Your Brain on New Ideas by James Hurman

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Millions of years ago, our brain evolved to reject the unfamiliar. Thriving in our present-day age of innovation means overcoming our cave-person response to new ideas. Anyone can do it, and this is how…

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When a car brand launches a new model, our immediate reaction tends to be a negative one. We feel like we prefer the old shape. Then after a couple of months, we realise the new shape is much better.

If you’re nodding, it’s likely you have a human brain.

The new car shape didn’t change in those couple of months. Nor did we. The car simply went from being unfamiliar to us, to being familiar.
And our brains are wired to steer us away from the unfamiliar.

Inside our skulls, we have two processing units working together. One is our very old, simplistic and unsophisticated ‘reptilian brain’. Another is our much younger, and vastly smarter ‘neocortex’. The way they react to new things is completely different.

Our reptilian brain is focused primarily on survival. It developed millions of years ago. It’s where ‘fight or flight’ happens. Without any conscious thinking required, the reptilian brain assesses safety and danger. And along very binary lines. Things that are familiar are considered safe. Things that are unfamiliar are considered dangerous.

Our reptilian brain evolved to ward us away from new things. Berries you’ve never seen before? Might be poisonous. Stay away.

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Our neocortex works in a far more conscious, nuanced way, and developed much more recently. It’s there to consider, weigh up, look at things objectively. It doesn’t have an automatic dislike of new things. But it’s much slower and much quieter. So at first, it’s out-shouted by our reptilian brain.

That’s why when we see that new car shape, we dislike it at first. Our reptilian brain does what reptilian brain is meant to do. Sees the unfamiliar and tells us, very loudly, that we don’t like it.

Then two things happen. The new shape becomes more familiar to us, quietening the reptilian brain. This allows our neocortex to take over, evaluating the new shape (which, by the way, a team of highly trained designers spent years ensuring was genuinely better than the old shape) and reaching the correct conclusion that yes, it is in fact better.

Of course, all of this happens completely subconsciously. We are at the mercy of our brain’s automatic releasing of chemicals that make us feel as if we like or dislike things. We have a perception of being in control of these reactions. Of being able to make an assessment of new, unfamiliar things rationally and consciously. But that’s rarely the case.

That’s why presenting new ideas, or having them presented to us, is so difficult.

People working in creative industries tend to have a lot of experience with the unfamiliar. Their jobs usually involve conceiving and evaluating new, unfamiliar things on a daily basis. Which creates an enhanced ability to quieten the reptilian brain. They’re comfortable with the discomfort of looking at things they haven’t seen before. They can quickly switch into their neocortex and make a less emotional assessment of new ideas.

People who don’t have this same experience don’t have this same honed ability. They experience a far more irrational dislike of new ideas at first.

Problematically, in business, we’re expected to have new ideas presented to us and to be able to make judgement calls about them within the space of a meeting. Even a very long meeting isn’t enough time for a new idea to become familiar and be able to be effectively evaluated by our neocortex – especially if we don’t have a lot of practice or creative experience.

So we have this dichotomy. Creative people presenting ideas that they’re both familiar with (having spent time developing them) and better equipped to evaluate rationally. And across the table, a group of people for whom the ideas are unfamiliar, and who are much more at the mercy of their reptilian response.

This is the crux of why it’s so often a difficult, uncomfortable process. And why so often we end up choosing more familiar, but ultimately less effective ideas.

The good news is that it doesn't need to happen this way.

Simply armed with the awareness of what’s subconsciously happening in their brain, anyone is capable of observing and modulating their reptilian response.

When looking at new ideas, we can pause and ‘notice’ our reptilian response. Acknowledge it, and then set it aside. Create room for our neocortex to go to work performing a proper evaluation of what’s in front of us.

Because when we’re led by our reptilian response, our brain does something else it’s fantastic at - post-rationalising reasons to explain our negative emotional response. We clamour for rational-feeling reasons why those unfamiliar ideas aren’t good ones. Those reasons sound like really good, sensible ones. But they rarely are.

The fact is that your brain could take any idea and quickly dream up a list of reasons why it’s not a good one. It’s one of our human superpowers. Even the least intelligent people are eminently capable of hypothesising why a new idea mightn’t work.

This isn’t to say that unfamiliar ideas are automatically good ones. Nor that familiar ideas are never the best ones.

But a skill that the best creative people exhibit is the ability to find the ‘good’ in an idea and focus in on that. The idea may not be all good, but there’s usually at least a grain of good in there somewhere. Their evaluation process tends to first look for that good bit, and then assess how to develop the idea to build on that good part in a way that addresses all of the other concerns.

That’s the neocortex-led way of evaluating ideas. And it’s our neocortex that’s in the best place to evaluate new ideas. If we rely on our reptilian response, we’re relying on a dumb, old mechanism that evolved long before our species was ever expected to innovate. We’ll stay where we are or take tiny, cautious steps forward while others around us take bold leaps.

So next time you’re in the position of being presented with new ideas, new designs, or unfamiliar options for what to do next, start cultivating this awareness. Observe what you’re feeling, and separate those feelings out into what you think is a reptilian response, and listen closely to what your clever neocortex is trying to tell you.

Look for the good in ideas. Resist the reptilian-led response of thinking up reasons why a new idea might not work.

It won’t be long before you realise you were right.