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Beware Certainty

Posted on January 4, 2012 and read 2,102 times

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nick smile Beware CertaintyNick Bailey
AKQA Amsterdam

I’m in the process of reading an extraordinary book, called ‘The Master and His Emissary’, by Iain McGilchrist, a neuroscientist concerned with the differing ways in which the left and right hemispheres of the brain attend to the world and bring it to consciousness. There’s a well-worn myth that the right hemisphere ‘is’ creative and the left ‘is’ logical, which the author explodes somewhat (in fact both are essential for creative and abstract logical processes) but what’s more interesting in relation to those of us who are paid to ‘be creative’ is the chapter on certainty.

Certainty is essential in our business – we need to be sure we’ve arrived at the right solution, and be convinced of it so we can convince our clients. But that’s at the end of the process. During the creative process, however, I’ve always believed that anyone certain of the answer hasn’t been looking at the problem long enough. Doubt and ambiguity are good, because doubt and ambiguity allow us to connect with previously unconsidered creative opportunities. What’s interesting about McGilchrist’s book, is that he demonstrates that ambiguity and certainty are actually independent functions of each hemisphere, and operate antagonistically, one inhibiting the action of the other; with clear and interesting implications for the creative process we’re all wedded to.

The right hemisphere perceives context and interconnectedness. It seeks tangential relationships, it is necessary for the understanding of metaphor and humour. It is what allows us to experience the world as an interconnected whole. The best example of right-hemisphere perceptual process is the principle of ‘gestalt’; the instantaneous, ‘all-at-once’ understanding of a complex whole – illustrated by the figure below:

x Beware Certainty

‘The Dalmatian dog, sniffing on the ground in the shade of a tree, suddenly emerges from the mass of dots and splashes… not [as] a gradual putting together of bits of information, but an ‘aha!’ phenomenon, it comes all at once.’

In contrast, the left hemisphere ‘sees part objects’. Its role is in ‘assisting the focused grasping of what has already been prioritised’. It ‘deals with what it already knows, the world it has made for itself.’ It is what allows us to abstract a concept, consider it in isolation, and model it in our minds. Without the left hemisphere, we could not recognize or categorize objects, we could not separate the constituent parts of the world; we could not ‘under-stand’.

Each is necessary, but each attends to the world in a radically different way, and, crucially for creative thinkers, has an inhibiting influence on the other.

McGilchrist illustrates this with, ‘the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon: the harder we try, the more we recruit narrow left-hemisphere attention, and the less we can remember the word. Once we stop trying, the word comes to us unbidden.

‘Cessation of the effort to ‘produce something’ – relaxation, in other words – favours creativity because it permits broadening of the attentional field, engagement of the right hemisphere.’

Anyone involved in the creative process will recognize this phenomenon. The more we focus on one (apparently rational) solution, the harder it is to see beyond it. This is particularly perilous in a brainstorm process, because those who articulate a solution early on are actually actively inhibiting the ability of the group to arrive at alternatives, by focusing attention into a narrow field. This is the danger of certainty – the left hemisphere’s extreme proficiency at creating rational models that ‘explain’ means that it is constantly at risk of excluding stimulus that contradicts its abstracted view of the world, ‘it may be unreasonably, even stubbornly convinced of its own correctness’. This extraordinary seductiveness and ‘stickiness’ of certainty is illustrated by McGilchrist with a fascinating experimental example.

First, the science bit:

It’s possible to evaluate how the left and right brain respond to the world in isolation by conducting experiments with ‘split brain’ patients. These are people who, for medical reasons – often epilepsy – have had all the connections between the two hemispheres surgically severed.

Because all sensory inputs from the left side of the body (left eye, ear etc) are only connected to the right hemisphere and vice versa, by showing images to just one eye of a split-brain patient, it’s possible to isolate a single  hemisphere’s response.

Interestingly, because speech is centered in the left hemisphere a subject can only respond verbally on behalf of the left hemisphere – the right hemisphere is mute.

In the experiment that McGilchrist describes, split-brain subjects are shown a series of pictures to a single hemisphere via either their right or left eye and asked to pick a card featuring a related image with the hand corresponding with that hemisphere.

So the left eye (right hemisphere) is shown a picture of a snow scene. He cannot say what he has seen (because the right hemisphere is mute), but immediately with his left hand he picks up a picture of a shovel.

His right hand, however, picks at random, because the left hemisphere hasn’t seen anything, and scores no better than chance.

Then it gets interesting.

Both hemispheres are shown an image. The (mute) right is shown the snow scene, the (verbal) left is shown a chicken claw. When asked to pick a related image, his left hand (right hemisphere) again chooses the shovel, while his right hand (left hemisphere) selects a chicken.

McGilchrist describes the outcome: ‘When asked why his left hand has chosen the shovel, his verbal left hemisphere, with no knowledge of the snow scene, is not in the least abashed. He explains that he saw a chicken and of course chose a shovel because ‘you need that to clean out a chicken shed

‘The really interesting finding here, as the authors themselves put it, is that ‘without batting an eye’ the left hemisphere draws mistaken conclusions from the information available to it and lays down the law about what only the right hemisphere can know: ‘yet, the left did not offer its suggestion in a guessing vein but rather [as] a statement of fact.’

Doesn’t this happen all-too-often in the abstracted world of the brainstorming room? An apparent solution emerges, appears robust; seems to be the ‘only possible’ right solution, impenetrable to challenge or argument; when in fact its ‘rightness’ is only a function of the exclusion of a broader field of reference.

Thus what we conclude to be ‘certainty’ is really the experience of our left hemisphere’s unambiguous, stubborn attentional focus asserting dominance over the shifting, uncertain right. This is the all-too recognizable in the unintentional but irrevocable shrinking of focus; the ‘closing off’ that occurs as solutions are proposed, imposed and over-engineered at the expense of the creative opportunity inherent in keeping things open and ambiguous for as long as possible.

Perhaps it’s this ‘attentional bias’ that has prevented us, for the best part of 50 years, from questioning the creative process we’re all married to. Is it really the best way: people in a room, talking? It’s easy to see how the verbal, left-brain has the advantage in this scenario. It seems extraordinary that as every other industry has adapted and refined their processes, making them more effective and efficient we, who are supposedly ‘creative’ have been so stubbornly unimaginative. Perhaps we’d benefit from being a little less sure of ourselves.




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