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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Does Brainstorming really work?

Annals of Ideas


The brainstorming myth.

by January 30, 2012

Repeated scientific debunking hasn’t dented brainstorming’s popularity.

Repeated scientific debunking hasnIn the late nineteen-forties, Alex Osborn, a partner in the advertising agency B.B.D.O., decided to write a book in which he shared his creative secrets. At the time, B.B.D.O. was widely regarded as the most innovative firm on Madison Avenue. Born in 1888, Osborn had spent much of his career in Buffalo, where he started out working in newspapers, and his life at B.B.D.O. began when he teamed up with another young adman he’d met volunteering for the United War Work Campaign. 

By the forties, he was one of the industry’s grand old men, ready to pass on the lessons he’d learned. His book “Your Creative Power” was published in 1948. 

An amalgam of pop science and business anecdote, it became a surprise best-seller. Osborn promised that, by following his advice, the typical reader could double his creative output. Such a mental boost would spur career success—“To get your foot in the door, your imagination can be an open-sesame”—and also make the reader a much happier person. 

“The more you rub your creative lamp, the more alive you feel,” he wrote.“Your Creative Power” was filled with tricks and strategies, such as always carrying a notebook, to be ready when inspiration struck. But Osborn’s most celebrated idea was the one discussed in Chapter 33, “How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas.”

When a group works together, he wrote, the members should engage in a “brainstorm,” which means “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” For Osborn, brainstorming was central to B.B.D.O.’s success. Osborn described, for instance, how the technique inspired a group of ten admen to come up with eighty-seven ideas for a new drugstore in ninety minutes, or nearly an idea per minute. The brainstorm had turned his employees into imagination machines.

The book outlined the essential rules of a successful brainstorming session. The most important of these, Osborn said—the thing that distinguishes brainstorming from other types of group activity—was the absence of criticism and negative feedback. If people were worried that their ideas might be ridiculed by the group, the process would fail. “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud,” he wrote. “Forget quality; aim now to get a quantity of answers. When you’re through, your sheet of paper may be so full of ridiculous nonsense that you’ll be disgusted.

Never mind. You’re loosening up your unfettered imagination—making your mind deliver.” Brainstorming enshrined a no-judgments approach to holding a meeting.

Brainstorming was an immediate hit and Osborn became an influential business guru, writing such best-sellers as “Wake Up Your Mind” and “The Gold Mine Between Your Ears.” Brainstorming provided companies with an easy way to structure their group interactions, and it became the most widely used creativity technique in the world. It is still popular in advertising offices and design firms, classrooms and boardrooms.

“Your Creative Power” has even inspired academic institutes, such as the International Center for Studies in Creativity, at Buffalo State College, near where Osborn lived. And it has given rise to detailed pedagogical doctrines, such as the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process, which is frequently employed by business consultants.

When people want to extract the best ideas from a group, they still obey Osborn’s cardinal rule, censoring criticism and encouraging the most “freewheeling” associations. At the design firm IDEO, famous for developing the first Apple mouse, brainstorming is “practically a religion,” according to the company’s general manager. Employees are instructed to “defer judgment” and “go for quantity.”

The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll end up saying nothing at all. The appeal of this idea is obvious: it’s always nice to be saturated in positive feedback. Typically, participants leave a brainstorming session proud of their contribution. The whiteboard has been filled with free associations. Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.
The first empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. Forty-eight male undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were instructed to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the scientists gave the same puzzles to forty-eight students working by themselves. The results were a sobering refutation of Osborn. The solo students came up with roughly twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, and a panel of judges deemed their solutions more “feasible” and “effective.” Brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group, but rather made each individual less creative.

Although the findings did nothing to hurt brainstorming’s popularity, numerous follow-up studies have come to the same conclusion. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, has summarized the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.” 

And yet Osborn was right about one thing: like it or not, human creativity has increasingly become a group process. “Many of us can work much better creatively when teamed up,” he wrote, noting that the trend was particularly apparent in science labs. “In the new B. F. Goodrich Research Center”—Goodrich was an important B.B.D.O. client—“250 workers . . . are hard on the hunt for ideas every hour, every day,” he noted. “They are divided into 12 specialized groups—one for each major phase of chemistry, one for each major phase of physics, and so on.” Osborn was quick to see that science had ceased to be solitary.

Click here to continue reading in the New Yorker Magazine...the story does continue...
ILLUSTRATION: Nishant Choksi

Cutting our place in the world to save half pennies on the dollar.

NASA is shut down under the sequester (except for ongoing experiments like those on Mars). All external communication, external education, PR, future programs and the commercial crew program are shut down, and the private-public partnerships (like getting things to and from International Space Station) are greatly curtailed. Large cuts to private US companies involved in shuttling to space, trips to Mars or the moon, the asteroid projects, etc. (while foreign companies and nations continue to invest heavily in space). Space camp, school science programs, the very image of going into science as a career are hurt by the big cuts that are sequester. No travel budgets to international or domestic symposiums and meetings (a major part of NASA's image and leadership in the world is being there and taking the lead). 

It is a "death by a thousand cuts" with cut backs, layoffs, and no new hires in most areas. Scientist and people who invested in the future of the space program (student loans, homes by research facilities, and so on) will be hit hardest. Short term no impact on us as a leader in Science, but overall it will cause major problems and push the US way down from our current number one position.

The entire NASA budget is less than half a percent of our entire federal budget. Cuts are making a world wide statement about the decline of the US, without actually doing much good in cuts. And is NASA an entitlement or a necessity? How about education? Health programs?

From the Reporter's Notebook on NPR's To the Point (click here).

Sequester Cuts Take a Bite out of Science

Scientific research is “not an activity that you can turn on and off from year to year.” That's according to the former director of the National Institutes of Health, who says last month's budget cuts will be a “disaster” for progress in medicine. Last week, Congress approved major cuts for NASA. What does it all mean for the future of science? Ian Chant is science and technology writer and senior editor at the website


EXERCISE. Physical activity has always provided relief from stress. In the past, daily work was largely physical. Now that physical exertion is no longer a requirement for earning a living, we don't get rid of stress so easily. It accumulates very quickly. We need to develop a regular exercise program to reduce the effects of stress before it becomes distress. Try aerobics, walking, jogging, dancing, or swimming.

GET ORGANIZED. Develop a realistic schedule of daily activities that includes time for work, sleep, relationships, and recreation. Use a daily "thing to do " list. Improve your physical surroundings by cleaning your house and straightening up your office. Use your time and energy efficiently.

REDUCE TIME URGENCY. If you frequently check your watch or worry about what you do with your time, learn to take things a bit slower. Allow plenty of time to get things done. Plan your schedule ahead of time. Recognize that you can only do so much in a given period. Practice the notion of "pace, not race".

QUIET TIME. Balance your family, social, and work demands with special private times. Hobbies are good antidotes for daily pressures. Unwind by taking a quiet stroll, soaking in a hot bath, watching a sunset, or listening to calming music.

TALK TO FRIENDS. Friends can be good medicine. Daily doses of conversation, regular social engagements, and occasional sharing of deep feelings and thoughts can reduce stress quite nicely.

WATCH YOUR HABITS. Eat sensibly -- a balanced diet will provide all the necessary energy you will need during the day. Avoid nonprescription drugs and avoid alcohol use -- you need to be mentally and physically alert to deal with stress. Be mindful of the effects of excessive caffeine and sugar on nervousness. Other substances such as nicotine in cigarettes restrict blood circulation and affect the stress response.

PRACTICE ACCEPTANCE. Many people get distressed over things they won't let themselves accept. Often, these are things that can't be changed, for example someone else's feelings or beliefs. If something unjust bothers you, that is different. If you act in a responsible way, the chances are you will manage that stress effectively.

TALK  RATIONALLY TO YOURSELF. Ask yourself what real impact the stressful situation will have on you in a day or in a week, and see if you can let the negative thoughts go. Think through whether the situation is your problem or the other person's. If it is yours, approach it calmly and firmly. If it is the other person's, there is not much you can do about it. Rather than condemning yourself with hindsight thinking like, "I should have...," think about what you can learn from the error and plan for the future. Watch out for perfectionism -- set realistic and attainable goals. Remember: everyone makes errors. Be careful of procrastination -- practice breaking tasks into smaller units to make it manageable, and practice prioritizing to get things done.

TO RELAX. Throughout the day, take "mini-breaks". Sit down and get comfortable. Slowly take in a deep breath; hold it; and then exhale very slowly. At the same time, let your shoulder muscles droop, smile, and say something positive like, "I am r-e-l-a-x-e-d." Be sure to get sufficient rest at night.

DISARM YOURSELF. Every situation in life does not require you to be competitive. Adjust your approach to an event according to its demands. You don't have to raise your voice in a simple discussion. Playing tennis with a friend does not have to be an Olympic trial. Leave behind you your "weapons" of shouting, having the last word, putting someone else down, and blaming.

What are 3 self-care techniques you could include in your life more?

When would you use each of these techniques?
For example: Every day? One day a week? Specific situations?

Many people don't realize it, but stress is a very natural and important part of life. Without stress there would be no life at all! We need stress (eustress), but not too much stress for too long (distress). Eustress helps keep us alert, motivates us to face challenges, and drives us to solve problems. 

These low levels of stress are manageable and can be thought of as necessary and normal stimulation.
Distress, on the other hand, results when our bodies over-react to events. It leads to what has been called a "fight or flight" reaction. Such reactions may have been useful in times long ago when our ancestors were frequently faced with life or death matters. Nowadays, such occurrences are not usual. Yet, we react to many daily situations as if they were life or death matters. Our bodies don't really know the difference between a saber-tooth tiger attacking and an employer correcting our work. How we perceive and interpret the events of life dictates how our bodies react. If we think something is very scary or worrisome, our bodies react accordingly.

When we view something as manageable, though, our body doesn't go haywire; it remains alert but not alarmed. The activation of our sympathetic nervous system (a very important part of our general nervous system) mobilizes us for quick action. The more we sense danger (social or physical), the more our body reacts. Have you ever been unexpectedly called upon to give an "off-the-cuff" talk and found that your heart pounded so loudly and your mouth was so dry that you thought you just couldn't do it? 

That's over-reaction.

Problems can occur when the sympathetic nervous system is unnecessarily over-activated frequently. If we react too strongly or let the small over-reactions (the daily hassles) pile up, we may run into physical as well as psychological problems. Gastrointestinal problems (examples: diarrhea or nausea), depression, severe headaches, or relapse can come about from acute distress. Insomnia, heart disease, and distress habits (examples: drinking, overeating, smoking, and using drugs) can result from the accumulation of small distresses.

What we all need is to learn to approach matters in more realistic and reasonable ways. Strong reactions are better reserved for serious situations. Manageable reactions are better for the everyday issues that we typically have to face.

Below are situations that cause stress in some people and distress in others. Imagine yourself in each one right now. How are you reacting?
  • Driving your car in rush hour
  • Getting a last minute work assignment
  • Misplacing something in the house
  • Having something break while you're using it
  • Dealing with incompetence at work
  • Planning your budget
  • Being blamed for something
  • Waiting in a long line at the grocery store 

Creative Flow

Your creative flow is simply when you are most likely to think of or being something that is uniquely you to a project or an action. A key method to stimulate more advanced research, unique ways or patterning presentations or papers and original ideas is to pay attention to when and why you tend to bring out your creative self. What triggers your creative flow?

Time of day?
Type of work?
Use of your hands?
Background music?
What you eat?
What you drink?
Religion or faith?
Warm up routines?
Smells or scents?
Furniture or equipment?

For each of us our creative muse is different, and the flow of our creative energy comes from different places. What we do know is nutrition, rest and positive reinforcement are useful. Sometimes panic stimulates chemicals in your body that actually may be related to creativity and innovation. These same steps work in research, study and simpler tasks like homework.

So where do you find your creative flow? How do you tap into it? To be sure that it is there when you need, you may wish to try a few dry-runs and observer your own comfort and creative bubble.

1. Set yourself up with a meaningful challenge. When can you commit 100% to something you find important, meaningful or interesting?

2. Make the task difficult but not impossible. Push yourself to go outside of your comfort zone. Be able to break a task into parts instead of taking on the entire mountain in one bite.

3. Minimize distractions.  There are arguments that we live in a distracting world. They are true. Texting, cell phone, Internet, phone, dorm life, big families, friends, other tasks all take away from your ability to focus on the task ahead, and often are welcome distractions from things you find easier, more pleasurable or you tell yourself will only take a moment. For me it is blogging, e-mail and TV shows i enjoy. When it is time to work turn off the phones and automatic alerts on your computer. Make sure people know not to interrupt you. Nevada have things you do not need that you will use or find distracting in the area where you are doing the work. Anything you can do to minimize distractions, do it! (within the law of course).

4. Use triggers to alter your state of mind. Make a use of the triggers you identified earlier on in this self-assignment to stimulate creativity and focus.

5. Reward yourself when you complete your task, or the self-assignment segment of the task. Make sure your work justifies a reward.

Partially drawn from Lateral Action: The Creative Pathfinder web site.

Reminder: Our Memories Are Less Reliable Than We Think

Audio for this story from Weekend Edition Sunday by clicking here.
Pieces Of Light
Pieces of Light
The New Science of Memory
Hardcover, 305 pages purchase
What's your first memory? You're a baby or a toddler. Maybe it's a specific experience, maybe an impression. Maybe someone's face, or just a kind of feeling or sense. Or maybe it's a compilation of stories over years. And maybe it's less true than you think it is.
In his new book, Pieces of Light, Charles Fernyhough digs deep into the recesses of memory to figure out what shapes it, how it works and why some things stick with us forever. Fernyhough talks with NPR's Rachel Martin about his own first memory and his exploration of the science of remembering.

Interview Highlights

On our earliest memories being out-of-body experiences
"[In my first memory] I'm on the floor of the living room in the house where I lived at the time. And I've got this toy forklift truck, and I'm pushing this thing across the carpet. There's something really strange about this memory — it's vivid, I can imagine the quality of the light, something of the atmosphere in the room. But I'm looking at myself in the third person. I'm not looking out at the room through my own eyes. I'm looking at myself as a kid in this memory. And that is one of the most puzzling things about particularly early memories. Sometimes we see ourselves in our memories as people in the third person — we don't look out through our own eyes. And this is one of the clues that psychologists get about how memory works as a reconstruction. If I was really recording, and reliving an experience that I kind of recorded in my mind, I should be looking out at that room through my own eyes — but I'm not. Something has flipped around. The perspective has changed."

On memories as altered reconstructions of the past
"There's something weird going on with memory. The scientists are telling us that memory is a reconstruction, and yet we, as people, tend to stick to our old-fashioned ideas that memory works like a video camera, for example, that it just records, and it files things away in mental DVDs that we can pull down and set playing. And in a way, that's not surprising, because we see memories as foundational for who we are. We commonly feel that we are our memories; our memories define us. So something needs to change. ... Accepting that memories are not literal representations of the past as it happened doesn't mean that we have to forget about them or start disbelieving them all. But they're shaped by who we are now. They're shaped by what we feel, what we believe, what our biases are."

Charles Fernyhough is a nonfiction writer, novelist and psychologist. He conducts research into child development, hallucinations and memory at Durham University in the U.K.
On the faulty memories of couples
"I think one of the most interesting things about memory in relation to couples getting together is that there's this sense, this kind of pressure to agree on a shared representation of the past. You know, husbands and wives tend not to disagree about the past wholesale. They tend to come to a shared representation of what happened in the past. When people split up or couples get separated or divorced or whatever, those tensions about memory can come back to the surface, and you find out that people start to disagree and actually start to say, 'It never happened that way; it actually happened this way.' "

On quantity vs. quality
"Thinking about this book made me realize that remembering more stuff isn't necessarily better. Being able to recall every card in a pack of playing cards or recall pi to the thousandth decimal place — why? Why would you want to do that? It's no use to me. For some people it might be important, but it's no use at all for me. What I would like to do is remember the stuff that I remember better, in more detail, more vividly."

What Hollywood Doesn't get about religion

'The Bible' Is A Smash, On TV

Audio for this story from NPR's  Weekend Edition Sunday is available by clicking here.

The Bible is a hit television series currently showing on The History Channel. Some industry insiders are surprised by its popularity. Host Rachel Martin speaks with Time Magazine's culture critic James Poniewozik about what Hollywood doesn't get about the popularity of religion on TV.

What is religion?

Does it have a place in secular society?

Should media reflect how we really live?

If so, what about swearing? Sex and other things currently limited on television?

How do stories and myths tell us about us today? Do they still matter? What messages are we going to receive? Will it be what was intended by the original story tellers?

Can a show like "The Walton's" or "Touched by an Angel" succeed today?