After reading Ransom Stephens’ fascinating and humorous first book of nonfiction, The Left Brain Speaks, The Right Brain Laughs, I knew he’d be a great interview. He has an ability to explain neuroscience in layman’s terms, with clever analogies and whimsical yet accurate language. His book is an eye-opener on the complex workings of our brains, and it provides plenty of fun along the way.
Your book takes on concepts that we usually consider as separate, but you show how they interconnect. Can you share an example?
The underlying theme of using our brains to study brains is that we can’t avoid how attributes feed on each other. It’s not nature or nurture, it’s nature and nurture. And I’m intrigued by the idea of talent and skill. We all know both exist, but distinguishing them is nearly impossible. Consider basketball, where being tall gives you an advantage. Yet both Michael Jordan and Steph Curry, two of the best, are both shorter than average. Sure, they’re talented, but how can you distinguish that talent from the skill they’ve developed?
You give several examples of how the processes in our brains both stifle and promote creativity. What’s the most effective tactic for increasing our creativity?
I feel very strongly that we should hold fewer strongly held opinions.
Explain how our brains can make us “lazy bigots.”
We perceive things by recognizing patterns. Piling perceptions into categories instead of distinguishing their nuances is faster and more efficient than perceiving everything we encounter as unique. Since we recognize patterns so easily, we get lazy. It’s easier to file things into existing cabinets than to build new ones, so sometimes we put our carts before our asses and willfully declare that the pattern comes before the distinction.
Stereotypes are examples of categories that turn out to be misleading far more often than they’re accurate. Everyone stereotypes other people — but stereotyping is always lazy. In pursuit of efficiency, Mother Nature made it easy for us to be bigots. Apparently she didn’t foresee civilization.
Describe how meditation, or silencing the brain, is a worthwhile practice for unleashing innovative ideas.
Most of our thoughts or perceptions never make it into conscious awareness. Over the course of our lives we train our brains to think in certain ways that have been successful for us: Surfers think in terms of waves, musicians in terms of rhythm, bureaucrats in terms of incoherent documentation. But to truly innovate, it helps to think in new ways, and the easiest way to break out of our old habits is to shut up and listen — that is, to open up and listen to the thoughts and ideas that we have, but habitually suppress.
Try this with a challenge you’re facing: Spend several minutes cramming your mind with information. Don’t judge it, just put it in there the same way you stuff clothes into a washing machine. Then go sit outside and stare at the horizon. Concentrate on your breathing and relax. Get your heart rate low and take in the scents and sounds around you. Then, in this quiet state, let your thoughts go back to that problem. Don’t try to solve it, just let ideas surface. Be passive; let the washing machine do your dirty laundry. I bet dollars to donuts you’ll have a few pretty cool new insights.
What kinds of audiences do think will get the most out of your book?
Anyone who wants to look under the hood and get an idea of what makes us tick and how we can tick better. When you understand how something works, you develop intuitions about what it can do well, what it can’t do well, and how to position it to be successful. You and I can be better: better partners, better friends, and better constituents of planet Earth. We face problems individually and together, and our brains are the only tools we have to create solutions. We only get a few decades of awareness. So we should put our heads to work.