”The Brain is wider than the Sky, for put them side by side, the one the other will contain, with ease and you beside.” Emily Dickinson
Imagine that you had instant recall of every page of every book you have ever read. Kim Peek had that recollection for the nearly 12,000 books he had read. He was also the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the film Rain Man. Daniel Tammet has learned 12 languages, including the tongue-twisting Icelandic and Welsh languages. Incredibly, he learned to speak Icelandic in one week. He also has memorized pi to 22,500 digits, and recited it without error in a little over five hours to a public audience at Oxford University.
What Kim Peek and Daniel Tammet shared (Kim Peek passed away in 2009) were neurological disorders; in Tammet’s case, autism. The autism disorder spectrum is rich with variation and Tammet’s autism is called Asperger’s syndrome. Tammet has written two books (Born on a Blue Day and Embracing the Wide Sky) to help us understand and bridge the gap between those with and those without autism. The compelling story he reveals is not that autistics suffer from circuits gone awry but that their experience reveals the grand potential of our human minds.
The film A Beautiful Mind was based on the real-life story of mathematical and economics genius John Nash, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. According to Tammet, various scientists have speculated on the possibility that a range of neurological conditions, from autism to epilepsy to John Nash’s schizophrenia might be related to reduced levels of inhibition in the brain, causing cross-communication between separate brain regions. (We’ve often heard people described as being left-brained or right-brained – here the reference is to the synergistic whole brain.) Scientists have noted that extraordinary creativity is often the result of this hyper-connectivity and cross-activation between various regions of the brain.
Why this is so important is that we all want to be creators and problem-solvers, whether it is in our professional, personal or community lives. If our minds have unrealized potential, then exploring ways to realize our minds’ capability will greatly enhance the successful outcomes of these aspirations.
Jim Murray has a doctorate in organizational behaviour and a master’s degree in adult learning. He has been clinically and passionately studying how we can improve and expand our creative problem-solving skills. Murray was asked why we fail to further develop thinking capabilities as we become adults and what are the risks of this failure.
“Disciplined and analytical thinkers, particularly professionals like accountants, have been conditioned from an early age to see what suits their purpose, what they want to see, and what they have been taught to see. This is problematic in a world where people are already confused by exponentially accelerating change and far too much information. These blind spots and cognitive biases can only lead to lousy decisions. More than ever before, a disproportional reliance on logic, and linear, deductive thinking is a recipe for ineffectiveness and sub-optimal results if not outright failure.”
The IQ measurement of cognitive skills is still wide-spread and encouraged through our reward systems in education and the workplace. However, new mind skills are now becoming better recognized and valued – consider creativity and empathy. Emotional intelligence or EQ measures one’s skill at interpersonal relationships, particularly the attribute of empathy.
In his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Daniel Goleman defines EQ as the “capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and our relationships.” Goleman identified the five domains of emotional intelligence as: knowing your emotions, managing your emotions, motivating yourself, recognizing and understanding other people’s emotions, and managing relationships – through managing their emotions.
Importantly, we can develop our EQ and improve our ability to be more empathic. (IQ is generally viewed as more fixed.) Part art and part science, continuous learning programs abound to improve one’s EQ. Those who combine high IQ and EQ attributes, a more synergistic use of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, rise to the top of their organizations.
While EQ has become an accepted dimensional measurement of one’s intelligence, there is more.
Howard Gardner is a distinguished Harvard psychologist who has identified multiple intelligences. His experience and research led him to write Five Minds for the Future. He argues that these multiple intelligences and their development are necessary for leadership and professional success in the future. He also cautions that the education system is still skewed towards IQ skill development, and that new forms of teaching and curriculum are required to develop these other intelligences.
Some of his multiple intelligences are:
- The disciplined mind is logical and analytical. It has mastered one way of thinking, a distinctive mode of cognition resulting from specific training. This mind is concerned with planning, executing and critiquing – and is prized by professions, including accounting.
- The synthesizing mind takes information from a wide variety of sources and seeks to understand and evaluate the information objectively and in different contexts, then assembles it so that it makes sense in other applications and environments.
- The creating mind breaks new ground, puts forth ideas, poses unfamiliar questions and conjures up fresh ways of thinking, often arriving at unexpected answers.
A story concerning German mathematician Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss provides a useful example. One day, while in primary school, the teacher asked the class to determine the sum for the numbers 1 through to 100. In a matter of seconds, Gauss calculated the answer while his classmates toiled for considerable time in adding the figures. Gauss had discovered a pattern: The first and last numbers paired together added up to 101, where 100 + 1=101, and then the next pair 99 + 2=101, and then 98 + 3=101, etc. There being 50 such pairs in the sequence of 1 to 100, he quickly and correctly calculated the sum as 50 pairs X 101 = 5,050. Gauss was utilizing his creating mind attributes of discovery and innovation, while the rest of the class displayed the learned methodology of their disciplined minds.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is the author of the book My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. As Robert Koehler of Tribune Media Services describes it, she awoke one morning in 1996 with a sharp pain behind her left eye – the beginning of what could have been a life-ending stroke. Her speech and motor functions failed her, as she melted into what she called a euphoric stupor and lost all sense of where “Dr. Jill” ended and the rest of the universe began. Surprisingly, the sudden loss of her left-brain organizational and self-defining capabilities was not terrifying. She instead saw her stroke as a gift of unparalleled awareness: the shattering of the self-created box we live in that we call ‘life’. What she discovered was the beauty of her brain’s right hemisphere –where everything was an explosion of magnificent stimulation and euphoria.
That is to say, we live and we strangle each other in our left-brain ego-boxes, refusing to trust or even acknowledge that a different kind of world is possible. Here’s how Taylor puts it: “I realized that the blessing I had received from this experience was the knowledge that deep internal peace is accessible to anyone at any time…My stroke of insight would be: Peace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind.”
The two hemispheres of our brain are yoked opposites: the limit-setting rationality (time, judgment, ego) of our left-hemisphere, in perpetual interplay with the eternal and unbounded ‘now’ of our right-hemisphere. Together, and only together, do these two halves of our awareness make our human identity – something we often lose sight of in our professional lives.
Guest contributor Robert Gagnon, CA, Associate Director, Professional Development, oversees the Institute’s Executive Programs. For those interested in learning more about this topic, the Smart Leaders: Thinking & Innovation Skills program is offered October 24 – 27, 2010.
Article appeared in The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario’s CHECKMARK magazine Summer 2010.