Yesterday’s New York Times had this article, “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike,” which quickly became the #1 emailed article on the site. While a little light, it raises several points that bear reflection.
First, in discussing the “curse of knowledge,” the difficulty in remembering what the world looked like before you became an expert, I am struck by this as one apt metaphor for culture. It is so hard to escape from our own ways of thinking, which is why living in another culture, literally becoming a non-expert once again through participant observation, is such a core part of becoming a good cultural anthropologist. After that experience, or the similar experience of indoctrination into evolutionary theory, anthropologists in general struggle to create knowledge that is useful to people beyond anthropology, to both market it and make it relevant.
Second, in the context of this blog, the following line rang quite true: “When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path.” That, unfortunately, is the way a lot of anthropologists proceed, which is what makes integrative work like “neuroanthropology” difficult. As I wrote recently, it is easy to analyze cybercultures from an anthropological perspective, but more difficult to understand why people play games for so many hours or recreate many of the features of “culture” through on-line interactions.
To break this well-worn path, the point later in the Times article about asking “very, very basic questions” is something we need to do. What are the basic questions for us to understand?
I am hoping people will take that up as a theme for the comments below!!
Finally, the article briefly discusses the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath: “the Heath brothers outline six ‘hooks’ that they say are guaranteed to communicate a new idea clearly by transforming it into what they call a Simple Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Story. Each of the letters in the resulting acronym, Succes, refers to a different hook. (‘S,’ for example, suggests simplifying the message.)”
Sounds cheesy, I know. So here’s some more description from the Amazon page: “While at first glance this volume might resemble the latest in a series of trendy business advice books, ultimately it is about storytelling, and it is a how-to for crafting a compelling narrative.” How? “Drawing extensively on psychosocial studies on memory, emotion and motivation, their study is couched in terms of “stickiness”—that is, the art of making ideas unforgettable.”
As I have discussed in various posts, for example on everyday design and on video game interactions, this area—where culture, communication, technology, and neurobiology come together—is one where neuroanthropology can help us break out of the tired categories and worn traditions of how to think about and do research, as well as how to design things or communicate ideas.