Monday, November 9, 2015

Two Ways - One Goal

Over the past several months I've been digging deeply into the roots of Design Thinking in an effort to not only understand what it is, but how and why it works as well as it does. Along the way, I've explored many facets of its methods and tools, theories of thinking and learning, neuroscience and biology.

Both individuals pictured above are seeking knowledge. Both have a philosophy of their internal and external worlds. I have come to believe that the fundamental differences in their approaches lays along at least two axes; one related to time and the other distance, which are the natural result of the way our brains work when we experience the stress associated with ambiguity and risk.

Fight - Flight

Human response to stress is typically considered in the context of both emotional and cognitive elements, each of which lead to a fight or flight response, which starts in the primitive brain at the beginning of the signal path to the cerebral cortex. The primitive brain is also the area associated with feelings. The intensity of the emotional response influences the nature and intensity of the resulting behavioral response. For example; individuals with higher levels of emotional reactivity may be prone to anxiety and aggression. Cognitive elements of the response include content specificity, perception of control, and social information processing.
Perception of control relates to an individual's thoughts and feelings about their ability to influence situations and events. Perceived control is different from actual control because an individual's beliefs about their abilities may not reflect their actual abilities. Over or underestimation of perceived control can lead to anxiety and aggression.

The social information processing model proposes a variety of factors which determine behavior in the context of social situations and pre-existing thoughts. The attribution of hostility, especially in ambiguous situations, seems to be one of the most important cognitive factors associated with the fight or flight response because of its implications regarding the perception of the presence of aggression.

The components of thinking in the fight or flight response seem to be largely negative in the context of creativity. Over weighting the importance of negative stimuli, the perception of ambiguous situations as threatening, recalling previous failures and past emotions may all result in a pessimistic bias.

Freeze - Fawn

There are two other possible responses to ambiguity which aren't discussed much; Freezing and Fawning. In the context of creativity and problem solving both are very useful, once it has been determined the there is no immediate risk of actual harm.

The freeze response can be useful because it creates the opportunity to observe at a distance. This makes the time for the cognitive parts of the brain to catch up with the primitive brain, move out of the present far enough to consider future possibilities.

Fawning is when we begin to explore the possibilities. This is where the real creative work can begin. Questions are asked, experiments are conducted, alternatives are explored, results are evaluated and weighed and informed decision making can occur.

Where someone naturally falls on this continuum of Fight to Fawn has a huge impact on which problem solving processes and tools they are comfortable with.

What is particularly interesting about this is that both the Scientific/Rational and Religious/Faith paths have limitations which can both bring the learning/creative process to a grinding and immediate halt; Both are subject to errors in accuracy and repeatability. If the goal is to reduce ambiguity, realizing that there are some things too small or quick or intangible to accurately measure does not help.
Consider the following process flow;
It's called the Scientific Method and represents the distillation of the best in "modern" problem solving. This is what most children are being taught in school today. It is rooted in the ideas of Newton and Descartes.

You can enter the cycle at any point. Design and Evaluate occur in the internal world of ideas and imagination. Create and Investigate occur in the external world of experience.

Going thru the full cycle, we move back and forth between ideas (theory) and experience (practice), learning and applying to refine the results. At least, that's the theory.

As a practical matter, what actually occurs is often somewhat different, due to the fact that other people - and the effects of their ideas and feelings - are involved in the process too. The neurological dance that goes on in our heads, and the effect which that has on our behavior, can lead to spectacular results, from the sublime to the disastrous.

Creativity Amid Chaos

Which brings us back to the deeper, more fundamental question; Awash in a neuro-hormonal sea which influences our most fundamental thought processes and decisions and limited by the accuracy and precision of our measuring tools and perception; How can we keep ourselves, and those who put their trust in us as designers, on the path to creative problem solving?

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