Sunday, October 25, 2009

The MN History Center and Pink's Empathy

My son and I walk up the ramp into what looks like the side entrance to a World War II paratroop plane. Inside, I push the start button, and we take seats on the bench opposite what appears to be the inside wall of the plane.

A media presentation appears on the wall with a black and white photo from the 1940s - the soldier, with his family. He tells his story of enlisting, choosing to be a paratrooper, going to war.

Then the lights dim, the media presentation goes away, and we hear and feel the sound of jet engines below us revving, rumbling, taking us aloft. Opposite our seats, a dim light in the windows reveals the ocean below us, with signs of a few boats at a distance. The pilot's voice comes on.

It is June 6, 1944, D-Day, and he tells us we are approaching the Normandy coast. The red light is on at the side hatch. He reminds us that when it turns green, we will be clear to jump...

There are flashes in the window. We are hit. The plane is going down.

The entire ride is less than eight minutes, and yet, for the first time in my more than five decades of being alive, I have the visceral sense of the nature of the sacrifices that my parents and their generation made for me. The books never did it; the movies never did it; I had to have some small bit of the experience myself.

The simulation is a part of the Minnesota History Center's current exhibit "Minnesota's Greatest Generation." It is one of many recorded personal stories that fill this exhibit, one that will stick with me.

Its power, it seems to me, comes from the use of at least two of the "right-directed senses" outlined in Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind - story, and empathy. As my son pointed out, we will probably never really understand how it feels to go to war without having had the experience. But at least now I understand that, and can empathize more deeply.

In his chapter on empathy, Pink quotes William Butler Yeats: "People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational expression end by starving the best part of the mind." And in the chapter on story, he quotes Roger Schank: "Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories."

As I reflect on my immediate few moments of realization after leaving the simulator, I am struck by the truth of both quotes.

Monday, October 19, 2009

My Fablunged Ballad and Daniel Pink's New Mind

Early in my senior year in high school, I took an uncharacteristic risk in writing a structured composition for my English class. The exercise, as I recall, was to write a short essay which involved what I would now call the exposition of a hierarchy, or a description of a classification. Old folkie that I was, I chose ballads as my topic.

As I recall, there were two kinds of ballads that we had studied: the epic ballad, a narrative describing an historical event, and the lyrical ballad, more of a poetic expression of an emotion around some type of narrative. I had been a good French student, and I knew, as we all did in those days, that “La Gaule est divisee en trois parties;” that is, that any good essay had not two examples, but three. Ah, what to do? I wanted to write about ballads, but I knew of only two kinds.

So I made one up. I drew on another tradition – my erstwhile recollection of one of my favorite Yiddish words from my Brooklyn childhood: fablunged (pronounced fa-blun-jed), meaning totally, hopelessly lost. I listed the three types of ballads, and described each. When I got to the third type, I fabricated the utterly whimsical notion of a ballad that had no known origin, an unclear message, and a text that was partially obscured – in other words, a song that was totally fablunged.

My recollection was that, amazingly, I got an A on the essay, and my content was unquestioned by a teacher who normally had the probative power of an all-star district attorney. But what I remember best was that nobody laughed. No one got my joke. Even my mom, from whom I had learned most of my broken Yiddish, only chuckled slightly and went on to something else. I wasn’t sure what to do with that revelation – that I could create such an obvious fabrication and others would miss the significant and ingenious humor involved. That may have been the beginning of my tendency toward ever more outrageous jokes, most of which are still highly un- or under-appreciated by those around me.

And what does this have to do, you ask, with Non-Random Thoughts About Thinking? Do you sense another long-way-around-the-barn explanation?

Yes, that’s what’s coming. During the past few days, I have finally begun reading a hardback book I bought on sale a couple of years ago because of its interesting title – A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink. Chances are good that you are familiar with this book if you are reading this blog. I just finished the first few chapters, focusing on the reasons that the R-Directed Mind is, according to Pink, going to be dominating the world shortly.

In my own humble way, I want to take credit for listening to that R-Direction years ago when I let myself create that pseudo-erudite third category of ballads. Up to this point in this blog, my mentions of the analytical skills have emphasized the L-Directed side – the ability to clearly and precisely determine categories based on common characteristics and structures based on part-whole relationships. This brilliant spontaneity from my youth provides an example of how the analytical can become the basis for the synthetic – in this case, by creating a new category out of thin air.

Granted, there must be better examples. But one of the more subtle points that Pink makes is that the right and the left hemisphere capabilities don’t normally act in isolation – they work together. One can start by following the standard categories, and then diverge – just by remaining open to the possibilities of a category that might exist, that might even be credible – if only we can find the right Yiddish name for it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Visual Cognition

Linda and I awoke this morning with two guests at our feet at the far end of the bed - energy on the right and thoughtfulness on the left, embodied in our cats Karma and Tina. Karma is an athletic, short-haired black kitten with strategic white spots who experiences no discernable synapse between a visual stimulus and her pounce. Tina, a few years older, with long gray hair that makes her appear much bigger than she is, is the thoughtful one, the one who looks, sniffs, and lightly paws at the world before taking any action. It was Karma who caught my attention this morning, and whose pouncing on my right hand stimulated the topic of this post.

Visual cognition is a topic that is long overdue for this blog. Here I have been blogging about thinking and cognitive skills for two months, and have never once used the word visual. Didn't I read somewhere that the optic nerve is the only sensory receptor that has a direct pathway into the neocortex? (My apologies to neurologists everywhere if I've got that jumbled a bit.)

But the point is that there is a vividness and immediacy about visual stimuli that is markedly different from our other senses. Perhaps it's really just the speed at which cognition occurs from a visual stimulus, that immediate recognition that enables us to slam on the brakes to avoid a crash, that enables Brett Favre to spot an open receiver in time to drill the ball into his arms. Maybe that's why TV and films engage us so quickly, when sound, touch, smell, or taste alone each take a few more seconds to process.

One of my avocational interests for many years has been the potential of visual organizers for enhancing communication and learning processes. My first real awareness came from meeting Tony Buzan during one of his trips to the United States in the mid-1980s, participating in a 3-day workshop he conducted for the Department of Education. His invention of mind-mapping still strikes me as perhaps the purest form of visual-verbal cognitive organization, if only because of its flexibility to support both structured and unstructured content.

Working with Tony and his books engaged me with an entire realm of tools that my verbally-centered background had kept from me. If this subject is of interest to you, here are some starting points:

Writing the Natural Way, by Gabrielle Rico, published in the eighties as well, using visuals specifically to organize and develop thoughts for writing.

Group Graphics Guide, by David Sibbet, also published initially in the eighties. David's incredibly accessible work focuses on using graphic recording to support group facilitiation. His gentle teaching in a seminar I attended reversed 30 years of conditioning for me: he actually made me realize that I could draw a bit.

VizThink, a west coast organization devoted to sharing and promoting the use of visuals of all kinds for thinking. Their conferences and seminars bring the work of people like David Sibbet to larger audiences.

Thinking Maps, Inc., a company based in Cary, NC that trains elementary and secondary school teachers using David Hyerle's invention of cognitive maps to support the six thinking skills described in this blog.

Just yesterday, our local chapter of the American Society for Training and Development published a short article by David Amdur, a teacher and member of the chapter. David highlighted a graphic organizer called VUE, developed at Tufts University, flexible open source software for creating visuals for communication, presentation, and learning. Here's the reference from David's article:
"For information, demos, and a free download of VUE, go to:"

Did it again. As Click and Clack would say, just helped myself (and you, if you've read this far) waste a perfectly beautiful Minnesota morning, missing the experience of the earliest snow in St. Paul in 60 years. Look out the window!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cognitive skills are critical, but often invisible

So, you might be saying, this stuff is really interesting. But what difference does it make?

The way cognitive skills drive your everyday thinking is similar to the way in which an experienced driver handles a car. On a dry road, and a clear day, an experienced driver may go on "autopilot." But let the road get icy, or the visibility get limited, and that same driver will feel the need to consciously focus on the simplest processes.

When your cognitive skills are well developed and maintained, you think in a focused and competent way. When you run into a difficult challenge - a tougher problem than usual, or perhaps an emotional crisis, you may need to become conscious and deliberate about your thinking.

A conscious understanding of cognitive skills and how they work can provide the extra bit of leverage that is needed in these more difficult situations.
- In business and in sports, that leverage can provide a competitive advantage.
- In everyday life, that leverage provides better problem solving, decision-making, and planning.
- For someone trying to learn something new, the conscious and effective use of this leverage can make the difference between rote memorization and content mastery.

Those are some ways in which the conscious development of cognitive skills can make a difference.