Of Neuroscience, Perspectives and Design Thinking.

Shweta Narendernath
6 min readMay 21, 2019

Not a single person can align with any of us if it isn’t for shared understanding. While the matter of 100% alignment is illusory, we all crave to be understood, to be known, to be relayed further once something clicks. Each of our own lives or that of our businesses today are widely spread and expanding. The boundaries within which products or services or we humans operate are increasingly blurred.

Making sense of things in a boundaryless-bit world is a central issue we try to tackle every day.

In this article, I explore the ‘core underpinnings’ of design thinking and connect the dots with the science at work and ‘why’ this problem-solving methodology is making huge leaps.

Making failure gaps understandable

The perennial problem as we work our way through life is in getting to clearly understand what ‘success’ looks like. The bigger problem often is in clarifying this ‘understanding’ to others.

If you recall the ‘tree swing’ comic an illustration that is been making rounds for close to 50 years? This one does an excellent job at depicting the side of things that need and warrant more attention — gaps that contribute to failure. The ‘gaps in understanding’ got compounded at every interaction all the way from ‘what the customer explained’ to ‘what the customer got’.

Tree Swing — Visual depiction of multistakeholder ‘understanding gaps’; in its 50th year.

Figuring a problem, clarifying understanding, finding common ground in conversations when done in a pure language form can at best be illusory. More so in our expansive and diverse and specialized teams.

The way to approach diverse teams to accept newer practices (read: agile, scrum, kanban practices, etc) was through clarifying ‘failure gaps’ in a manner, that is cognitively easy to chew and digest.

Failure is ‘compounded gaps in understanding’.

An excellent forward strategy to setting newer practices of thinking / doing would be to enable understanding by the way of visuals.

Neuroscience of our Visual System

Why bother making things visual in the first place? What is going on with our fascination for adapting to unlimited ways of visual tracking of our lives? Is it the tools, technologies, or UX alone?

Turns out, our perception via sight alone is the most powerful one amongst all of our individual senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.

Danish Neuroscientist Anette Prahn says — “More than 50% of the input stimuli that inform our consciousness is in fact obtained through our visual system”.

It does make sense then, to capitalize on problem-solving methods that leverage visuals. The ‘power state’ afforded to the visual system is attributed largely to its parsing ability — the ability to discard an incredible number of input stimuli.

Did you know how much information our visual system actually discards?

In the paper titled ‘Two views of the brain’ — Marcus. E. Raichle’s writes about visual information processes at work. He states that —

“It might surprise some to learn that visual information is significantly degraded as it passes from the eye to the visual cortex. Thus, of the unlimited information available from the environment, only about ~10 ¹⁰ bits/sec are deposited in the retina.

Because of a limited number of axons in the optic nerves (approximately 1 million axons in each) only ~6 ¹⁰ bits/sec leave the retina and only ~10 ⁴ bits/sec make it to layer IV of V1 [22,23]”.

What ends up being our conscious perception is a mere ~100 bits/sec from an almost infinite ~10 billion bits/sec.

Annotated Image. Taken from Udemy course on ‘reframing the mind’ by Dr. Anette Prahn.

What we end up ‘seeing’ is a mere dot in the ocean of the world we ‘look’ at. Which implies that at the core our sensory systems are nothing more than mere ‘hypothesis generators’.

In the words of Vernon Mountcastle

“Sensation is an abstraction, not a replication of the real world — We confront the world neither directly nor precisely”

On Perspectives and Perceptions

Our perceptual hardware evolved for more than several hundred million years. At a cellular level, the brain does not simply take the raw data that it receives from the senses and reproduce it faithfully. Instead, each sensory system first analyzes and deconstructs, then restructures the raw incoming information according to its own built-in connections and rules.

Whilst part of what we perceive comes through our senses from the object before us, another part (and it may be the larger part) always comes out of our own head.

— William James (circa 1890)

The early discoveries made by Mountcastle, Hubel, and Wiesel confirmed Gestalt’s theory by showing us that the belief that our perceptions are precise and direct is an illusion — a perceptual illusion.

Our perceptions (an ‘outside-in’ process) end up affecting our perspectives. (an ‘inside-out’ process). Perspectives then are what the brain interprets what the eyes see. The computation of which is a subjective black-box of meta-understanding. A place that is only beginning to unfold bit-by-bit as we advance in our knowledge from various sciences.

It is only fair to say then — that perspectives must be infinite. Below is a conceptualization of perspectives, comparing with wants and needs paradigm — one that can open up possibilities to reach a shared understanding.

Representation of ‘Infinite Perspectives’ in an individual world.

Most often, the word ‘perspective’ makes people derive an opposite representation and reflects a belief which insists that expanding one’s perspective is not possible.

Even if one chooses to not look to science or logic to steer away from constraining mindsets; our collective perspectives are a place of infinite possibilities and a place to leverage opportunities for better problems solving.

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is perspective, not the truth” — Marcus Aurelius.

Have you ever questioned the logic of this particular quote and whether there is any truth to it? Now you can almost clearly, make better sense of things from a cellular level understanding of neural pathways.

This new understanding facilitated by the connections between various sciences – philosophical to neuroscience brings us to an interesting place. A place where problem-solving methods have evolved from a traditional ‘one-on-one’ approach to the one that is increasingly explored and discovered from a ‘diversity-in-thinking’ standpoint.

To continue making better sense of the individual or collective worlds we live in — all we need, in fact, is a different viewing world.

A different perspective.

On Problem-Solving

Innovation is a team sport. But design’s impact is more significant than that — It’s a team sport that betters everyone’s game. It’s like playing best ball rather than traditional golf. Instead of hurting our score, individual differences hold the key to higher performances.

— from the book: Solving Problems with Design Thinking

Most robust systems have one thing in common — the individual parts which constitute the solutions are harnessed from many viewing frames.

The path to success, however, is greatly dependent on

  • Amplifying learning of the state of things through visual ways and
  • Broadening people’s participation to leverage diverse perspectives.

— this should collectively help us better understand things.

Creative use of the above ways via empathetic concern is what constitutes the core of a better problem-solving approach. One that is referred to as Design Thinking.

Terminology aside depending on the context, ‘Design Thinking’ can be one approach or summation of all the above approaches to help us understand problems or derive solutions.

‘Design Thinking’ to me is the most fractal approach to problem-solving, a messy but transparent way to deal with the discovery of both problems and solutions on the way to building robust outcomes.



Shweta Narendernath

Believer in the design of the universe, Skeptic of the design of everyday things, Living by better design.