“Nature herself makes the wise man rich.” Cicero
“We still do not know one-thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us.” Albert Einstein
I had a wonderful break in Japan recently, and spent most time exploring Kyoto’s beautiful gardens and charming back streets (as well as a good quota of temples of course). There are many scenic gardens in the city – public and private, small and large – all beautifully designed and maintained. They are a perfect place for contemplation, which was often their original function. Indeed one of the more beautiful paths along the canal is called the “Philosopher’s Walk” and must be stunning in the full force of the April blossoms (I was a little early for this).
Contemplation of nature has always been an inspiration for innovation. The most obvious role is to provide a backdrop for clearing the mind and thinking more laterally and creatively. We all know that the best ideas come when we least expect them. Often we focus on thinking hard about a particular problem, and the solution only comes when we stop thinking about it and allow our mind to wander and explore. Tranquility really helps give the brain time to make new connections, which can help lead us to a great idea, by thinking in a less linear way using random disruptions to lead our minds to a solution. In order to generate great ideas, always allow time to not think!
Nature also often inspires innovation, and the field of biomimicry is a growing one. The most quoted example is that of the burr which inspired George de Mestral to come up with the idea of Velcro after wondering why the irritating cockle-burs stayed stuck to him and his dog when they returned from their walk. There are many other examples such as learning how to make water repellant surfaces by studying lotus leaves, or reducing air resistance in transport by studying the shapes of birds.
The burr is a very interesting solution to the problem of making sure that the burr plant propagates itself as widely as possible. Nature often provides very elegant solutions to the challenges of natural selection, and we can see much elegance in the symmetry of nature (see the previous article) and also in the geometrical and power laws, which describe many natural phenomena. Indeed, fractal geometry and power laws are a good topic for another article.
In many ways, the brain is the opposite with a very inelegant design, albeit somewhat symmetrical. The human brain really consists of a number of different “brains”, which have been bolted together over time, starting with our reptile ancestors’ brain which still controls our instincts, until the most recent addition of the neocortex driven by the evolution of man into a social animal using language to share ideas. Many of the brain’s functions are poorly performed from some perspectives. For instance, memory can be very unreliable and is very dependent on context – if you can’t remember where you put something, then it’s likely that’s because you put it in an unusual place (computers are much more reliable at such recall). We often make seemingly irrational choices, and this is often caused by conflict between the different systems in the brain (very often our more instinctual and emotional reactions will win over more considered and rational thoughts). Thus the most modern and sophisticated part of the brain is very often superceded by more basic instincts (including instant gratification). Survival is very important – you instinctively jump back when you see something in the grass long before your more conscious brain realizes it’s only a twig and you can continue. Gary Marcus uses the word kluge (which comes from engineering) to describe a brain patched together to be just about good enough for survival.
So our brains are very imperfect and designed to do a great deal without rational, conscious thought. Much of market research completely ignores this fact, and I intend to talk about this topic much more in future articles, and how research should focus more on real human behaviours and less on artificial questions.
Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital by Judith Clancy
Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind by Gary Marcus