Add ‘Brain Basics’ to Your Professional Development List

April 2015

Add ‘Brain Basics’ to Your Professional Development List


STUART WALESH, PH.D., P.E., F.NSPESeveral years ago, on a whim and after an over five-decade lapse since the third grade, I returned to art by taking a drawing class—loving it—and enrolling in more classes. I initially envisioned no connection to engineering education or practice; this was simply a pleasant diversion that proved to be much more.

Stimulated by results that I never envisioned, I began to explore drawing more deeply. This led me to read Betty Edward’s book, which has the dual-meaning title Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I then discovered and studied a wealth of accessible neuroscience resources. This investigative process helped me to see connections between the whole-brain approach used in visual and performing arts and improving engineering education and, ultimately, engineering practice. My research continued and included focusing on recent neurological discoveries; interacting with engineering, medical, and other colleagues; writing articles; presenting and publishing papers; conducting workshops; and signing a contract to write the book Creativity and Innovation for Engineers.

We’ve learned so much about that three-pound marvel between our ears in the last decade or so. Examples are lateralization, the different functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, neuroplasticity, conscious and subconscious thinking, dominance of habits and how they form, negativity bias, gender differences, and how to care for the brain. Motivated by my “So, how can we use this knowledge to be more effective” nature, I began to explore how we engineers and others could use brain basics to work smarter, including being more productive and innovative.

This line of thinking led me to assemble a whole-brain tool box containing various cognitive methods that can stimulate you and, more powerfully, your group, to think more deeply and widely. Tool box contents can include the Medici Effect (how diversity drives innovation), habit replacement, mind mapping, Ohno Circle (leveraging the novice effect), fishbone diagramming, stream of consciousness writing, freehand drawing, listening to music, biomimicry, and taking time to think. All are backed by neuroscience and enable us to think outside of the box. These tools and the associated whole-brain ways of thinking provide an alternative to what is known as the Einstellung Effect, which is the natural tendency to consider only those approaches that have worked in similar situations. This habitual behavior means that we are often unwittingly locked into the past, and this prevents consideration of better approaches.

In spite of my good intentions, I have found very little interest in what I am learning within the engineering community and have experienced some strong pushback, including being called a charlatan. Thinking about our “thinker” and how that thinking could help us work even smarter and be even more innovative is alien to many of us. Nevertheless, I persist because the topic and its practical implications fascinate me—and might interest you and your organization. As noted by a colleague from the medical profession, the human brain is no longer the domain of academia and medicine. We engineers are smart enough to understand basic neuroscience and perceptive enough to see how we can leverage it.

I asked engineers to theorize about the cause of the pushback and researched the topic. Ideas offered or discovered include reluctance to change, being trapped in our left-brain oriented K–college education, lack of a liberal education, fear that innovative efforts could lead to failure, discomfort with creative types, and reluctance to venture into what is viewed as a medical field.

With respect to the last listed item, you may think that we are going off on a tangent. You want to be a great engineer, not a brain surgeon. I understand that concern, but I believe that knowing a selective little about your brain will help you become a better engineer. Consider this analogy. You bought a used car and want it to get better gas mileage. Therefore, you Google gas mileage and study and experiment with selected aspects of your car such as tire types and pressure, engine tuning, wheel alignment, and use of the accelerator. Illustration of a brainAs a result, gas mileage improves. You don’t have to become a certified automotive technician in order to get better mileage. Similarly, you don’t have to become a brain surgeon to make better use of your brain. However, you do need to know brain basics.

I urge you to learn more about your brain. We engineers strive to stay current. Self-study, seminars, webinars, and college courses help us learn more about wide-ranging topics such as communication, analytic and design tools, ethical and legal aspects of engineering practice, and project management. Add brain basics to your professional development list. You, your organization, and those you serve will benefit.

Stuart Walesh, Ph.D., P.E., F.NSPE, is an author, teacher, and consultant who has worked in government and business. He is also the chair of the NSPE Engineering Body of Knowledge committee. He can be contacted at