Electronicdesign 3868 Xl brain2

The Right (Brain) Stuff: Bring Your Creativity Into The Mix

Nov. 18, 2010
There are only 10 types of people in the world—those who understand binary and those who don’t.

There are only 10 types of people in the world—those who understand binary and those who don’t. For those of us in the former group, it can be difficult to stray from the same thoughts every day and become creative. Many engineers and other technical people are bound by time, project-management techniques, procedures, and conservative leaders.

Sure, all of these constraints are useful and necessary. Otherwise most engineers, left to their own devices, would deliver a final product, say, five years post-deadline. But in a struggling economy and weakened workforce, it’s imperative for engineers to begin thinking creatively and innovatively.

The left side of the brain keeps us rational, logical, and analytical. It’s fair to say that most successful engineers are left-brain dominant. The right side is responsible for randomness, creativity, and intuition. If we had a left-sided brain only, we’d be computers, and if we only had a right brain, we would be sputtering volcanoes of nonsense. Obviously, a mix of the two is essential to our human nature.

While everyone uses a different ratio, both sides must be utilized to balance things out. The iron framework of today’s engineering management prevents our right brain from being used at all. Randomness, intuition, and subjectiveness are all taboo. There’s a belief that engineers can’t be trusted to allow such traits to flourish since the results would always differ.

During my time in graduate school, I focused a great deal on artificial intelligence and machine learning. Students of these fields have typically been seen as outsiders, unable to do traditional computer science.

After countless hours of watching simulations of maze-solving mobile robots on neural networks, I realized I had created a purely left-brained robot. Sure, it used well-trained neural networks to make decisions. But no matter how many neurons I added, or how much I trained it, the robot would statistically do the same exact thing over and over.

Ultimately, after some frustration and trial-and-error, I discovered that by adding noise into the neural network and allowing the robot to make some intentionally wrong decisions, its success rate skyrocketed. My robot was now acting as a human would in the maze.

So why should we be left to believe that by shutting our creative sides off, we will be “better” engineers? By letting some controlled amount of noise into our lives, we are able to excel by crossing our invariable daily thoughts with new or seemingly unrelated ones.

Just about every day I try to find something new to learn. The Internet is perfect for this discovery. You’ll inevitably stumble on something you weren’t looking for. Are other sources “noise”? Try to have conversations about non-work topics, enjoying art, music, food, books, and travel, or just about anything else that isn’t part of your nine-to-five. During your lunch break, spend a few minutes doing something different.

If you can cross-pollinate your focus on a task at hand with a small dose of random ideas, you’ll become inherently more creative, while finding better ways to perform your tasks and solve difficult problems. Gently push back on the stifling walls of processes and procedures and allow your brain to work the way it was designed—and seed your pseudorandom number generator in the process.


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