Biohacking the brain: Joel Pearson on new tools to understand innovation

Can scientists reveal why some individuals are more creative?

Joel Pearson is an associate professor in the school of psychology at UNSW and director of the UNSW Science of Innovation Lab. He spoke to Julian Lorkin for BusinessThink.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

BusinessThink: So what does the lab actually do?

Joel Pearson: The whole mission of the lab is to understand innovation, understand start-ups, using psychology and neuroscience, or cognitive neuroscience. A lot of people are interested in why some start-ups work, some fail, why some people are resilient, some not, and the only way to really understand all these things and more is to look at psychology, look at behaviour and look at neuroscience – how the brain works, how the brain deals with things like resilience and failure and creativity, and all kinds of other great topics.

BusinessThink: But how can you apply psychology to an innovative start-up where, surely, it's just somebody's bright idea?

Pearson: We can test the individual. We can figure out why some people are resilient to failure, why some people when they get told no, go, "OK, I give up", and other people go, go, go. They just keep on trying. Is there something different about their personality, something different about their brains?

We don't know why some people are more creative. Why do some people dig down deep and look at first principles and rethink the way the world works? We don't know why.

It's a different way of thinking about innovation. Rather than just looking at process, curriculum or anything like that, we're looking at individuals. But also teams – how do people interact?

'So really, the methodology we have is to measure something scientifically, accurately and reliably'


BusinessThink: But equally, isn't the answer you're going to get from different people going to be different according to who they're addressing? If they talk to somebody in a lab coat they'll talk about the technology behind their innovation. If they talk to a banker, then they're going to be talking about how successful it will be financially. How do you actually get to how creative they are?

Pearson: That's the big problem with surveys, with interviews, and so we're building new technologies and new measurement techniques to try and get around, or step around, these subjective biases. That's why we're using things such as illusions – there are thousands of different illusions we can use, perceptual or cognitive, to build new techniques or new technologies to measure aspects of the mind more directly. So we can measure things without asking people directly their opinion about something.

BusinessThink: And how do you do that? How do you measure that?

Pearson: We literally will have someone come into the lab, or we go into the office and meet them, and they put on VR goggles, or perhaps look at a laptop, and we show them a particular cognitive test or an illusion, and we ask them questions about that. And that can tell us indirectly about them, about their mind, about their brain. We're stepping around that subjective nature of a survey or of an interview.

BusinessThink: And is there a good technique you can teach the managers of those organisations in how to be resilient, how to deal with that they're dealing with a known unknown, and just get on with it?

Pearson: We're working around that. So really, the methodology we have is to measure something scientifically, accurately and reliably. Once we can measure, we can understand the mechanism – how does it work? And then we can build techniques to effectively change it, or products to boost leadership, to boost resilience. So it's measure, understand and then effectively change or boost.

BusinessThink: And have you got any of those products now that you can directly teach people? Can you say, "Try these steps"?

Pearson: Typically, that one in particular would be putting on a VR headset and making particular decisions while we, in a very sneaky way, incept emotional stimuli into your brain. It sounds a little scary, but we have a perceptual way of showing emotional images that you're unconscious of. And then we can measure how your brain uses that unconscious emotion to help you make better decisions.

BusinessThink: It sounds as if people are trying to hack their brains to actually think in a different way, the classic biohacking. Does that meant traditional science is being left behind?

Pearson: In a sense it is. We have this amazing phenomena of biohacking where someone will do an experiment at home, they'll blog about it immediately, or they'll do a YouTube video the day after. And it spreads, and it spreads, so you have thousands and thousands of people trying that same thing over and again in a couple of days. You compare that with traditional science in a university where you first go and get some pilot data, apply for a grant, [and] you're a year or two in, [and then] do the research for another year. We're talking years and years to publication. These are two very different worlds.

So here at UNSW, at the Science of Innovation Lab, we're trying to meld those together. The way we do that is something called agile science, where we try and do rapid prototyping, a minimum viable experiment, get rapid feedback on a question, and do that in a short, lean way – much like a lean start-up.

BusinessThink: And it sounds as if the pace of change is accelerating. Traditionally, the digital innovative start-ups were the disrupters. Now they're the new normal. So can we say that innovation really is the new normal and we should expect much more of it?

Pearson: I think we can. It really is becoming that business as normal now has to involve innovation. It's not where companies are playing a game and trying to win at the game; the rules of the game, or even the games themselves, are just changing now. Companies have to go back to the drawing board and think about fundamentally what they do. Go back to those first principles, first principles thinking – what do they do and why? – and then go out with creative thinking and think of new ways to do this.

'The whole direction of a company can change, it can grow and become much, much broader'


BusinessThink: There seems to be a huge gap between innovation and entrepreneurship, of having a great idea and it actually making money. Have you learnt anything about those people and those ideas that are great and are innovative, but whether they're actually going to work in practice?

Pearson: We're launching a new program here with the start-ups on campus and the idea is to do a test batch where we're going to measure things about their personality, about their cognition and about their brain function. And then over the coming years we're going to follow through and see if there are interesting predictors that predict start-up success, both on the teams and the team dynamics, but also the individuals and their brains and cognition.

BusinessThink: Many people who think they've got a great innovative idea that is going to work as a start-up will want to know how they can actually almost mould their mind to work in that innovative, creative way and to be perceived really well. Are there any tips you can give them?

Pearson: Oh, there are lots of tips. One I often give is for pitching – to not just practice your pitch by yourself or among your friends or family; you want to be in the physiology. When you go to give a live pitch in front of an important audience, your whole physiology changes. Your heart's going fast, you're sweating, you think differently, time perception gets warped. You want to actually practise under those circumstances and there are all kinds of different ways of hacking that.

One I suggest, if you're scared of heights: get up high, practise up high. If you're scared of spiders, maybe get a spider. But what you want to do is mimic that physiology. So that's around pitching an idea.

Other things are around resilience. Practise being resilient to rejection. One thing you could do, an easy thing to do at home or every day, is go and ask for a free coffee. If they say no, [it's a] small rejection. Up the ante from day to day and just notice how you feel, that maybe it hurts at first, you do it three or four times, no big deal. You're building that muscle, you're becoming more and more resilient to failure. They're two sort of take-homes that people could use.

BusinessThink: And how about take-homes for corporates?

Pearson: That's a really interesting one that I get asked a lot. One recommendation I give is for the companies to really think about what it is they do. Don't just think if they're a finance company, that's what they've always done and they always just do that. Go back to those first principles and try to redefine what they want to be about and what they want to do.

And sometimes when you go through that process you get surprising answers. The whole direction of a company can change, it can grow and become much, much broader. And that can make the difference between a company dying out or really pivoting or moving to a new direction and getting a whole new lease on life.

BusinessThink: And that of course is exactly what we want. But there are so many companies now coming up with so many different innovative ideas. Where can we see this ending? Are we eventually going to get to a stage in 10 or 20 years where everything calms down again, everything that can be digitally disrupted has been, and we'll know what is the new normal? Is there an endpoint to this game?

Pearson: I don't think it's just about digital, so I don't think there's a clear endpoint. You have the exponential curves of digital interruption, innovation. We're going to have biological and neuroscience exponential curves coming in a bit later. We're having AI curves, if you like, which is linked to digital. So, you have these multiple exponential functions which are all going to come together, but they're delayed over time. We're really going to see disruption from different directions. I don't think there is an endpoint.


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