Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Innovation Playgrounds: Keep them close

While necessity may be the mother of invention, play is quite likely its father.  — Editor’s Note

By Stuart Brown, M.D.

Necessity and play are rarely allowed to be seen together, particularly in or corporate innovation efforts.  Operating realities tend to foster a necessity-born urgency which has no time for "play", Necessity so easily and frequently couples with fear (e.g., of the competitive threat that is knocking at the door) that inventions never happen.   Father play never gets even close enough to mother necessity to even meet, much less…(well you get the point). 

This largely self-imposed separation generally means that we have lost the intuitively operative key to new discovery that every freed up kid knows by being alive.  An example is in order:

I am looking at a toy truck. My mood is light, and memories flow.  I see in my mind’s eye my grandson playing with it as he did yesterday. His glee, vroom-vroom motor noises, enthusiasm, and great spontaneity, bring back to me, via my imagination a joyful state of body-mind.

Then I see and feel myself at age 4 on the floor with my little yellow dump truck.  As I reflect happily, I am mentally in 3 time frames simultaneously:  I’m in the here-and-now, the scene of yesterday and the past.   Then, seemingly out of nowhere, without a break in mood, I know how I will deal effectively with a problem that has been bugging me for some time.   I've got a solution, where before I had none.

What’s going on here, and can we bottle it? 

A short explanation linked to evidence-based play observations goes like this (while not yet hard science, it is close). Imagine that my brain is being recorded by the latest brain imaging equipment. As the visual image sparked by the toy makes its way through the anatomic paths in my brain nature has designed, the specific pattern of “truck” hits my visual cortex and leaves specific "truck" electroencephalographic blips. This in-the-brain sequence once was thought to be sufficient for the brain to recognize this as a truck. Not so. We all “see” (and hear and feel, etc.) in much more complex and contextually organizing ways than was once physiologic dogma. What we now know is in that short instant of spontaneous brain activity before I “know” it is a truck, a 10-fold automatic feedback system roars into action, energized, guided and lit up in large part by the playful “state” of the moment.

Each neuro-physiologic sequence of the here-and-now sensory signals, coupled with the near instant interactions with the there-and-then stored signals in memory drive this 10-fold feedback system; each piece of this amazing integrated event, a play-directed symphony. Simultaneously, as long as the fun lasts, more and more of the superfluous “uncommitted” neurons that form play-incited and play-related circuits are recruited. Not a bad design, Seems necessary for fun, planning for an unexpected future, and more.  The fMRI, SPECT and PET scans confirm that this play-evoked process lights up the brain, particularly the “highest” prefrontal cortical areas like nothing else.

If my state of mind-body had been anxious, fearful, angry, time pressured, sad, hungry, or anything but playful, the integrated problem solving experience that “found me” would very likely have been missed.

In short, I was, at the moments above, in my own private playground. [And by having a good time on the 'playground', I was able to invent a solution (or did it discover me?) that I may not have discovered as easily or at all!

The day before yesterday, my playground was the annual TED meeting in Monterey, with periodic states of play induced by sparkling speakers, action packed presentations, all containing more complex objects of Technology, Entertainment and Design than my grandson’s truck. But the contagious search for novelty, which is part of maintaining a state of play, was in the air, confirming for me the value for adults to gather at their playgrounds.

Wherever you are in your pursuit of excellence, happiness, and preparation for the future, play belongs. It is not trivial, it can be achieved by the most compulsive and driven of us, and its by-products are worth the personal search for it… if, as is common, it has been lost or buried by the demands of the day.

“I don’t go to work, I go to play. If you allow yourself a bit of time to try stuff out before you get serious, before you make plans, before you say “this is the schedule of inventions going forward,” you can get a feeling in your finger tips for what could happen if you do something.” Floris Jansen, GE global research (from an imagination notebook, a gift to TED participants, 2006).

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in March 2006. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270. 

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