from neuroscience and philosophy to design: some thoughts on thinking and solving

Design needs to leave its philosophical baggage at home, take a taxi to the airport, and fly to the far east. Our philosophical past, in reference to western philosophy is rooted in Descartes' dualism and his famous conclusion 'I think, therefore I am' (Meditations by Descartes). His conclusion was formed logically and consciously. This has created an adverse environment for proposing different ways of solving problems. We are stuck in the mindset that useful thinking only occurs on the conscious level.

The stories of great mathematicians, musicians, and philosophers that suddenly see the entire solution or composition in their mind’s eye as they walk to the coffee shop should have provided some clue as to the mind’s operations. People sometimes call this phenomenon intuition or a gut feeling. These misnamed terms incorrectly point to the emotions that appear to subjectively tilt people’s choices one way or another. They are pointing to the effect and not the cause. Intuition is the effect of subconscious processes and causes taking place just below our conscious mind (Mind time by Benjamin Libet). In the business and professional world, intuition is stigmatized and is a form of problem solving that is avoided. It is seen as illogical because the process is not explicit. On the contrary, human activity is implicit from day to day and realizing this will allow for a liberating design methodology.

To be successful at any human activity, one must hold multiple pieces of information floating in the mind at the same time. This is the same for janitors as it is for politicians as it is for engineers. An individual’s specialized training creates a model of the world that is governed by past experiences. These models are a result of the brain correlating a cause and effect. Essentially, taking one piece of information about the world and realizing that it is connected to another piece of information in the world. This can be as simple as realizing that stepping in front of a moving car kills a person or as complex as events with multiple causes and multiple effects (i.e. computer simulations of the inner workings of stars). Unfortunately, the conscious mind is only capable of focusing on a single piece of information at a time. The subconscious filters out the noise, recognizes the patterns, and makes aware the overarching task to the conscious mind (On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins). This sets the stage for a method of problem solving that seems counter intuitive at first, but upon closer inspection allows for a form of ideation that transcends the limitations of the single-track conscious mind.

A child's constant questioning of the world allows it to learn by asking. As important as it is to teach a child reading, writing, and arithmetic, it is by far more crucial to cultivate a mind that can solve problems by asking questions (Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by Buckminster Fuller). I believe learning by asking is the first step of the design process - it is a step that children have already mastered. The second step is to “gather or produce relevant information about the issue” (Pg. 96, Libet). This information can range from past experiences, to specialized training, and to research that accumulates once the problem is framed. The third step is to “suspend further conscious attempts to produce an hypothesis that might lead to an answer” (Pg. 96, Libet). To put off ones conscious focus means that the subconscious is given time to absorb as much information as possible. This provide enough time for the subconscious to form models of the problem. These subconscious models are the development of ones intuition towards the issue. The fourth and fifth steps, respectively, is to consciously form an hypothesis and to then “apply a conscious rational analysis of what has finally arisen to a conscious level to test its usefulness and validity” (Pg. 96, Libet). These last two steps are closely related and will be guided by the intuition that’s been built up during the third step. Of these five steps, I think the third is where creativity takes place. Ones intuitive grasp of a situation provides room for creative leaps. These five steps constitute the design process as I have come to know it. It attempts to convey a method that goes beyond step-by-step logical and conscious problem solving, it is “more biological than mechanical” (A Manifesto for Postindustrial Design by Jamer Hunt).

I think it is crucial to integrate these steps into a collaborative environment. The composition of different minds bring an assortment of experiences to the table. These described steps set up a method of problem solving that utilizes the collective subconscious of the group. Assuming the team has good chemistry, it will progress along these steps and act as a single entity. The first two steps cultivate its common vocabulary, where the problem is framed and the research ensues. This common vocabulary, which will aid in the groups collective model of the problem, creates the environment that allows experiences and personal expertise to be brought in and understood. This super-organism’s development is catalyzed by design. Creativity flourishes in its subconscious mind and solutions to problems that range from the social to the technological flows with refreshing ideas.

Meditations by Descartes
Mind time by Benjamin Libet
On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins
Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by Buckminster Fuller