As anyone familiar with this blog knows, one of the things I'm working on in my new practice is to ground futures work– both the research and the client work– more firmly in the social and behavioral sciences. Futures got its start in the 1960s and 1970s, and expert workshops and scenarios took their current shape in the 1970s; but since then, we've learned an awful lot about how the brain works, about the biases people have when thinking about the future, and about the "predictable irrationality" (to use Dan Ariely's term) in decision-making, and I think that we could use this recently knowledge to refine and improve the way futurists work.
Of course, the links from the laboratory to the workshop aren't always straightforward, and what you learn putting college students in fMRI machines doesn't translate directly into tricks for facilitators; still, I think at the very least things like neuroscientific studies of memory and attention can nudge us to do more intelligent and better-informed tinkering with our practices. I might not be able to say, because this part of the brain is activated when people think about their personal futures, I should do that in the first hour of workshops; but I can have a better sense of what new things could work, and why. Take for example this recent article in the New York Times:
[C]an an old brain learn, and then remember what it learns? Put another way, is this a brain that should be in school?
As it happens, yes. While it’s tempting to focus on the flaws in older brains, that inducement overlooks how capable they’ve become. Over the past several years, scientists have looked deeper into how brains age and confirmed that they continue to develop through and beyond middle age.
Many longheld views, including the one that 40 percent of brain cells are lost, have been overturned. What is stuffed into your head may not have vanished but has simply been squirreled away in the folds of your neurons….
The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.
The trick is finding ways to keep brain connections in good condition and to grow more of them.
"The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding," says Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California, who has studied ways to teach adults effectively. "As adults we may not always learn quite as fast, but we are set up for this next developmental step."
Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should "jiggle their synapses a bit" by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66.
This is all personally encouraging, but here's where things get really interesting:
Teaching new facts should not be the focus of adult education, she says. Instead, continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you "bump up against people and ideas" that are different. In a history class, that might mean reading multiple viewpoints, and then prying open brain networks by reflecting on how what was learned has changed your view of the world.
"There’s a place for information," Dr. Taylor says. "We need to know stuff. But we need to move beyond that and challenge our perception of the world. If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections."
Such stretching is exactly what scientists say best keeps a brain in tune: get out of the comfort zone to push and nourish your brain. Do anything from learning a foreign language to taking a different route to work.
"As adults we have these well-trodden paths in our synapses," Dr. Taylor says. "We have to crack the cognitive egg and scramble it up. And if you learn something this way, when you think of it again you’ll have an overlay of complexity you didn’t have before — and help your brain keep developing as well."
Some of these phrases– challenging our perceptions of the world, cracking the cognitive egg and scrambling it up– could come from my colleagues' descriptions of the intellectual virtues of scenarios and other futures work. Even if futurists don't predict the future, we argue, clients can still learn a lot from thinking with us about how the future could unfold, and they can develop a kind of mental agility that helps them better spot disruptions or new opportunities. (One open question is how much time and energy you have to devote to those activities to keep the brain in tune. Can a one-day workshop on the future yield any lasting improvements in the way older brains work? Probably not.)
Jack Mezirow, a professor emeritus at Columbia Teachers College, has proposed that adults learn best if presented with what he calls a "disorienting dilemma," or something that "helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you’ve acquired."
Dr. Mezirow developed this concept 30 years ago after he studied women who had gone back to school. The women took this bold step only after having many conversations that helped them "challenge their own ingrained perceptions of that time when women could not do what men could do."
"Critically reflect on the assumptions you've acquired"– this is a pretty good description of what we futurists want clients to do, and what we think they hire us to help them do. We don't have good tools to measure that yet, and it's never a very certain process: no education ever is, depending as it does on the skill of the teacher, the willingness of the student, and the goodness of fit between them.
Finally, this research suggests that we might experiment with playing around more explicitly with generational roles in workshops. There's an assumption that young people are naturally more creative than their elders, but that's an unthinking extension of dot-com generalizations; and Dr. Taylor's work suggests that the sort of scenario development that requires thinking about how different trends may combine, reinforce or contradict each other, and produce new trends of effects that you would not predict were you looking at each trend on its own, might best be done by the more senior people in the room.
There's an article to be written about how to craft scenario planning processes to more consciously encourage these cognitive or psychological benefits– rather than to treat it like liberal education, where as a teacher you confer benefits that you never have to fully articulate, you treat it as something more like learning to fly a plane, an activity that requires a lot of knowledge and learning and adaptation, but the training for which involves learning some specific skills that can be tested.