Michael Kelly
Aug 7, 2018 · 7 min read

How Transient Hypofrontality Helps With Your Creative Work

The Agile Field Notes series contains a collection of ideas and experiences related to adventuring in the software industry.

For an overview of the A Matter of Survival publication, see the Introduction.

Transient: Lasting only for a short time; impermanent.

Hypofrontality: A decrease in the neuronal activity of various areas of the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes control: speech and language, voluntary movements (e.g., walking, tapping out a rhythm, typing on a keyboard), categorizing and differentiating things in the world (e.g., differentiating ourselves from the rest of the world), forming long-term memories, empathy, impulse control, problem solving, feelings of reward and motivation, and attention.

The Proposal

Make no mistake, software development is a creative endeavor. You start with a blank page. You write some code. You reflect, refactor, reflect some more, and then write some more. At the end, with a bit of luck and persistence, you’ve got a solution that works. You’ve gone from nothing to something.

Those who don’t write code commonly assume that it’s a purely deliberate and reasoned process. T’ain’t so. While reasoning certainly plays a role, developers are also guided by their feelings. Well-written code adheres to an aesthetic of simplicity — in the logic, in the coupling between components, and in the cohesion within components (i.e., each component should be about one thing and one thing only). For the seasoned developer, it’s something that’s often easier to feel than it is to reason about. You get this satisfied sensation in your gut (which you then justify by reasoning about it).

The process also isn’t as deliberate as one might imagine. Some of the most important insights come while you’re doing something else — making dinner, taking a shower, driving the car. Seemingly out of nowhere, you suddenly have a solution, or part of a solution, or a new direction to try.

But if unfocused time (a.k.a., transient hypofrontality) plays an important role in developing quality solutions, where is the support for this in the team process? Your best developers attend to this on their own. They take breaks. They go for walks. They sit on a park bench and daydream.

Unfortunately, these things don’t look very much like work, and in some contexts that’s a problem. There’s a deadline to be met, and all hands must be on deck. So we drink our coffee and push through the mental fatigue. Nevermind that it actually makes us slower, and more prone to mistakes.

But what if the organization decided to actively support these “non-working” moments by giving the team thirty minutes each day to actively induce a bit of hypofrontality? Would that increase the team’s average number of insights per week? Would the average significance of the insights go up? Would the ancillary benefits of hypofrontality inducing practices (exercise, daydreaming, meditation, and taking a naps) improve the team’s mental stamina, make them more resistant to distractions, make them more present during pair programming / mob programming / meetings, cause them to function better as a team, and/or make them more energized about the work?

At the end of the day, would they produce better code and produce solutions that better meet customer needs?

Here’s the proposal in a nutshell:

  • Everyone on the team gets half an hour of Hypofrontality Inducement Time. This means everyone — developers, quality assurance, business analysts, scrum masters, project managers, coaches, product owners/managers, etc.
  • Everyone chooses their own method. There is no one-size-fits-all in this. Some might gravitate to exercise. Others will want to meditate or daydream or take a nap. There may be other things folks will want to try. Experiment.
  • Be flexible about when folks take their Hypofrontality Inducement Time. If everyone wants to do it at the same time, that’s certainly convenient for scheduling other team activities (meetings, pair programming, mob programming, etc). But individual team members might find that it’s more helpful/effective at different times of the day.
  • The organization will need to provide space for it. While daydreaming might be done anywhere, getting a bit of exercise or meditating or taking a nap within the scope of a half-hour break will require a space that’s close to your desk. If you have to travel too far, you’ll either have to extend the length of the break or cut short the hypofrontality time.

Discussion

You should forget most of what you’ve heard about creativity. Creativity is not a right-brain phenomenon. Creativity utilizes the entire brain. Creative people don’t use more of their brain. There is no such thing as “wasted” brain capacity. Creative people don’t have more dopamine or serotonin receptors, more densely packed neurons, more synaptic connections, or a thicker corpus callosum. And you might want to stop talking about lateral or divergent thinking, creative juices, and creative states of mind. We don’t have clear scientific definitions for these things, much less sound theories to describe the underlying mechanisms.

At least, that’s what Arne Dietrich, a neuroscientist at the American University of Beirut, would have us do. Dietrich is on a mission to understand the neural mechanisms of creativity. To do that, he needed to strip out all the pseudo-science and theoretical dead ends in order to get to a sound scientific foundation. Once there, he started building it back up again.

He began with a paper on the altered states frequently associated with spontaneous creative insights — dreaming, exercise, meditation, hypnosis, daydreaming, and drug-induced states. Pulling together results from numerous studies, he formulated a hypothesis detailing the neural mechanisms involved — the Transient Hypofrontality Hypothesis (THH). The THH predicts that reduced neural activity in various portions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) produces these alterations of consciousness.

The precise portion(s) of the PFC showing reduced activity depends on the method used to induce the altered state. Repetitive exercise requiring very little active thought (like running) will shut down several functions of the PFC, including the analytical, attentional, and working memory. Meditation, on the other hand, leverages the PFC’s attentional capacity to shut down the analytical and working memory — by focusing on a mantra, breathing rhythm, guided visualization, etc.

Regardless of method, suppressing one’s analytical and working memory capacity appears to facilitate the generation of novel insights. Due in part, perhaps, to clearing the decks of those things that previously dominated our thinking on the matter. And, perhaps, it enables us to focus on the most important bits with less noise.

In another paper, Dietrich broadens his investigation of creativity to include deliberate efforts at devising novel ideas. He also divides the problem space into two domains — the cognitive and the emotional — reflecting the separate emotional and cognitive circuits in the brain.

The resulting model provides a comprehensive picture of creativity comprised of four high-level modes: deliberate and cognitive, deliberate and emotional, spontaneous and cognitive, and spontaneous and emotional.

Thomas Edison stands as the archetype for the deliberate-cognitive. No light bulb went off in the back of Edison’s brain telling him that carbonized bamboo would be the most commercially viable filament for the electric light bulb. His team methodically tested approximately 6,000 different materials.

Sir Isaac Newton represents the spontaneous-cognitive. According to popular myth, daydreaming about apples falling to the Earth led to his flash of insight about gravity.

The aha! moments that arise from talking with your aunt Edna, or your best friend Roy, or your therapist about your failing marriage is an example of the deliberative-emotional. You talk and talk and talk, working your way through things, until you have insight into what’s going on emotionally.

Finally, artists and musicians represent the spontaneous-emotional. They often use flashes of emotionally evocative phrases, images or sounds as material for their work.

In practice, however, it may be difficult to tease apart the the emotional from the cognitive for any particular act of creation. An engineer who devises a solution requiring buy-in from the team, will need to apply emotional intelligence to the problem because buy-in has an emotional component. An artist working with emotional content will need, at some point, to delve into the cognitive considerations of structure and themes.

The same is true for deliberate versus spontaneous insights. The interweaving of numerous small deliberately and spontaneously generated insights forms a nearly continuous progression of thoughts, punctuated occasionally by true revelations. If there were some way to accurately measure the magnitude of an insight, we’d probably find that they adhere to a Power Law probability distribution similar to earthquakes — the smallest ones happen almost continuously, while the massive ones only happen once or twice in a lifetime (for the lucky few) and generally after years of preparation. Newton had been thinking about natural forces for many, many years before his insight about gravity.

Why Induce Hypofrontality At Work?

An argument might be made that the practices describe in this proposal — exercising, meditating, daydreaming, napping — are things that employees should do at home. When at work, they should be focused on the work. That’s what they are getting paid for, after all.

But if we take Dietrich’s model for creativity to be correct — or, at least, more correct than other models we might have in our heads — then we have to accept that effective and efficient production of software solutions requires a mix of deliberate and spontaneous ideation in both the cognitive and emotional domains.

If this is the reality, then how should the organization support it?

One way would be to explicitly give folks time to not think.

Next Up:

Complexity-Informed Premortems

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Agile Explorations

Adventuring in the wilderness demands that we be responsive - to change, to the context in which we find ourselves, to the people with whom we're adventuring. It's "agile" (lowercase "a"). Applying that same agility to software development is the work of this series.

Michael Kelly

Written by

A veteran of numerous software development adventures, delving the intersection of complexity theory and cognitive science in order to be a better Agilist.

Agile Explorations

Adventuring in the wilderness demands that we be responsive - to change, to the context in which we find ourselves, to the people with whom we're adventuring. It's "agile" (lowercase "a"). Applying that same agility to software development is the work of this series.

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