Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Is design thinking right-brain centric?

“Is design thinking a right-brain specialization?” or “Am I a left-brain person?” Questions of these sorts are not uncommon in my design thinking workshop. However, I have been unsure of my response to this topic so far. My ambivalence has been influenced by the literature that points to the myths associated with creative-left vs analytical-right brain classification (also check this article). But then popular authors like Daniel Pink have argued that abilities like design are right-brain abilities (Check his video 53:00). My friend and collaborator Prof. Ganesh Prabhu has been presenting this Daniel Pink view in our joint program at IIM Bangalore for the past few years. That kept on nudging me to look for more evidence one way or the other. Recently, I came across Iain McGilchrist's book “The master and his emissary: the divided brain and the making of the Western world” which has shed some light on this confusion. In this article, I would like to present my learnings from this book related to this left-vs-right brain topic.

Let me begin with a process view of design thinking and associated competencies that I present in my workshops. Note that this is not the only process view of design thinking and is borrowed from the Stanford Design School framework. The competency view is not exhaustive either. But it is useful for our purpose.

Now, let’s turn to McGlichrist's book “The master and his emissary”. McGilchrist is suggesting in this book that left (LH) and right hemispheres (RH) are different in not what they do but how they see or pay attention to the world. The LH sees the world through a map of objects it constructs separate from itself and its primary objective is to secure a better future by manipulating the world. In contrast, the RH sees the world as fresh, living, ever-flowing whole not separate from itself. LH sees parts first while RH sees the whole first. Originally, the RH was the master and the LH was a helper to carry out repetitive tasks. However, over the centuries, the map has become extremely sophisticated and the helper or the emissary has become the dominant master and it has made RH a subservient helper. Through the nerve fibres connecting LH and RH (corpus collosum), LH mostly sends the message to RH, “I don’t need you”. As the map gets solidified, one becomes more intolerant of alternate worldviews. The map begins to get treated as the territory and that creates all kinds of conflicts.

When LH becomes dominant, McGilchrist argues, certain functions where RH plays an important role weaken. He mentions many but here is a list relevant for us: empathy, metaphoric thinking, capacity for insight, and holding ambiguous possibilities in suspension. Here are a few quotes from the book on each of them:

Empathy: Self-awareness, empathy, identification with others, and more generally inter-subjective processes are largely dependent upon…right hemisphere resources. (pg 57, 2019 new expanded edition)

Metaphoric thinking: Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life…Only the right hemisphere has the capacity to understand metaphor. (pg 115)

Insight: Insight, whether mathematical or verbal, is the sort of problem-solving that happens when we, precisely, not concentrating on it, is associated with activation in the right hemisphere. (pg 65)

Holding uncertainty: The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right. The right hemisphere makes it possible to hold several ambiguous possibilities in suspension together without premature closure on one outcome. (pg 82)

While empathy and metaphoric thinking map directly onto the process view above, insight is typically associated with define and ideation stages, and holding uncertainty is related to hypothesis thinking of the test stage. Thus, if McGilchrist’s hypothesis is indeed correct, then we might have a tendency where LH inhibits RH from either activating or passing on information related to empathy, metaphors, insight, alternate hypotheses. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean everything in design thinking is right-brain centric. For example, one can define a challenge without using a metaphor – improve sales by ten percent or reduce the turnaround time by fifty percent. Inventive techniques seem to, at least partly, belong to the LH domain. Similarly, prototyping would need LH resources to manipulate objects in building the prototype.

In short, McGilchrist’s book “The master and his emissary” suggests that design thinking is heavily dependent on right hemispheric resources. It is no surprise that learners who approach design thinking as purely a conceptual framework to be understood by reading a book or listening to a lecture struggle to grasp the essence.

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