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Better Innovation Through Chemistry?

By on May 25, 2012No Comment

Prime your mind to see the future

Innovating is hard work. Even just solving day-to-day problems can often be a challenge, particularly when the tasks are complex and time sensitive, or have multiple uncertainties.

To be at our mental best requires multiple factors to come together at just the right time. Just enough sleep, but not too much. Just the right amount of stress to push us, but not to overwhelm us. A quiet work space, but maybe a slight bit of background noise to drown out other distractions. The list goes on and on, and I think we all can agree that when we are faced with a challenging problem, we do not often have the luxury of saying, “Wait, I need to go take a nap, chill out a bit, and get my mind in order.” We live and work in an on-demand, 24/7 state of connectivity and interaction.

At a workshop I attended, hosted by IEA (Idea Engineering Agency), co-founder Araceli Camargo-Kilpatrick presented her research and methods for encouraging innovation. Camargo-Kilpatrick’s approach is via neuroscience, and is heavily rooted in understanding the balance of chemicals in the brain and the impact they have on our mental capabilities.

The premise is not complicated: essentially our most powerful problem solving mechanisms are hidden away in our subconscious, working behind the scenes at their own pace and beyond our direct control. The trick is to understand how to prime one’s mind on a chemical level to increase dopamine (provides feelings of reward and motivation) and oxytocin (lowers stress levels). The theory is that by doing this our brain is more able to relax and tap into its powerful problem solving capabilities. Methods to prime the brain include exercise, music, visualization, and, perhaps most intriguing to me, breaking old patterns and establishing new routines before starting new projects.

Assuming the mind is primed, Camargo-Kilpatrick breaks down innovation into a series of steps, although she cautions that innovation is not a point A to point B process, but more of a spiral of problem solving, adjusting, and questioning. The first step is to explore the environment of the problem being solved. By understanding all the possible factors and the lay of the land, we mentally relax because we have prepared ourselves and will not be surprised by unexpected influences. For example, if the problem is to try to limit distractions in the workplace, then it is necessary to understand every possible distraction, as well as the day-to-day activities and habits of the workers.

The next step is observation, simply asking good questions. Forming a hypothesis or trying to answer the questions at this stage is discouraged, as the questions, at least in the beginning, are likely to be very general and not very helpful. By refining the questions, the problem will become clearer. This leads into Camargo-Kilpatrick’s next two stages, which are to first clearly define the real problem, and then define the parameters. In our example, the real problem may be the incorrect use of tools such as e-mail and instant messenger, and the parameters may be “when doing focused work on a project.” Being open to modifying the problem is critical, as assumptions must be questioned at every step of the process.

After defining the problem and the parameters, the next phase is to analyze the impact of every factor. Understanding the impact of e-mail on distractions, as well as its impact on other areas of work aids in building a model of the environment, which helps to foresee any ripple effects from making changes. For example, if e-mail is only checked twice a day, that would limit time spent in the inbox, but it may lead to an increase in instant messaging, which would in itself be a distraction. Camargo-Kilpatrick represents innovation and problem solving as the equation Y=F(x). The problem being solved is Y, and x is any factor. Thus distractions are a function of e-mail, but they are also a function of instant messenger, phone calls, etc. Only by looking at the whole picture can the problem be effectively addressed.

The combination of putting oneself into the proper frame of mind and using a methodical system to solve problems is not a new or groundbreaking concept. However, the work that Camargo-Kilpatrick is doing by applying neuroscience to find ways to jumpstart innovation is. We have so much knowledge about the world yet seem to understand so little about how we function; this is welcome research and innovation in its own right.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

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