Hi! 👋 I’m Jessa.

I blog daily about life, work, and the future.


Although this book was written in 2010, most of what the author wrote still rings true today. And here’s one final thought the author wants to impress:

Technology is not destiny. The human brain is probably the most complex structure in the universe, but it has one very simple feature. It is not fixed. It is malleable. Indeed, it is impressionable to the point where it records everything that charms, deters, or touches it. You might think that certain things don’t affect you, but you’d be wrong. New objects and environments are already influencing how you think, even if you don’t realize it yet. However, currently we are still the smartest things around and if we do not like what we can see of the future, there is still time to change it. It might be a good idea to sit down, open a window, and ponder this thought (or even this book) for a little while.

As quoted from the book

Quotes from the book

Michael Merzenich is a pioneering neuroscientist who discovered through experiments that the human brain is “plastic”: it responds to any new stimulus or experience. Our thinking is therefore framed by the tools we choose to use. This has always been the case, but we have had millennia to consider the consequences. Arguably, this has now changed, and Merzenich has argued that the internet has the power to lead to fundamental change in our brain, leading it to be “massively remodeled.” We are already so connected through digital networks that a culture of rapid response has developed. We are currently so continually available that we have left ourselves no time to think properly about what we are doing. We have now become so obsessed with asking whether something can be done that we leave little or no time to consider whether it should be done.

We are currently so continually available that we have left ourselves no time to think properly about what we are doing. We have now become so obsessed with asking whether something can be done that we leave little or no time to consider whether it should be done.

Digital devices are turning us into a society of scatterbrains. If any piece of information can be recalled at the click of the mouse, why bother to learn anything? We are becoming Google-eyed, scrolling through our days without thinking deeply about what we are really doing or where we are really going.

We are in danger of developing a society that is globally connected and collaborative, but one that is also impatient, isolated, and detached from reality. A society that has plenty of answers but very few good questions. A society composed of individuals who are unable to think by themselves in the real world.

What happens to the quality of our thinking when we never truly sit still or completely switch off? Modern life is indeed changing the quality of our thinking, but perhaps the clarity to see this only comes with a certain distance or detachment–like when you are sitting quietly to read a book, for instance.

We need to do a little less and think a little more. We need to slow down–not all the time, but occasionally. We need to stop confusing movement with progress and get away from the idea that all communication and decision making have to be done instantly.

I can read newspapers and websites from all over the world, at a time and place of my choosing, and I can communicate with their authors, too. But I miss old-fashioned conversations and serendipitous encounters. Even when I do see people, the chances that our chat will be fleeting or else the pudding of chilled berries will be interrupted by Apples and BlackBerries, at which point any interesting ideas will be frozen out.

The culture of rapid response plus ease of access to anything is encouraging mistakes. This is leading to a state of constant partial stupidity and multitasking mayhem. While multitasking means that we are getting better at thinking faster, the quality of that thinking is suffering. We can do more than one thing at once, but we can rarely do them well.

We are living faster than we are thinking. We relish the speed of communication that is possible, but it is sometimes forcing us to respond without thinking thing through properly. We need to slow some things down a little.

The anonymity of the web is eroding empathy, encouraging antisocial behavior, and promoting virtual courage over real emotion. At the same time, oversharing information about our precise location or interests may let us know who else is in the vicinity, but it is also making us vulnerable to everyone from advertisers to burglars. Digital immortality also means that is is becoming increasingly difficult to forget previous actions or to get past our past.

While mobile phones are replacing wallets, watches, and doorbells (“hello, I’m outside, can you let me in?”) they also allow people not to commit, or to save commitment to the very last second. In the digital era it’s impossible to be late because you simply reschedule. Commitments are similarly fluid because a better opportunity might always show up, hence everything’s done at the last minute. Got somewhere to go? No need for a plan, or a map; just make it up on the run.

…what starts as a behavioral shift tends to flow into attitudinal change, which, in turn, becomes social change.

The futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil believes that by 2019, we will be able to buy a box with the processing power equivalent to a human brain for around US$1,000, while Mitchell Kapor (the founder of Lotus software) has predicted that a machine will pass the Turing Test for artificial intelligence (AI) by year 2029.

Cognition is linked to perception and the brain is a two-way street in terms of information coming in and going out. Likewise, wisdom (as opposed to intelligence) is connected to experience. If you want to make an intelligent machine, the first thing you need to do is design one with experience as well as reasoning.

Moreover, Moore’s Law, the idea that computer processing power doubles every couple of years, has one fatal flaw, which is that energy consumption also increases. So while it may be possible to design supersmart machines, we may find out that we cannot afford to run them.

There are indeed parallels between human and machine intelligence in terms of information processing, but there the similarity ends. In short, computers cannot think about their own thinking. They are cold, calculating, and stupid. What computers are good at is logical analysis, but they are generally unable to criticize their own thinking, or create their own problems. Without consciousness a machine cannot be considered intelligent.

We now have basic forms of machine intelligence, although we barely realize it. If you mistype a word in a Google search, say “problem sloving,” you will be asked if you mean the nearest equivalent, “problem solving.” As another example, you can buy a camera with automatic face recognition. Program a few familiar faces into the camera and it will hunt out these faces in a crowd to ensure that it captures them sharply. Sounds great. But this is yet another example of how digital technology is reducing our field of vision. The more we focus on what is already familiar (through personalization), the less we notice, or care about, everything else.

The more we focus on what is already familiar (through personalization), the less we notice, or care about, everything else.

Everything we think and do, every single idea or thought we have, is connected in some distant way with things we have historically done, seen, experiences, or thought before. We are, as it were, all carbon-based machines. And the less aware of this we are, the stronger and more influential external factors and our subconscious autopilot become. So, if manmade machines are likely to develop significantly in the future, surely we should expect our minds to change in some significant ways too? This certainly seems to be the view of Susan Greenfield, who says, “If you buy into the idea that the mind is the personalization of the brain, the organization of neural connections through experience, then that brain will be highly vulnerable to 21st-century technology.”

GPS and a host of other remote monitoring technologies such as RFID (radio frequency identification tracking tags) will put increasing pressure on individuals to expose yet more elements of their everyday lives–and their everyday thoughts–to public view. This information could then be sold or exchanged for other information or for money. The issue of who ultimately owns this data (that is, our thinking) is significant. Will it be the individual who generated it, the device that created it, or the governments and corporations with an interest in analyzing and archiving the patterns deep inside the data? Think about that the next time you use Google or send a text.

In cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream.

One of the consequences of rapid information transmission is that we increasingly fail to think properly about the validity of incoming or outgoing information; we are too busy and there is too much of it.

Few, if any, of the inner processes that are used by our brains are ever made visible to our conscious minds. The vast majority of what we do is done without us consciously thinking about it.

Memory plays a key role in the generation of ideas. This is because ideas are rarely new. More often than not new ideas are actually a recombination of old ideas or existing thinking. For new ideas to be born you need to or more old ideas to jump into bed and get a bit frisky.
What is more, ideas can only select their genetic parentage from ideas, and variants of ideas, that already exist. Thus thinking, and idea generation in particular, is associative. One of the key traits of highly creative individuals is the ability to combine unrelated elements to create new concepts. A key driver of this is experience. The physical clustering of like-minded individuals is also important, because if people are close together then ideas can easily jump between them.
Interestingly, this recombination is rarely done consciously. Our brains continually soak up information–every single experience we ever have–and then file it away for future use. Furthermore, these historical experiences do not just gather dust in some remote corner of our brain. They actively influence how we think and act on a day-to-day basis, although most of the time we have no idea that this is happening.

If you want a big idea or a clever solution, there is simply no substitute for waiting. And therein lies a major problem. If our lives are becoming busier and we are continually being distracted by a plethora of digital devices, when, exactly, can this waiting take place? If we never switch off our iPhone or BlackBerry, when can we think about nothing for an extended period? And if we cut down on our sleep due to the demands of work, when can we awaken our subconscious?
Slowing down and switching off occasionally is one way of increasing mental productivity, but there are other ways too. One is happiness. This might sound crazy, but the brain is more receptive to new information when we are in a good mood. Research suggests that our mood directly influences how, and what, we think. For example, in one study, awareness of the weather on a particular day (either good or bad) was shown to directly influence people’s overall satisfaction with their lives, which, in turn, affected the clarity of their judgment on other matters.

Slowing down and switching off occasionally is one way of increasing mental productivity, but there are other ways too. One is happiness.

Recent research suggests that early blockages to thinking are sometimes linked with strong gamma rhythms in the parietal cortex, the part of the brain concerned with integrating information. The brain sometimes becomes gridlocked, possibly because there is too much information passing through or, more likely, because excessive attention creates a mental impasse or wall. This links directly to the amount of information we are now being exposed to and the need to continually scan the digital as well as the physical environment for new opprotunities and threats.
One solution to these mental gridlocks is straightforward: just stop thinking for a while. The kind of deep thinking you need for creativity or problem solving is directly connected to slow thinking and no thinking.

At age 6 our brain is already 95 percent of its adult weight and continues to develop until between the ages of 22 and 27, after which it goes into a slow but terminal decline. While knowledge and expertise tend to increase with age, originality tends to peak after people reach their 30s. So if you are after new ideas (as opposed to wisdom) you should seek out people under 30.

…while there are differences between the left and right hemispheres (or, more correctly, the upper right, lower right, lower left, and upper left quartiles) there are also differences between how male and female brains operate. If you’re running a team charged with fresh and original thinking, you should have both male and female brains on the team.

How we perceive the world influences what we actually see.

The key point is that our attention is not an unlimited resources. It is limited and we should therefore be very careful about what, or whom, we give it to.

Life-threatening situations obviously demand rapid action, and quick or shallow thinking works well for relatively trivial decisions. However, deep, rigorous, reflective thinking is a foundation stone for serious creativity, strategic thinking, and innovation, and I firmly believe that this kind of thinking cannot be rushed.

Most adults survive on between six and seven hours’ sleep, well below the recommended level of eight hours, largely due to the distractions of work and our 24/7 lifestyle. Lack of sleep obviously influences physical health and mood, but it also affects memory, reaction time, concentration, and attention.

…if you are after highly original thinking, a single talented individual (or small group of talented thinkers with diverse experience) is a better route than a larger group. Crowds will tend to reject any new idea that does not immediately fit with already known ideas and also anything ugly, unusual, or different, although over time this rejection will fade.

As immunologist PB Medawar says: “The human mind treats a new idea in the same way the body treats a strange protein: it rejects it.” One of the main enemies of deep thinking is thus a rather combustible mixture of fear and inertia. this is a great shame, but it is not always a disaster.

With distances comes perspective.

Despite recent technological advances, the medium is still the message. So if you want to interrupt someone who’s busy sending and receiving emails, sending them another email is probably not the best way to go.

People who could be regarded as fairly original thinkers (artists, designers, musicians, scientists, engineers, inventors) seemed to tap into outdoor environments like mountains, beaches, and other relatively slow, tranquil, and isolated places. In contrast, people in senior managerial positions in large corporations appeared to prefer indoor environments or urban spaces where they would bump into other people.

We spend millions designing offices and hundreds of thousands employing consultants to run idea-generation and strategy sessions, but most people’s best thinking is done away from the workplace.

If you want to have new ideas you need to go somewhere ideas can find you.

We got to talking about thinking in organizations and he said he believed there were hardly any deep thinkers left in large companies. They had been rooted out by human resource departments because deep thinkers were too disruptive. It was like the quote by TE Lawrence: “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

Unfortunately, in our fast-moving, high-pressure, high-octane, get-it-done-yesterday world we are losing slow, contemplative spaces like these at an alarming rate. Piers, like pure thought, do not appear to have an immediate dollar value.

Gardens are another natural thinking space. Like piers, garden seems to attract people later in life. One reason, again, is perspective: As we grow older our perspectives lengthen and the whole becomes visible. As the writer Germaine Greer says: “Gardening is all in the future and the less future people have, the more they tend to think about it.”

Business, like gardening, is about flexibility and persistence in the face of changing external circumstances that cannot be wholle controlled. If you want a fertile imagination, you need to sow a lot of different seeds. However, even tenacity doesn’t always work. Sometimes plants don’t grow because they have been put in the wring place or because pests have destroyed them. Either way, you have to nurse them back to health or yank them out and start all over again. Gardeners are always yanking things our and starting again. So are entrepreneurs and inventors.

Radical ideas are like weeds. They grow where they’re not supposed to and cannot be cultivated like orchids in a greenhouse. You cannot sow weeds in any meaningful sense; you can only provide the conditions necessary for them to grow, which in most instances means leaving them alone. Weeds thrive on neglect.

Private gardens are not generally expansive nowadays, but ther are usually quiet spaces where one’s mind can freely wander. But to do so one must first surrender control to the rhythms and whims of nature. Gardens are places to sow new thoughts. There is always something to be done in a garden, and some of the best ideas come about when our minds are free to get lost.

…some of the best ideas come about when our minds are free to get lost.

Windows allow us to transport our minds to mentally productive places, even when the rest of our bodies are unable to leave the room.

Offices aren’t only about work, any more than schools are only about exams. Physical interaction is a basic human need and we will pay a very high price if we reduce all relationships (and information) to the lowest-cost formats.

Being busy has become a subtle social sign that we are important and successful. Hence we rush from one task or problem to the next without really stopping to think where we are going. Literally.

Being busy prevents us from asking deep and difficult questions about ourselves. We do not like being alone with our thoughts any more than we like to be seen doing nothing. They are the twin errors of our electronic age. A further modern malaise is anxiety, which is soothed by the illusion of control that we gain through constant technological connectedness. Writer Carolyn Johnson sums things up succinctly: “Distraction isn’t merely available, it’s unavoidable.”

The piano, the gramophone, and the radio used to have much the same effect of bringing people together physically. These objects have now either disappeared or been replaced by personalized devices that allow the user to change what was once a communal experience into an individual one.

Conversational skills are not something you are born with, they are acquired. Historically they were acquired around a dinner table, but dining rooms are disappearing, being replaced in many cases with home offices and entertainment rooms. If you ask the typical screenager about anything beyond their immediate interests and experience, they generally give you a rather short and mumbled response. This might be language, but it isn’t deep conversation–and it doesn’t represent deep thinking.

If the brain learns something new it grows; if it doesn’t, it becomes lazy and starts to make short cuts. If new experiences are reduced or removed, our thinking starts to thicken or become less fluid or fresh. We start thinking in straight lines because this is the path of least resistance.

Innovative thoughts don’t generally come from a mind that’s angry or hurried.

Time, as they say, is money, but we seem to have confused both the value of doing nothing and what we do. If people look physically active, we assume they are doing something worthwhile. But if they are sitting quietly and thinking, we assume they are wasting their time or ours. Daydreaming is seen as worthless procrastination and we overlook the value inherent in the slow flow. We need to develop unhurried minds. To make the most of time we need to lose track of it sometimes.

To make the most of time we need to lose track of it sometimes.

If you show a newborn child the same things their eyes start to wander. But if you show them something new their gaze returns. It’s similar with adults. Most of use are trapped in routines. We travel the same route to the office, we sit with the same people, and we hang out with the same old ideas. Don’t.
As we grow older it becomes increasingly difficult to move beyond what we have already experienced. So if you are after new thinking you must consciously disrupt routines and introduce fresh information and experiences.

Ideas don’t come out of nowhere. All of them are weakly connected to existing ideas. Therefore it’s about cross-pollination, creating new combination, new connections, and new neural pathways. So if you’re interested in giving birth to new ideas, you first need to connect with other ideas through indiscriminate relationships with people, places, and things. Your ideas need to start having casual sex. It is from this frenzied coupling that new ideas will be conceived.

We maintain the illusion of control when all the evidence suggests that we control next to nothing. We think (briefly), we plan (poorly), we strategize (for the next 18-36 months out), but most of this is superficial and easily disturbed. Hence not making up our minds until the last moment–or having a plan that is relatively fluid–is actually not a bad strategy. But once we have made up our minds, it is very difficult to unmake them. The windows of perception are slammed shut. To quote Fine again: “So long as our minds are yet to be made up, we actually view ourselves and life unusually realistically as we quietly contemplate our future.”

One of the biggest problems with big problems is that people give up far too soon. We think about things, we think a bit more, and then we quit–because nothing appears to be happening or because the process is frustrating or confusing. Yet a truly original idea can take years to arrive and successfully implementing it often requires decades of energy, passion, and enthusiasm.

The ground needs to be properly prepared before anything big can grow.

Giving up because your ideas aren’t good enough (quality) or because you haven’t had any or enough of them (quantity) misses the point. You can neve know in advance whether an idea that flashes into your mind will be a good one or a bad one. The best strategy is simply to keep having ideas until you have one that is big enough for you.

You don’t read about failure very often. I’m not just talking about great ideas that never see the light of day, I’m talking about people too. Most companies–in fact, most people–fail far more often than they succeed. This is a proverbial elephant in the boardroom. But by being so scared of failure, we are missing a valuable opportunity.

To quote Italian designer Alberto Alessi: “Anything very new often falls into the realm of the not possible, but you should still sail as close to the edge as you can, because it is only through failure that you will know where the edge really is.”
The edge is where real genius resides. It can be a difficult location, especially when you stop to consider that the bigger an idea is, the more opposition it will encounter. A truly visionary idea will, by it very nature, threaten whole structures of understanding.

Innovation works best when it’s bottom up rather than centrally planned. As we’ve seen, group intelligence has its limits, and groups are better used to solve well-defined problems rather than to find problems or invent new ideas, so it’s important to find the right balance between collective and individual thinking. But generally speaking, the more minds you put on a problem, the faster the problem shrinks.

Sleep is vital not only to our physical and mental health, but because it is when we sleep that our minds starts to lay down memories and connect seemingly disparate pieces of information and experience. As the writer William Golding once said, “Sleep is where all the unsorted stuff comes flying out as from dustbin upset in a high wind.” Thus if we are building physical environments or societal norms that do not value sleep, we are again eroding are ability to dream and think up new ideas.

Thus if we are building physical environments or societal norms that do not value sleep, we are again eroding are ability to dream and think up new ideas.

Kids are overscheduled and overworked. Free play has all but disappeared. So let’s invent “do nothing” days, where there is no plan and no structured play. Let’s ensure that kids get bored every so often and have to use their imagination to invent ways to escape.

We think that we are using the internet, but perhaps it will end up using us. We generally assume that knowledge increases over time. The internet, we therefore assume, is spreading knowledge. But it is always possible that the reverse could be happening. Ignorance could be increasing over time because the sheer volume of digital dross and distraction that is now so easily co-created and distributed is drowning out learning and wisdom.
So perhaps we are not in the middle of an information revolution, but rather at the start of a machine-driven disinformation revolution. An electronic era in which ordinary individuals become so confused that they just give up thinking in any meaningful way. An age in which we are so focused on ourselves that our ability to relate to other people starts to decline. This could happen without us really noticing it. It will happen slowly and we will get used to it. But just because we get used to something doesn’t mean that it is good.

Undoubtedly, with the development of robotics, artificial intelligence, genetics, and nanotechnology, machines will become more like people and people will become more like machines. But currently, only human beings can think deeply. At the moment only people have curiosity and imagination and only people build smart machines, so we are still the only ones who can invent the future. The future is full of fantastic possibilities and we can invent it any way we like if we just put our minds to it.

The future is full of fantastic possibilities and we can invent it any way we like if we just put our minds to it.