Not in my right mind.

January 10, 2010

We engineers like to believe that we use our brains as well as anyone. Our use of logic and computational reasoning is important for answering many routine problems we face at work. However, sometimes our efforts come up short. Exceptional challenges require thinking out of the box and collaboration with people who may have a different thought process. Can we train ourselves to use our brains better? Can we learn to work more effectively with people who do not share our rigorous logical training?

The post is a continuation of the lesson presented by Solange Dao at the Annual conference. Please read my November 20 blog for the first part, which focused on influencing people.

It’s only recently that humans have tried to understand how the brain works. One thing we know definitively is that different parts of the brain have different functions. The amygdala controls your instinctive fight or flight response. On the other hand, your frontal lobe controls calm logical thought. It’s often necessary in modern life to suppress the amygdala. For instance, when you pass a Dunkin Donuts, your amygdala is going to say, “go in, buy a half dozen cream-filled donuts. You may never get another chance again, and you’ll starve all day.” Your rational frontal lobe may prevail with more sensible thought, “I’ve got a cup of yogurt at the office; I should watch what I eat.”

It’s not crazy to start the debate in your mind. Imagine yourself making the right decision. Usually, it’s enough just to delay the choice.

The hemispheres of the brain also control different processes. You’ve probably heard that most engineers are left brained. This is the part of the brain is responsible for analytical, rational and logical thought. However, you probably didn’t realize that it also controls verbal ability and abstract reasoning. Sorry, engineers; science says that you can’t blame your brain-type on communication problems.

Your right brain is just as important to engineers, particularly because it controls spatial reasoning. Research has also attributed non-rational reasoning, intuition and holistic beliefs to the right side of the brain. People with high functioning right brains:

  • are better able to putt things together to form a whole
  • see likeness among things and understand metaphoric relationships
  • understand where things are in relation
  • perceive whole things, overall patters and structures, leading to divergent conclustions

It should be obvious that you’ll be a better problem solver if you use your entire brain. There are ways to practice using your right brain. The left brain is dominant and prone to rush in with words or symbols. If you talk to yourself while working, that’s your left brain coming through. It will only relinquish control when it really dislikes the job because it’s taking too long, is too detailed or just unable to complete the task itself.

Try this exercise: look at this Gestalt vase-face image. Draw half the image, depending on which hand dominant you are (right hand, draw left side). Retrace what you just drew, taking note of each feature of the face/vase. Now draw the missing half.

Here’s another way to practice using your right brain. Pick any image with easily recognizable objects or human features, and turn it upside-down. Now try drawing any portion of the image while focusing on the shapes. Do NOT say to yourself, this is a face or hands etc.

Thirdly, you could draw a Nicolaides contour drawing. In this exercise, you just draw the profile of any object in your line of sight – without looking at the paper or lifting your pen off the paper. The key is to go very slowly.

Understanding how your brain works and endeavoring to strengthen your metal acuity will help you become a better engineer and problem solver. Knowing how processing is shared might also remove some excuses and allow you to have better appreciation for colleagues that “think different.”

Do you know of other techniques for strengthening your mental processing? What other research in brain activity might be helpful to understand in terms of self help? Do you believe that teams with diverse thinkers are more productive? Do they produce better results?

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  • Ken – GREAT POST. In coaching school we learned about using your right brain. I read a great book called “Breaking the Rules” by Kurt Right and he talks a lot about using your right brain and accessing your intuition. Here is a great link to one of his papges titled, “Learning to Use Your Intuition”

  • Ken I really enjoyed this post. During my training to be a professional coach they constantly discussed the use of your right brain as I believe that it is underutilized by engineers and other technical professionals. I read a great book called “Breaking the Rules” by Kurt Wright that talks a lot about right brain use. Below is a link to a part of his website entitles Learning To Use Your Intuition. Thanks again Ken, great post!

    Anthony Fasano

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