‘Thinkers And Innovators’: Rita J. King On How ‘The Imagination Age’ Is Necessary For Humans To Thrive
The ‘Thinkers and Innovators’ series explores the science and philosophy of the brain and mind with some of the world’s foremost forward thinking experts. It also explores technologies used for studying and interfacing with the brain, as well as technologies motivated by the brain, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Rita J. King is Executive Vice President for Business Development at Science House in New York City, and co-founder of Model Meetings. She is an author — having published in Fast Company, Inc., and Entrepreneur, among others. Her work has also been featured in numerous books. She has served as a futurist at the Science and Entertainment Exchange of the National Academy of Sciences, and NASA Langley’s think-tank, the National Institute for Aerospace. She has worked with and strategically advised a number of Fortune 100 and 500 companies, and has been interviewed and featured across a number of major outlets, including previously in Forbes. Ms. King is also the inventor of what she calls ‘The Imagination Age’, a framework to transition from the Industrial Era to the Intelligence Era, and how humans can best adapt to an ever increasing cognitively demanding world.
You’ve written a lot in the past about cognitive aspects of self improvement and optimizing performance. And how a general understanding of one’s brain can impact them. What originally got you interested in cognition and the brain?
Since childhood I’ve been fascinated by the machine in our heads. When I learned that newborn babies start imitating their parents’ facial expressions within fifteen minutes of being born, I wondered what else we imitate. Mirror neurons aren’t just reflecting back what they see. They turn us into mirrors so we can fit in and achieve a sense of belonging, recognized by our own various tribes. We become bound by the behaviors and hierarchies we mirror.
Our brains are focused on our survival. We are constantly bombarded by information, and the brain is a filter to keep us from getting overloaded. I see the brain as a master storyteller that continuously shapes a story we tell ourselves about who we think we are and what we value.
But I started wondering: how much do we need to unlearn? How many layers compose our habits, beliefs and behaviors? I started to see our brains as hardware that stays consistent as new software and operating systems are updated on it. And maybe it isn’t suited to modern life. We need to understand how our brains work in order to shift our behaviors quickly enough to evolve or we face the possibility of extinction or at least marked diminishment in quality of life. At the same time, we have the technology to make significant improvements.
We all have a brain, so I figured I should do what I could to understand mine. I wondered how much I could change and still be me. In my twenties I made a list of everyone I could find who had written a book about the brain and I started interviewing them. From this period of study I emerged with a map, sketched by a passionate, curious layperson. My first goal was to understand the parts of the brain, much like a cabinet filled with musical instruments. My second goal was to understand more about the symphony of all those instruments playing together. Finally, I wondered if, like a conductor, I might have some control over aspects of how the music sounded. I committed myself to this path and I have never wavered. It’s a constant process of discovery. It calls into question the very notion of what a self is. A set of experiences bookended by two dates, our journey here as conscious beings in space. A set of molecules known as Rita J. King. But the molecules change. Names change. Memories are influenced by the circumstances in which we recall them.
The novelty has never worn off the fact that billions of people are alive right now, each with their own brain telling them a different story. And yet we share the same reality, and we need to get better at working together to shape better outcomes. I wanted to understand how our networked brains form dynamic cultures. The balance between individuals and the collective working together to accomplish seemingly impossible goals is the focus of my work.
From your perspective at the interface between art and science, how and why do you think creativity emerges from the brain as such an integral part of the human experience?
The laws of physics are the base code giving rise to so many emergent phenomena. The scientist in me can reduce love to chemicals, to a biological necessity that leads to cooperation and collaboration. But the artist in me sees the complex tapestry of human emotion with love as a gold thread running through every scene. Every emotion serves some evolutionary purpose, yes. But to me, creativity is the highest form of emotion. You can apply creativity to every other emotion, reality or goal and breathe life into it. Creativity is simply the ability to collect and combine different elements into something new. The more a person experiences and remembers, the more powerful creativity becomes. Most people tend to stay within the constraints of their narrow domains, and the truth is, even the narrowest of domains offers nearly infinite depth. Stepping outside those constraints and rethinking the constraints themselves can feel like chaos. But it is in the tradeoff between chaos and constraints that true creativity begins to emerge. Creativity needs to be developed, like every other skill.
The human brain is a platform that somehow evolved along the trajectory from stardust to the invention of robots. Our technology has enabled us to overcome our limited computational power to expand our brains in ways we do not fully understand yet, though we are building the new capacity day by day. Still, our brains remain the master storytellers, and they run the risk of getting hijacked by sticky, polarizing narratives that work counter to our survival as individuals and as a species. With creativity, we can learn to shape the habits that influence the story. Armed with multiple sources from outside one’s own comfort zone, creativity influences the ability to think critically and even to design better systems to benefit more people.
Creativity isn’t a sparkly extra, reserved for a few people. It can and should be applied to even the most seemingly mundane aspects of life, including eliminating bureaucracy. Every problem can be infused with creativity to create novel solutions that actually work.
So is artistic expression, influenced by the individual’s environment and experiences, something that is inside the artist and created by the brain and mind which finds its way out? Or is it the opposite, out there in the environment and universe waiting to be discovered?
Artistic expression is a discipline. I learned so much about how to write a novel from my work with software architects and engineers. There’s a feeling of excitement, awe or even euphoria when a creative idea strikes. Then the tedium of creativity sets in. Michelangelo said he felt this whenever he had the chisels in his hand while facing off against a fresh new block. It’s easier to imagine David pulsing with life than to carve veins that look real into marble. I’ve been working on a book for nearly eight years. The environment offered me an idea and I discovered it. In this case, the environment was a volcanic rock off the coast of Naples where my great-grandfather was born and raised, and the idea was a story about a woman who lived there who was married to my ancestor. She had a close relationship with Michelangelo. This idea was followed by many years of research and bad drafts before I finally understood what I wanted to express. So the answer, at least as far as I can see, is a combination of both. It’s a process to refine artistic expression into its most distilled essence for the reader or viewer.
I wonder how you would answer this question if we replaced “artistic expression” with pure mathematics. GS: Yes, that’s precisely why I asked the question. The same question has been explored in the context of mathematics for a long time.
What about this idea of ‘applied imagination’ and the Imagination Age that you’ve coined? What is that exactly? And why do you think it’s important?
Applied Imagination is the main skill we need to develop in the Imagination Age.
We were all raised and educated with an Industrial Era mindset. In the Industrial Era, the goods produced were tangible and easy for our brains to understand. I might not know how to design an engine, for example, but if someone else does and a factory is set up, workers take their places on the assembly line and together, they produce cars. The very idea of productivity, producing more things faster and more efficiently, is the pinnacle of this way of thinking. In the industrial model, people punch in and punch out. Many people around the world still work in factories, so I don’t mean to suggest those days are behind us.
Large companies still structure knowledge-based workers and organizations with this model, expecting people to work faster to produce more. To produce more what? If you work in a factory, your manager can’t expect you to hop on the conveyor belt at home and produce a few more cars. Knowledge workers, however, have laptops and mobile devices. Meetings during the day and work on nights and weekends has become normal. I’m on a mission to change that and give people their time back so they can get better results with less stress.
The Imagination Age is a way to think about transitioning from the Industrial Era, as much as transitioning into the Intelligence Era. If we apply imagination to the way we work, we can intentionally design better ways of working instead of continually reacting. I often hear leaders say their teams need to get better at managing through ambiguity. Too often, however, things are ambiguous mainly because too little learning and innovation guide decisions and work. The lack of clarity leads to way too many alignment meetings as people are left on their own to figure out how their contributions match a mission.
Just as some people continued to work in factories during the emergence of knowledge work, countless millions of knowledge workers still work as if they’re in a factory while intelligence work continues to emerge and grow.
The pandemic provides a perfect example of our failure of imagination. Knowledge workers were forced home. People did the best they could to cope. Some people had spouses working remotely at the same table, others had children right there, learning on a screen. Others experienced the stress of this time in isolation. Companies had years to experiment with flexible work, which has the potential to contribute to true inclusion, but they didn’t. Now the question has shifted to which works best: fully in the office, fully remote or some hybrid combination. But the truth is, very few large companies have intentionally designed robust experiments to find out. Imagination needs to be applied to the problem of how we work.
Applied Imagination requires a culture shift. It requires us to stop and take a breath and think about where we are headed. The shift toward agile software development, breaking everything down into small pieces, is the same shift that needs to happen culturally in order to move into the future. This also demands a firm command of the big picture, including the emergence of ecosystems and impacts on people and the environment. We have never faced this level of complexity before, with such high stakes. Applied Imagination is a way to think clearly about the reality of where we are and how to create a sustainable future.
Imagination is the emergent superpower of our brains, those amazing storytelling machines focused on survival. But survival now doesn’t just mean finding a watering hole or sensing a predator. We have to think longer term, with networks of moving pieces. We need to make sure we are telling ourselves stories worth believing and fighting for in order to ensure survival. For that, imagination needs to be focused, like a beam of sun coming through a prism.