Monday, August 6, 2012

Diversity of Mind

On several occasions we have used a certain kind of puzzle to root out people who have very strong synthesis skills.  If you give a supersynthesizer this sort of puzzle problem they will eventually figure out the angles and come back with a complete solution.  It is a difficult exercise because it requires that you solve in one way and then need to search for three other ways to solve the puzzle.  We give people 24 hours to solve the puzzle.  It is more than enough time for a supersynthesizer.  
For everyone else, you can give them lots more time and it just won’t matter.  Our minds work on a problem until no more patterns emerge and we then get stuck in a series of thought-loops.  This particular kind of puzzle causes this to happen.  People who don’t find a solution to a problem within the first few minutes may be destined to work on the problem for a very long time before a solution is found.  Physicist Richard Feynman stepped into just such a situation.
In the early 1940s, while Feynman was still at Princeton working on his PhD, the atom bomb project got started.  But the facilities in Los Alamos were not yet ready so the scientists involved had some time to kill before moving out west.  It was decided that it would be a good idea for Feynman to go to Chicago to visit the team working on the worlds only nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park.  The atom bomb project was all very secret of course so Feynman went there under the guise that he would have a job there working with the scientists on the nuclear reactor.   His assignment was to go to each group, tell them he was going to work with them, have them reveal all the problems and issues they were working on and when he had enough detail to start working on it himself he would go to the next group.   While it was a good idea, he was bothered a bit by his conscience that his scientific bretheren were doing all this work to bring him up to speed but he wasn’t helping them in any  way.
Then one day as a fellow scientist was explaining a particular problem that had stumped him for three months, Feynman looked at the problem and right away said “Why don’t you do it by differentiating under the integral sign?”  In half an hour the other scientist solved the problem.  The incident relieved Feynman of his guilt.  It was a great example of someone getting stuck in a thought-loop that makes it very hard to see a problem with fresh eyes when that’s exactly what you need.  Feynman had those fresh eyes.  He was also probably the best supersynthesizer in history.
In addition to supersynthesizers being good at puzzle problem solving, we discovered that if you pull together teams of four or five people from a pool of diverse people you will get consistent good results.  When we’ve done this, every team, even ones that contain no supersynthesizers, solves our puzzle problem within 45 minutes every time.  Interestingly, if you have several such teams working on the challenge, all the  different approaches to the problem will emerge from the different teams.  Diverse minds brought together can cause a lot of synapses to fire in new and thoughtful ways.  Plus, the nature of the team enterprise is such that as a member of a team you can be a bit more relaxed than you would be if you were working the problem by yourself.  While someone is going down one path, you can relax and watch for where it goes.  This relaxed state allows your brain to use the free energy to search for patterns and fire synapses.  You are not conscious of this brain activity but the brain work is going on.  It has been long understood that in a relaxed brain-state we are better problem solvers.

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