Saturday 29 September 2007

Designers, Techies and Split-Brain Theory

When you dive in for your morning swim, climb the stairs to wake your child, or walk to the corner store for a cold drink on a hot day, your body is responding to complex commands and impulses to get these tasks done. The human brain oversees these day-to-day activities; most of the time, we don’t think about how complex the process is. A great example is driving as the process becomes rote. We don’t think about it overtly, but the truth is, our brains perform complex biochemical and behavioral procedures involving learning, information processing, and memory to accomplish even the most seemingly mundane tasks.

Web designers and developers are challenged in a way that very few learners and thinkers are challenged. Not only is the complexity of the subjects that we study a concern, but the rate at which we must absorb that information and put it into practice seems unprecedented. We also have to manage the doing as well as the thinking: the hands-on creation of technology and design for web sites. All of these acts demand knowledge that is both broad and deep, and we must access that knowledge as quickly and as painlessly as going to the corner store for that cold beer.

As we seek to become more effective web designers and developers, our brains similarly must manage the complex process of learning, processing information, and rapidly storing that information into memory.

I’m of the mind-set that we can all become better at what we do by first giving ourselves credit for the interest in and fascination with a field whose very essence demands that its professionals think technologically and artistically. Then, to grow in our work, we must identify our strengths, be honest regarding our weaknesses, and push ourselves to find ways to improve our skills to achieve innovation.

Information Processing and Human Learning

Integration is necessary for the web designer and developer. This perspective arises out of the idea that most of our work is split between logic and creativity. That we must be logical and creative at the same time within any facet of our job reflects this split, and it is from this split that the idea of integration comes about.

But where did the idea of this split originate? A field of study known as learning theory focuses on this very issue. The specific theory of greatest interest to this discussion is referred to as split brain. In split-brain theory, the pervasive belief is that the left and right hemispheres of the brain are each responsible for distinct types of information processing.

For more than 40 years, a psychobiologist named Roger Sperry studied the brain’s physical functions. He found that the left side of the brain is typically more dominant, and is involved in reason and language. The right hemisphere has instead a nonverbal focus. According to this theory, it is responsible for such expressions as art, music, and other creative processes.

While split-brain theory is somewhat dated as a scientific concept, it is a very common metaphor that people use to describe themselves. Because of its common use, I use the metaphor here to help clarify the essence of the communication: That most people are not integrated in their thinking and as such require more information on how to achieve a more holistic viewpoint.

Roger Sperry received a Nobel Prize in 1981 for his studies, and his work is credited with having opened up new pathways of exploration in both psychology and biology.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of split-brain theory is that, despite the theory’s basis that certain activities are managed by independent sides of the brain, people ultimately rely on both sides. Our mental process somehow, somewhere integrates.

Most people do have specific strengths in the way they think. Some people are very adept at using their whole brain. Others have a more overt dominant hemisphere.

“Unlike other aspects of cognitive function, emotions have never been readily confinable to one hemisphere – emotional effects tend to spread rapidly to involve both hemispheres.” -Roger Sperry in his Nobel Lecture, 1981

Sperry points to the emotions as involving both hemispheres. It’s possible to take Sperry’s perspective and suggest that integration appears boldly at the emotional level. To create something new, to innovate, can be seen as some combination of left-brain logic and right-brain creativity. Add emotion, which is necessary to promote new ideas, and it’s possible to suggest that mental integration is the precursor to innovation.

Of course, without the ability to express an idea in some articulate way, that idea cannot come to fruition. In order to go from integration to innovation to the expression of that innovation, we must have the skills and encouragement necessary to get there. True innovation involves a range of abilities, and communication becomes an essential factor when bringing ideas to light.

Filed under:   general
Posted by:   Molly | 16:18 | Comments (52)

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