Neuroplasticity, Brainstorming with Visual Tools, and Cardsmith

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change, adapt, learn, and forge new neural pathways. It’s a big part of what keeps you young, cognitively speaking. At sixty-one, I think about this. Supposedly, our natural neuroplasticity declines after age fifty or so, though there are “brain exercises” you can do to keep your noggin limber. There are websites devoted to these exercises, like Lumosity.

Rather than formal “brain exercises,” I do word puzzles, play chess, read novels, go for a hike every day, meditate, and take naps – all of which can help preserve neuroplasticity. Even so, as I age I have noticed something that used to occur rarely is now happening often: I forget the thought I was thinking only a moment ago. Maybe, moments earlier, I had a thought related to what it is I’m thinking now, but that previous thought is gone, vanished. I have lost the thread.

This brings me to the whole concept of convergent vs. divergent thinking. Cardsmith’s CEO, Monica Borrell, defines these terms as they apply to creative problem solving:

A divergent phase [of problem solving] is when you are looking for more: lots of thoughts, many ideas, etc….At some point, you’ll want to transition from divergent to convergent thinking. Convergent means using criteria to sort, group, or organize the ideas.

So, essentially, divergent thinking is inherently expansive whereas convergent thinking is limiting.

I like to think of myself as an expansive guy! I’m happier when I’m making up stuff and generating new thoughts than when I am corralling my ideas together. The problem is, as I mentioned above, a lot of my ideas flee the yard as I run off chasing contingencies and tangents.

I do know how to brainstorm a list of ideas–like jotting down phrases, rather than entire sentences, can be useful. When I write ideas out long-form, associations may pile up and clutter the mental landscape, whereas when I brainstorm, I can briefly list all my random associations. This allows me to set most of them aside later, like a good convergent thinker.

Beyond brainstorming with a quick list, there are visual tools that can foster the process of thinking. Take flowcharts, for example. They can be a fine tool for plotting out a clear course when you’re dealing with a linear process. The problem with flowcharts is that the challenges which demand attention in my own life (and business) are rarely so binary that they can be resolved by, “If x than y; if a than b.” My processes seldom break down that way.

demonstrating a fishbone diagram
Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Fishbone diagrams are a cool concept: they involve looking at problematic conditions and working backwards from a condition’s causes, and the causes of those causes, etc., until you have a diagram. In the diagram that forms, the head of your fish is your problem as it is manifesting now, and the tail of the fish is the elemental cause of causes of your problem. There is something pleasingly elegant and impressive about a carefully wrought fish diagram, but fish diagrams signify far too firm a buy-in to the notion of direct causes and effects.

Cardsmith represents the next phase of our evolution, as it seamlessly and gracefully provides the single quality that many people require in order to think organically: fluidity.

In Cardsmith, I can place my thoughts on cards, and then turn them different colors and back again. I can instantly link an idea to as many other ideas as I want. I can line ideas up in columns and rows, organizing them according to criteria or themes, or leave them floating in an amorphous concept map, or toggle between those views as needed. It’s playful, simple, and it keeps my ideas popping like popcorn.

My cards – my “information packets” – can contain a lot of text or a little. I can include pictures, icons, and checklists on any card, or on some cards but not others. I can shift the layout of the entire board from “tile” to “free form,” which feels like hopping neural train tracks. (And then shift back if I want to, of course.) Just as my natural mind is continually reordering priorities and categories and relationships, I can spontaneously alter my arrangement of ideas as I go–without losing any information.

For an organizational tool, there is something delightfully anarchic about how this works.

I can spin out my threads as long as I like. And when I get around to weaving them together, I can assign thematic meanings (for example, by color coding). Finally, a visual tool that actually works kind of like my brain does!

Cardsmith makes an effort to accommodate my brain, to bend and stretch itself to my brain’s meandering impulses, rather than trying to mold my thought patterns into unaccustomed shapes, like a fish.
When it comes to keeping my body in shape, I don’t go to the gym; I just take hikes in nature, which I love.

When it comes to maintaining neuroplasticity, I am not interested in formal brain exercises, nor am I interested in visual tools that force my creative process prematurely into a convergent structure. I want a tool that flows with me and complements my already-existing thinking processes, rather than one that dictates how I should think. That’s why I like Cardsmith.

Marc Polonsky is a freelance writer in Portland, OR. He is the author of The Poetry Reader’s Toolkit.

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