Designing Your Mind

Given recent research about brain plasticity and the dangers of cognitive load, the most powerful tool in our cognitive arsenal may well be design. Specifically, we can use design principles and discipline to shape our minds. This is different from acquiring knowledge. It’s about designing how each of us thinks, remembers, and communicates, – appropriately and effectively for the digital age.

Today’s popular hand-wringing about the digital age’s effects on cognition has some merit. But rather than predicting a dire future, perhaps we should be trying to achieve a new one. New neuroscience studies give hope. We know that brains are malleable and can change depending on how they are used. Results from studies support the notion that even among adults the persistent, concentrated use of one neighborhood of the brain really can increase its size and presumably its capacity.

How can we use design thinking to change the way we think? Good design typically begins with some principles and functional objectives. You might wish to perceive and absorb information effectively, concentrate, remember, infer meaning, be creative, write, speak, and communicate well, and enjoy important collaborations and human relationships. How could we design our use of or abstinence from media to achieve these goals?

Extensive research shows that people can improve cognitive function and brain efficiency through simple lifestyle changes, such as incorporating daily exercises into our routine. Feeling distracted? The simple discipline of reading a few full articles per day rather than just the headlines and summaries could strengthen attention.

Want to strengthen your working memory and your ability to multi-task? Try reverse mentoring, – learning with your teenager. This is the first time in history when children are authorities about something important, and the successful ones are the pioneers of a new paradigm in thinking. Why don’t schools and universities teach design for thinking? We teach physical fitness, but rather than brain fitness, we emphasize cramming young heads with information and testing their recall. Why not courses that emphasize designing a great brain?

Does this modest proposal raise the specter of “designer minds”? I don’t think so. The design industry is something done to us. I’m proposing that we each become designers.

Don Tapscott, Adjunct Professor
Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto
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