Pushing ideas to different parts of your brain

A couple of months ago The New Yorker published a profile of Hilary Mantel by Larissa MacFarquhar. I found this paragraph particularly interesting:

When she’s starting a new book, she needs to feel her way inside the characters, to know what it’s like to be them. There is a trick she uses sometimes, which another writer taught her. Sit quietly and withdraw your attention from the room you’re in until you’re focussed inside your mind. Imagine a chair and invite your character to come and sit in it; once he is comfortable, you may ask him questions. She tried this for the first time when she was writing “The Giant, O’Brien”: the giant came in, but, before sitting down in the chair, he bent down and tested it, to see if it would take his weight. On that occasion, she never got any further, because she was so excited that she punched the air and shouted “Yes!” But from then on she could imagine herself in the giant’s body.

This reminds me of the Rubber Duck debugging technique:

The name is a reference to a likely apocryphal story in which an unnamed expert programmer would keep a rubber duck by his desk at all times, and debug his code by forcing himself to explain it, line-by-line, to the duck.

Peter Reiterer, a programmer I work with, occasionally uses this technique. (I myself have used a similar technique but using a graphic artist instead of a rubber duck. I have not compared the two approaches but my method is also quite effective, if perhaps more boring and confusing for the participant.)

The way he explained it to me, or rather the way I remember his explanation, is that this technique forces you to express thoughts and then absorb them again through a different part of your brain, and this allows you to see them in a new way.

I always thought the mere act of expressing your thoughts to someone (or something, I guess) forces you to reorganize them and in the process discover new insights. A bit like learning by teaching, and incidentally the reason why I do public speaking or write blog posts. The difference is subtle and I can’t think of a way to test which explanation is better.

But the interesting thing, to me, is seeing two techniques to unblock yourself, to get a new perspective on things, that involve forcing a different part of your brain to interpret something. Of course it’s just me saying that is what’s happening in Hillary Mantel’s head, and I am not a neuroscientist. I don’t know for sure if she is using two different parts of her brain: this is just my intuition.

After discussing this with my wife it struck me that prototyping is similar to these techniques. It is easy to imagine a logical, abstract structure for a user interface, but once you visualize using it in your head, or, even better, prototype it on paper, you see it in a different way and can perceive things you couldn’t in your abstract model.

Of course, this raises the question: does prototyping work because you’re perceiving something using a different part of your brain? Or ‘merely’ because you’re seeing an approximation of the real thing? It is unlikely that I can better understand a game design idea by using, say, interpretative dance.

Food for thought, perhaps. Can this approach be generalized? Can we express, transform, and re-experience our ideas in other ways?

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