Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Thinking in pictures

Animals think in pictures. And so does Temple Grandin, a famous autistic and expert on animal behavior. Whose life story recently became an inspiring tele-movie starring Clare Danes.

Her brain works like Google for Images. Or movies in your head. Similar to the way animals see the world, through direct experience. But also via the senses of hearing and smell.

Grandin's "disability" is also the source of her amazing ability. Autism helped her discover what makes cattle balk. To see the world from a cow's point of view. Flags waving. A coat on a fence. A hose on the floor. A chain hanging down. Rapid movement.

Animals see a man standing or riding as different things. They might be spooked by all men with black hats, even if the men are different people, simply because they appear identical to a feared situation.

She gives the example of the power of direct experience, that human's have lost since we have become verbal thinkers because we now mostly think with words.

The dog that sniffs a fire hydrant can tell straight away who has been there, when they were there, if they are a friend or foe or suitable for mating.

Her way of seeing the world from an animal perspective led to revolutionary designs for cattle handling chutes and races, that are both more efficient and more humane. She found she could play a movie in her mind to visualize how the different parts of something new would work.

Autistic minds attend to details. Bottom up thinking, how to put all the pieces together, like a jigsaw puzzle. It's also a continuum from the extremely severe to the mildly autistic but includes, at the top end, brilliant scientists and engineers. If we had no more autism there would be no Silicon Valley.

So it's hard to tell where autism ends and nerds begin. Grandin speculates that in this day and age, Einstein, Mozart and Tesla would have been diagnosed as autistic. We have autistics to thank for inventing our way out of the cave.

For parents of autistic children she has this advice. Get help as soon as you can. Start with activities that have a hands-on practical bent, like designing and making things. Cookery. Art. Woodwork. Do "visual" geometry and trigonometry and forget about "verbal" algebra. And because autistic minds tend to fixate on something, connect the fixation to something else, so the new activity is motivating. As a child, Hardin was fixated on horses. Over time her fixation with horses became a career with animals.

And for the rest of us. We need to redesign the education system, so it caters for all the different kinds of minds. The verbal, the visual, the pattern finders and the kinesthetic. But most important of all, she says kids need to also learn the basics. Table manners. Punctuality. Respect. If they are to succeed in the real world. And engage with mentors who have a practical bent developed in the real world, like the NASA space scientist who became her teacher. Who recognized her amazing visual and spatial abilities, believed in her, and steered her on a pathway to success.

So here's a workshop to explore these ideas:

1. In what ways do you feel you are different to other people? Give examples.
2. Describe some mental, physical or social skill you always wished you had, and how this could change your life.
3. Describe, what for you, is the most unusual way that other people think you can not understand/comprehend. Why is this way of thinking/acting so puzzling?
4. What are you really good at and how does this possibly relate to the quirky ways your mind works?
5. You can see the world in pictures like Temple Grandin. How could you use your powerful visual skills to design something practical to benefit the world.
6. You have developed a super-sensitive ability for smells, similar to a dog. What could you use this new-found ability in a career e.g. relationship consultant who helps people better deal with body odors.
7. Imagine one of your senses has been damaged e.g. taste, smell, vision, hearing. In what ways might you develop the other senses to acquire extra powers?
8. Thinking of the issues/thing about which you are passionate/fixated. Imagine you have acquired some new physical/mental powers that help you achieve your goals. What are they and how do they work?
9. You have the job of redesigning schools/lessons/activities to better suit the way you engage with the world. Describe an activity you would really enjoy.
10. Describe a person you have meet from real life who you think would make a wonderful, practical mentor for children.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The two faces of happiness

There's a big focus on happiness these days. Over 40 books on the subject and happiness coaches in abundance. But are people any happier?

Daniel Kahneman, who founded the field of behavioral economics, and jointly won the Nobel Memorial Prize in 2002 for his work with Amos Tversky on irrational decision making, is an expert in how people make less than perfect choices.

He shows there can be a significant differences about life as we experience it, and life as we remember it. When the doctor asks "Where does it hurt?" she is talking to your experiencing self. When the doctor asks "How have you been feeling lately?", she is engaging with your remembering self.

Often, an unfortunate event ruins the memory of an entire experience. The operation that ends in severe pain. The memory of the motor car accident on the way home from vacation that overwhelms an otherwise enjoyable experience. The pathetic movie ending that spoils a great story. The scratch at the end of a recording that renders irrelevant an hour of listening to celestial music. The loss of your credit card after paying the bill for a delicious meal.

The psychological present is about three seconds long. And most of the 600 million moments we all experience during a lifetime are lost forever. Research shows that money and goals are important to happiness. In the USA, happiness starts to deteriorate below $60,000 per annum. Earn more, and you dont get any happier. Earn less and your misery escalates the less you earn.

Perhaps the way to happiness, is Kahneman's idea of "adversarial collaboration," where two different kinds of mind pursue research as a joint enterprise, to openly and fairly critique each other's work to arrive at the truth, together.

So here's a workshop to explore your experiencing and remembering happiness/misery.

1. Your experiential self: How happy are you now and what contributes to that feeling?
2. Your remembering self: Thinking about life's journey and all the happy and sad moments, how happy have you been overall and why?
3. When during your life were you the most miserable? What were your circumstances at the time?
4. When during your life were you the most happy? What were your circumstances at the time?
5. Your remembering self: Describe the worst thing that ever happpened to you while on holidays and how did it influence your enjoyment of that holiday?
6. Comparing two experiences. Think of two different movies you have seen, houses you have purchased or meals you have eaten out. Compare the experience of each and what was notable about them....the whole meal and the finale?
7. Significant moments and endings: Describe an event in your life where a significant moment or ending spoiled the rest of the experience for you?
8. Describe how you could alter the experience of a product or service so that the ending was always fabulous/amazing/memorable?
9. Think of something you purchased today e.g. at the supermarket, delicatessen. What influenced your purchase?
10. In what ways was your purchase today, rational/irrational and influenced from memories of past experiences?
11. Remember back to your most recent major purchase e.g. house, car. What prior experiences with houses or cars influenced your decision?
12. What's the most irrational decision you can ever recall making? And how did that happen?
13. Offbeat - How could you use "adversarial collaboration" in pursuit of truth and happiness?