Designing Your Mind

Why don't the schools and universities teach design thinking for thinking? We teach physical fitness. But rather than brain fitness we emphasize cramming young heads with information and testing their recall.
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Every year The Edge poses a provocative question at it's Edge World Question Center, inviting a cross section of academics and big thinkers to compose a thoughtful answer. This year The Edge Question was "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" Below is an expanded version of the answer written by Don Tapscott.

Given recent research about brain plasticity and the dangers of cognitive load, the most powerful tool in our cognitive arsenal may well be design.

Specifically, we can use design principles and discipline to shape our minds. This is different from learning and acquiring knowledge to which most thoughtful people aspire. It's about designing how each of us thinks, remembers and communicates -- appropriately and effectively for the digital age.

When I was a kid, no one in our family had to design anything to do with our lives let alone our brains. We received one daily newspaper and 3 television channels and the only source of interruption was an occasional telephone call. No one checked mobile devices at dinner and a novel was my only secret distraction from doing homework. No authentication of information was required -- we all believed Walter Cronkite told the balanced truth. Relationships were clear and we had an unofficial family org chart with kids reporting to mom who reported to dad. Father knew best. There were no inappropriate sources of content for us kids. We got our values and models of behavior from the church on Sunday and information handling and learning activities were all pretty clear and routinized.

Today's information firestorm has upended this and all the contemporary hand-wringing about what technology is doing to our brains is partially justified. But rather than predicting a dire future perhaps we should be trying to achieve a new one for each of us.

Neuroscience has revealed important breakthroughs that give hope. We know that brains are malleable and can change depending on how they are used. The well-known study of London taxi drivers showed that a certain region in the brain involved in memory formation was physically larger than in non-taxi driving individuals of a similar age. This effect did not extend to London bus drivers supporting the original conclusion that the need of London's taxi drivers to memorize the multitude of London streets drove structural brain changes in the hippocampus.

Results from studies like these support the notion that even among adults the persistent, concentrated use of one neighborhood of brain real estate can lead to "suburban sprawl" (increase of size), and presumably an increase in capacity.

Not only does chronic and intense use cause change in adult brain regional structure and function, but temporary training and perhaps even mere mental rehearsal seem to have an effect as well. A series of studies showed that one can improve tactile (Braille character) discrimination among seeing people who are temporarily blindfolded. Brain scans (FMRI) illustrated that participants' visual cortex responsiveness was heightened to auditory and tactile sensory input after only five days of blindfolding for over an hour each time.

The existence of lifelong neuroplasticity is no longer in doubt. The brain runs on a "use it or lose it" motto. So could we "use it to build it right?" Surely if we are proactive, the demands of our information rich, multi-stimuli, fast paced, multitasking, digital existence can be shaped to our advantage. In fact, psychiatrist Dr. Stan Kutcher, an expert on adolescent mental health who has studied the effect of digital technology on brain development, says "There is emerging evidence suggesting that exposure to new technologies may push the Net Generation brain past conventional capacity limitations."

My own research suggests that when the straight A student is doing her homework at the same time as five other things online she is not actually multitasking. Rather she has developed a better active working memory and better switching abilities. Personally I can't read my email and listen to iTunes at the same time, but she can. She has a brain more appropriate to the demands of the digital age than I do.

How could we use design thinking to change the way we think? Good design typically begins with some principles and functional objectives.

You might aspire to have a strong capacity to perceive and absorb information effectively, concentrate, remember, infer meaning, be creative, write, speak and communicate well, and to enjoy important collaborations and human relationships. How could you design your use (or abstinence) of media to achieve these goals?

Something as old school as a speed-reading course could increase your input capacity without undermining comprehension. If it made sense in Evelyn Woods' day it is infinitely more important now and much has been learned about how to read better. Something as trivial as making sure you read a few full articles per day rather than just the headlines and summary could strengthen attention.

Want to be a surgeon? Become a gamer or rehearse while on the subway. Rehearsal can produce changes in the motor cortex as big as those induced by physical movement. In one study a group of participants were asked to play a simple five-finger exercise on the piano while another group of participants were asked to think about playing the same "song" in their heads using the same finger movements, one note at a time. Both groups showed a change in their motor cortex, with differences among the group who mentally rehearsed the song as great as those who physically played the piano.

Decide how far you want to take Alfred Einstein's law of memory. (When asked why he went to the phone book to get his number he replied that he only memorizes things he can't look up.) In case you didn't notice there seems to be a lot to remember these days. Between the dawn of civilization and 2003 there were 5 exabytes of data collected (an Exabyte equals 1 quintillion bytes). Today 5 exabytes of data gets collected every two days! Soon there will be 5 exabytes every few minutes. Humans have finite memory capacity. Can you develop criteria for which will be inboard and outboard?

Extensive research shows that people can improve cognitive function and brain efficiency through simple lifestyle changes such as incorporating memory exercises into their daily routines.

Or want to strengthen your capability to multitask? Try reverse mentoring -- learning with your teenager. This is the first time in history when children are authorities about something important, and the successful ones are pioneers of a new paradigm in thinking.

Should there be periods in your day (or year) when you when you are unplugged? Recent research suggests down time is important for many things including creativity. What is your family protocol for mobile use during face-to-face communication? Through making conscious choices could we control technology effects rather than being swept away it?

Why don't the schools and universities teach design thinking for thinking? We teach physical fitness. But rather than brain fitness we emphasize cramming young heads with information and testing their recall. Why not courses that emphasize designing a great brain?

Does this modest proposal raise the specter of "designer minds?" I don't think so. The design industry is something done to us. I'm proposing we each become designers. But I suppose "I love the way she thinks" could take on new meaning.

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