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Train your brain to unlock creativity and innovation

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Positive disintegration, design thinking, moving beyond functional fixedness are some of the techniques that psychiatrist, brain scientist and neurocoach Dr Srini Pillay uses in his work. 

“Creativity is not just for artists or people in business. Creativity is for any person who wants to find an unusual way to take their lives to the next level,” says Dr Srini Pillay, a South African-born, Harvard-trained  psychiatrist, brain scientist, technology entrepreneur, musician and CEO of neurocoaching company, NeuroBusiness Group.

Pillay together with business partner and collaborator Aithan Shapira – an established artist, lecturer at MIT Sloan, and founder of Tilt, a “culture design and transformation firm” – will be presenting a virtual masterclass titled “The art and science of business breakthroughs and innovation” on 5 November 2020 from 3:30pm to 5:00pm.

“We believe that to really get to the bottom of creative problems, you cannot just be intellectual. I think you have to write songs, you have to create art, or write poetry, to get into what is just beyond the surface,” says Pillay.

After training at Harvard, Pillay stayed on as part-time assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, was director of the outpatient anxiety disorders program at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital and director of the panic disorders research program in the Brain Imaging Center. 

 “Because my specialty was anxiety, I got a lot of referrals from corporations, and they weren’t looking for medication or therapy. So I ended up training as an executive coach so that I could do coaching,” says Pillay.

Drawing on his research and 17 years of brain-imaging studies, he incorporated brain science into his coaching practice, moving into what is known as neurocoaching.

“Neurocoaching is a way of coaching that involves tapping into your own brain to be able to change your brain. And you can do this at several levels, and in a very cognitive way. You can help people change their thinking patterns, or change the way they feel,” he explains.

A poet and a musician himself, a central part of his work is focused on how tapping into inherent human creativity will not only improve one’s quality-of-life, but also lead to innovation in business. He says that his years of research have indicated how you can tap into your brain to turn on the creative processes – and now, combining his experience in executive coaching with brain science, he is able to provide simple and effective tools “that have been shown to work to help the brain become more creative”.

He uses two examples: the application of the theory of “positive disintegration” and “design thinking” – which Pillay breaks down into individual processes. 

“The first is basically finding out what people want: empathising. Then the second is defining the user’s needs and the problems. The third is ideating; creating ideas and trying to figure out what you might come up with that can address these needs. The fourth is prototyping, where you come up with some ideas and you test them, which takes you to the fifth step where you try your solutions out. So it sounds great if you can just go through all of those phases. But we ask the question: Well, how do you come up with great ideas? Is there a method to do that?”

Indeed, there is – and it is something Pillay, along with Shapira, who has a PhD in the creative process, are passionate about. 

“You can use analogies to turn on the front part of the brain, which actually increases your creativity,” says Pillay.

The other tool, positive disintegration, is a personality development theory by Polish psychologist, psychiatrist and physician, Kazimierz Dąbrowski (1902–1980), who argued that psychological tension and anxiety were necessary for growth, rather than simply unwelcome conditions that should be avoided. His research is largely considered foundational to the understanding of post-traumatic growth.

“Human and social reality appear to be submitted to the law of positive disintegration. If progress is to be achieved, if new and valuable forms of life are to be developed, lower levels of mental functions have to be shaken and destroyed, and a sequence of processes of positive disintegration and secondary integrations are necessary. Consequently, human development has to involve suffering, conflicts, inner struggle,” wrote Dabrowski in his 1970 book, Mental Growth Through Positive Disintegration.

“Dabrowski studied gifted students and he found that throughout their lives, they are constantly themselves together and then fragmenting. Their entire lives come apart, and then they come back together. Now, usually, when your life comes apart, it’s very alarming and you don’t like it. But there are ways in which … when your life comes apart, you can put the puzzle pieces back together which results in an even better life. This is called positive disintegration,” explains Pillay. “And there are ways in which one can learn “to put the puzzle pieces of your life back together in a way that is enriching and positive,” he adds.

Another technique is called beyond functional fixedness, which Pillay says “has been shown to improve creativity by 67%.” The concept of functional fixedness refers to cognitive biases that limit our use of objects to only traditionally defined ways.

Understandably, in a world dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, anxiety has been a key theme for much of 2020. A fact which hasn’t escaped Pillay in his practise as an expert on anxiety, and while not necessarily a key focus of the upcoming masterclass – which is largely focused on businesses and innovation strategies – he has some suggestions of tools we can implement in our lives to deal with the added anxiety.

“Particular to this time, you’ve got a few things you need to be aware of. One is that if you’re likely to find yourself feeling a little unsettled, and not sure how to calm yourself down. Rather than talking yourself into being calmer, I would recommend revisiting your meaning and purpose in life. Basically, studies have shown that if you revisit the meaning and purpose in life, your brain is much more likely to calm down,” he says.

Pillay also recommends a technique that has gained increased popularity over the past few years, and especially in 2020: mindfulness, often practiced through meditation.

“It’s the idea of spending five to 10 minutes a couple of times a day, placing your attention on your breath, and ignoring whatever mental chatter there is. Elizabeth Blackburn who actually got a Nobel Prize, did some initial studies, and she found that mindfulness can even change your genes and help you live longer. We still need more data for that, but these preliminary studies are promising.”

From a creativity perspective, he says “there are two things that I think are important; one is that the pandemic creates a stage in your brain where you cannot think enough about the future, it knocks out the future because you’re so absorbed in the present. If you are uncertain about the future, it’s very difficult to create into the future. So one of the things I recommend is to be able to decrease your anxiety to be able to manage that future”.

Last, Pillay points to mortality salience, which is the awareness of the inevitability of death and how it influences how we behave in society.

“Every day we are reminded of death during this period. When this happens, you get a phenomenon in the brain where the circuits that are usually involved in understanding other people are just knocked out. So we stick to our own points of view much more strongly. And we don’t look outside of ourselves for other ideas. One of the practices I recommend is to ask yourself, ‘what might so and so think?’ For example if you like Da Vinci, you might say, ‘what would Da Vinci do at a time like this? The point is to encourage yourself to see through someone else’s lens, because at this time, that capacity is knocked out of your brain more than other times.

“Now, this may all sound very theoretical and heavy. But we’ve gone out of our way to make sure that this is something that anybody would be able to apply. And the reason I love doing this work is because I find academic information interesting, but too dense. I see myself as a translator, because I think that people are brilliant and creative from the time they are born,” says Pillay. DM/ML

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