising and couldn’t be more simple. Because it is not about trying to actively analyse things (as we saw with the duck and the rabbit, your brain will do that on its own), but rather the process of noticing what’s New and the Different. Anything!
This is best done somewhere that you are extremely familiar with, as it demonstrates the point even more clearly. Assuming you are sitting down in a room (hopefully where you have been hundreds of times before)…
- Get comfortable, slow down a bit and relax
- Look around the room and just notice something that you have never noticed before, e.g., a spot on the wall, a colour on a picture, that there’s a green book on the table
- Allow your gaze to settle on it for 2 or 3 seconds so that you have noticed it. You don’t have to ‘try’ or analyse it. Just notice it.
- Move onto the next thing and repeat.
- And the next, etc.
- Carry on doing this for anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes.
It couldn’t be more simple, because, to reiterate, the point is to get your brain into a ‘state of searching’ for the New and Different in its external environment, rather than a particular thing. To break up the automatic pattern of your brain thinking that it knows everything that it needs to know and shutting out new information.
This exercise, although quick, really can have profound effects in all areas of your life. But don’t take my word for it – try it!
As with everything, it needs practice for it to become habit. Try it for 5 minutes a day (even better 3 times 5 minutes a day) for a week and observe what happens. You might be surprised!
Obviously, in a short article it is only possible to scratch the surface, but if you have any thoughts or feedback, then please do comment or share this article with anyone else who might find it useful.
Further reading: If you are interested in any of the above, I would recommend the following:
Being You: A New Science of Consciousness, Anil Seth (Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, UK). The book is an accessible and fascinating dive into modern cognitive science and demonstrates just how differently we all perceive the world (he calls it a ‘controlled hallucination’)
Mindfulness, Ellen Langer (Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, USA). She tackles mindfulness as the opposite of mindlessness, as opposed to from a religious or spiritual point of view. She shows how this can have a profound effect on pretty much every area of your life.