Celebrate the Child-Like Mind
From what I can see, the best scientists and engineers nurture a child-like mind. They are playful, open minded and unrestrained by the inner voice of reason, collective cynicism, or fear of failure.
On Thursday, I went to a self-described "play-date" at David Kelley's house. The founder of IDEO is setting up an interdisciplinary "D-School" for design and creativity at Stanford. David and Don Norman noted that creativity is killed by fear, referencing experiments that contrast people’s approach to walking along a balance beam flat on the ground (playful and expressive) and then suspended in the air (fearful and rigid). They are hosting an open conference on Saturday, appropriately entitled The Power of Play.
In science, meaningful disruptive innovation occurs at the inter-disciplinary interstices between formal academic disciplines. Perhaps the D-school will go further, to “non-disciplined studies” – stripped of systems vernacular, stricture, and the constraints of discipline.
What is so great about the “child-like” mind? Looking across the Bay to Berkeley, I highly recommend Alison Gopnik’s Scientist in the Crib to any geek about to have a child. Here is one of her key conclusions: "Babies are just plain smarter than we are, at least if being smart means being able to learn something new.... They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations and even do experiments…. In fact, scientists are successful precisely because they emulate what children do naturally."
Much of the human brain’s power derives from its massive synaptic interconnectivity. I spoke with Geoffrey West from the Santa Fe Institute last night. He observed that across species, synapses/neuron fan-out grows as a power law with brain mass.
At the age of 2 to 3 years old, children hit their peak with 10x the synapses and 2x the energy burn of an adult brain. And it’s all downhill from there.
This UCSF Memory and Aging Center graph shows that the pace of cognitive decline is the same in the 40’s as in the 80’s. We just notice more accumulated decline as we get older, especially when we cross the threshold of forgetting most of what we try to remember.
But we can affect this progression. Prof. Merzenich at UCSF has found that neural plasticity does not disappear in adults. It just requires mental exercise. Use it or lose it. We have to get out of the mental ruts that career tracks and academic “disciplines” can foster. Blogging is a form of mental exercise. I try to let this one take a random walk of curiosities and child-like exploration.
Bottom line: Embrace lifelong learning. Do something new. Physical exercise is repetitive; mental exercise is eclectic.