Neurobiology of Innovation & Design Thinking

Hi everyone!

This is an extra message this month just to let you know that there is a video posted from my talk in Berlin/Pottsdam at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking from this September on the ‘neurobiology of innovation and design thinking’

I was joined by colleagues
Manish Saggar – computational neuroscientist at Stanford’s Brain Lab,
Caroline Szymanski from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development,
Sergio Agnoli from the Creativity Institute at the University of Bologna, and

Julia Von Thienen from the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design

Check out all the amazing talks,

such as Google’s Chief Innovation Evangelist, Dr. Frederik G. Pferdt’s keynote

“The Future Now: A Healthy Disregard for the Impossible”, and

Stanford D.School’s Global Director and Co-Founder, George Kembel’s talk,

“Unleashing the creative potential of everyone on the planet”


As many of you who have seen me speak, you might notice that I’m more nervous than usual! I had to try to convey my passionate speaking into 10 minutes and kept getting cues that I was over time – lol… so my part feels a bit rushed 🙂
At the end, there are amazing questions from the audience (my favourite part!)

Neuroscience for new mindsets

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Nothing new will happen if you don’t have this

Talking about, even “celebrating” mistakes is not enough
for us to become less afraid of failure.

And it’s not enough to help us learn anything new.

“Re-framing” mistakes is the first point of entry but it’s only the beginning.
(If you missed the previous post about this, click here to read it).

You must create a track record of movement

The next step to push through a fear of mistakes
and to actually create NEW behavior….
is to create a conscious record of surviving the discomfort and awkwardness that happens when we try to do something we’ve never done before.

The only way to build this record (aka., a conscious/explicit memory)
is to intentionally engage in movement despite our nervousness or fear of failing.

By movement, I mean things like:

  • movement of the body
  • micro-movements of the vocal cords and diaphragm (speaking, singing),
  • movement of fingers across a key board,
  • hand gestures,
  • movement of a paintbrush across a canvas,
  • moving electrodes on a person’s head or face to collect new information,
  • moving bits of data to create new combinations.

Sensorimotor mastery (automation) is needed 

Sensorimotor = using the senses and motor functions/movement

ALL learning – no matter how old we are, starts with sensorimotor learning
until it’s mastered into a semiautomatic process*.
Doing a movement enough times creates an efficient neural network
– also called a ‘schema’ (similar to something computer programmers call a ‘subroutine’).

*For more on this, read Patricia McGuiness’ book Why Our Children Can’t Read,
which is recommended by Stephen Pinker as “one of the most important books of the decade”. She gives a fascinating review of how how backwards we teach reading to kids. For a critical review of her approach and a totally contradictory

but also interesting point of view, read this New York Times Review).


A skill that’s automatic uses fewer neurons and less glucose,
so it feels like it takes much less effort.
Being ‘better’ at something means you are doing it more automatically.


The better you get, the less of your brain is actively involved. 

When you start out a new skill, your brain will gobble up glucose,
which will make you feel tired, awkward, and uncomfortable.

The more you move, the more automatic your movements get,
the less glucose your brain will need, the easier it will feel.

Once that happens, you can focus more on adding your own ‘flare’ and complexity to it.

For example, when a child is learning to read –
they need to master the sensorimotor movements of their eyes across the page,
and moving their mouth while saying (or mouthing) the words aloud to gain mastery.
Once that is automatic, they can move onto processing meaning.

p.s. –  SEEING is a MOTOR MOVEMENT: if our eyes didn’t move, our brains wouldn’t register that we are seeing anything.
LISTENING is a MOTOR MOVEMENT: our middle ear muscles tense and relax to hear either human voice or background sounds.


(click to download as a pdf!)


Make a new move, and then do it again and again


If you want to learn something new (or help someone else learn something new),
or be more creative – whether that means creating a new object, project, idea…
or even creating a new relationship, or a change in your life on any level ….

You have to bring an idea from the interior (your mind) to the exterior.

The only way to do this is you must initiate some new, intentional form of
​​​​​​​ physical movement, however small or microscopic. 

And you’ll need to do it again and again until it’s mastered on a sensorimotor level.

When people think ‘movement’, they often think of more obvious forms.
I’m talking more about ‘sensorimotor learning’  – but calling it ‘movement’.

Here are examples:

  • Moving a pen across the paper to express what you’re thinking or tell a story.
  • Moving your finger to push the submit, send, post or publish button.
  • Moving your mouth and vocal cords to say something NEW so someone can hear it.
  • Moving your lips, mouth and vocal cords to sing.
  • Dancing.
  • Walking.

Some other ideas:

  • Say something you’ve never said.
  • Smile at someone you’ve never smiled at.
  • Shake the hand of someone you’ve never met.
  • Share something about yourself you’ve never shared.

The key being, don’t just think about doing
or creating or saying something…

You need to actually get your body to make a movement it’s never made before.

And then do it again and again.

Eventually, you’ll have a track record
of surviving the discomfort of doing something new.
(Not pre-approved, not something you’ve done before. Something NEW).

You may never get over the feeling of nervousness (I haven’t!!!)
but having a history of surviving those feelings of anxiety
can give you the guts to feel that fear and create anyway.

That’s been my journey.

Now… If you want to help others  make those new movements, feel less afraid of failure,
there’s something else you can do to help.

That’s in the next month’s article.

Til then,


“The price of inaction is far greater
​​​​​​​than the cost of making a mistake.”

– Meister Eckhart

(click the image to download this pdf!)

Saying it in a cheesy way (my favorite way!),
if you want something new to happen,
you’ve got move it, move it  🙂 🙂


Mistakes ‘neurobiologically’ grow your brain.

“We don’t passively forget that something is scary.
We actively learn that it isn’t anymore.”

– Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky, Behave


We aren’t born afraid of failure.
We learn to become afraid of it.

Why does this matter?

Because, according to IDEO’s innovation experts David Kelley and Tom Kelley,

“fear of failure […] is the single biggest obstacle
people face to creative success”.

This is one of the most important issues of our time.


Because creativity and innovative problem-solving are the only ways
we, as a species, will evolve beyond our outdated systems, structures and
patterns of history repeating itself.

So what can we do about this?


To ‘actively learn’ that mistakes aren’t scary means we have to shift the way we SEE them.

When we see something as helpful instead of harmful,
we are more likely to approach it.

“The difference between greatness and mediocrity is often how an individual views a mistake”  – Nelson Boswell

To actively learn that mistakes aren’t scary
we need to know what a mistake actually is –
NOT the meaning we’ve learned to make about it,
but what it is actually is, on a bio-mechanical level.


Mistakes lead to electrochemical activity in the brain
called the ERN response.  

Go to this AMAZING Stanford website with exciting research related to this:

This ONLY happens when we make a mistake.
It does NOT happen when we get an answer right.

In fact, we don’t even need to realize we’ve made a mistake
in order for this ERN activity to happen.

When we understand how the brain learns, this totally makes sense…

If we’re answering a question correctly,
It means we’ve already activated
the neural circuitry needed to perform that task.

Let me repeat that…

Getting an answer right,
or doing something well is
just repeating neural activity that has already happened many times.

So, the ‘re-frame’ or ‘mindset shift’ is:

a) Mistakes literally (‘neurobiologically’) grow your brain.

b) A mistake means you’re a performer ‘in the arena’.

Not a bystander.
Not a critic.
Not just passively posting a ‘like’ or an emoji.
You are actually, actively, sparking new activity that is literally growing your brain.


c) A mistake is therefore a sign of growth and opportunity,
NOT weakness

In your own life, organization, school, or classroom…
whatever you collectively choose
to reward, to praise, to notice*,
becomes a group-mindset.    

(*in fact – there’s science that shows us testosterone helps amplify what we collectively reward and value.  Testosterone is not inherently an ‘aggressive’ hormone, it’s just that is what we have socially rewarded for a very long time)…  more on that later.  Read Robert Sapolsky’s book, Behave to find out more).


(click the image to download this as a pdf!)



When we choose to value things like mistakes, effort,
and even being someone who is ‘outside of the herd’,
we create ‘Psychological Safety’
to do those things we’re normally afraid of.

According to Frederik Pferdt – Google’s Chief Innovation Evangelist,
(who I heard as a keynote speaker at the d.confestival in Berlin a few weeks ago),
‘Psychological Safety’ is one of Google’s keys to foster innovation.

The safer we feel about something, the more likely we are to approach it.
That’s how our brain works.

If we feel safe about making a mistake,
we’ll more likely try something we’ve never done before.


Re-frame mistakes by acknowledging what they actually are,
NOT the story that’s been passed down from previous generations.

According to the laws of nature,
mistakes are related to growth and evolution,
not weakness or inferiority.   

They are the very ingredient of anything NEW.


The more deeply you get this, the more sincere you’ll be when you tell people (including yourself) to try something new even if you might fail.

Ok… So that’s a piece of the puzzle —   a new way of seeing mistakes.

But then what?
Just keep saying mistakes are great without making any adjustments?
Of course not!
We then need to adjust, pivot, refine and try something new.


In next month’s article, I’ll give you key #2 to doing that NEW thing that moves us out of repeating our past and into a mode of creating a new reality.


Click on the image below to download it as a printable pdf



If you’re a parent or teacher, 

Read this ‘mistakes grow your brain’ article
specifically geared to educators, parents and caregivers!


If you’d like these monthly articles sent to your inbox, subscribe below!


What ‘mean’ people really need…

In a way, all I really want to do is sit around and cuddle people, and talk to them in a soothing voice and make them feel like they are the most important person in the world to me in that moment.

But the other part of me feels like that’s not enough. The other part of me has seen how little of that goes on in the world. The other part of me knows that more people need to feel and give that feeling so that more of us start to feel like, yeah – I’m THAT important. I’m THAT brilliant.

Because that’s when I see people really go for things.

I’m sure many of you are thinking…. Nope! We do NOT need more people thinking they are important! That’s where arrogance and superiority come from. We actually need more humility.

I think this is because we have total confusion about the words confidence and arrogance.

Firstly, confidence – means ‘with faith’. It means we have faith that we have what it takes to get through whatever it is that is in front of us.

Here is what I see when we don’t have confidence – when we are without faith that we have what it takes:

—- if I don’t have confidence, I will not believe in my strength to survive whatever that unknown thing is – whether it’s someone with a different opinion, different appearance, a situation i’ve never been in….

If I feel afraid of whatever that new thing/person/situation is and I don’t believe I will survive that feeling of discomfort or the threat I believe it represents, I will not use my more evolved ways of being.. I won’t have time to think about ‘how can I engage with this?’ Instead, I will either want to run as fast as I can away from it – or if I can’t, I will curl my mouth and face up into a snarl and use my vocal cords to show how tough I am. Or I will want to build walls around me to keep that unknown/scary thing away. That’s the behavior we see that we call ‘mean’.

It’s funny that when we see someone we label as mean or arrogant, we think we should make them feel less confident. I disagree – I think they need to be more confident (aka. ‘with faith that they have what it takes to move through the fear of unknown/different people/situations’). It’s their fear of not surviving those threats that makes them ‘mean’.

In order to be more compassionate and of service to others, a mean or arrogant person actually needs to feel that they are MORE important. Not more important than someone else. More important than they currently think of themselves. The idea of importance to me means – to ‘matter’.

We actually need more people – with every fibre of their being- to know they matter. Because that is when they realize they have something to contribute – something so unique and irreplaceable to bring to the group. When they know that, that they – and only they – can fulfill that sacred duty for humanity, they don’t have to fear being of no value to the ‘tribe’.

When they don’t fear that anymore, it means they are not on an alert of how they are going to be kicked out of the tribe (which is wired in us to equate with death).

When they don’t fear that they will be kicked out, they can stop being in defensive or offensive movement to make sure that attention is on other people’s faults. Because that is what happens. When we are not sure if we matter, we are not sure if at some point, we will just get kicked out by the tribe. So we need to make sure someone ELSE gets noticed for being of less value.

In today’s conformity and standardized-driven culture, we aren’t given space to figure out how we can uniquely contribute to the tribe. This means that the only thing we can do is figure out how we are more, have more, do more about that SAME THING that the others in the tribe are doing.

That means that the ONLY way I won’t get rejected is if I am more, have more, do more than someone else. Not related to my own unique talents, but in comparison to that same thing. As long as there is someone who is less, has less, does less than me – i’m safe, because the tribe will get rid of that person first.

So the absolute most important point of this is… the unique, irreplaceable contribution that you and only you can make. The more we get clear on this, the more important every person will feel. The more every person will know – without doubt – that their existence contributes something to the whole.

So our job is to figure out our own ‘thing’ that is so unique that no one else will ever be able to replicate it. And then help others do the same. The more we create space for this – in our classrooms, workplace, communities, and moment to moment conversations, the more confident people will be, and the less likely that ‘meanness’ will need to rear its head.


Creating Safety through Vulnerability

I was asked this question recently by someone who is a member of a nudist colony:


Yes,  you read that correctly..


“What is the neurobiological reasons people enjoy social nudism? What is its social impact?”
Many of you know that I LOVE getting asked new questions,
so I was very excited to explore this topic and see how it relates to neurobiology.
This may seem like an unrelated to the science of mindset
and empathy, but similarly to those topics,
the deepest root of this question is about
a sense of safety and vulnerability:
the two most critical ingredients every human needs to grow and evolve
(and have access to the brain architecture
needed for self-awareness,
so that we can shift our mindsets and behaviors).
A sense of safety is our absolute most primitive, foundational state

that must occur before any other brain activity can really happen.


Safety is a relative term, though: it’s based on each individual’s experiences.

When we feel safe, our most evolved system of interaction comes online
– it’s called the ‘social engagement system’.
It’s actually a cranial nerve that allows us to express our voice (vocalization),
use facial gestures and tense our middle ear muscles in order to hear a human voice.
We use this system to let others know two things:
our internal state, and our intentions.

This is called the Polyvagal theory –
it was discovered and coined by one of the most brilliant minds I admire: Stephen Porges.

When we feel safe, our most evolved brain architecture
is also accessible for us to be ‘conscious’ of what is happening,
and create what we call ‘explicit memories’.


This is very different than what happens when we don’t feel safe.

When we don’t feel safe, for example, with another person,
we attempt to first use our social engagement system –
we will use words and facial gestures to create safety.
If this doesn’t work, our next, lesser evolved system
comes online – our ‘mobilization’ system, aka fight or flight.

If we have experiences trying to use either of these systems
and they aren’t successful in creating safety,
our most ancient system is then recruited,
– the fold or freeze system, which is embodied by the ‘shame posture’…
Our folding over, heads bowed, in submission.
This is a system that we do everything to avoid being in
because it is almost like a resignation to whatever the threat is.
(The shame, or fold/freeze posture in mammals can often be fatal
because the heart actually stops, or the predator gets us).


That was a long way to say –

that we do everything possible to avoid shame.


And one way to do that is to seek to feel vulnerable and safe
at the same time.

If there is one area that we are born loving
and then learning to feel shame about, it is our bodies

– and in particular our nudity and sexuality.
(Much of this due to the societal influences,
including the dominance of religious doctrine over the millennia).

One way we can ‘create safety’ with each other
is to attempt to use our social engagement systems
during situations where our more ancient systems would normally come online.

So – ‘play’ is our way of using our mobilization (fight/flight)
but with vocalization and facial gestures.

We can play a sport or game, or other adrenaline-inducing activities:
adrenaline rises, blood flow to our skeletal muscles increases,
but we know we are ‘safe’ to use that system with those other humans.
(p.s. – All mammals engage in play – rough housing, chasing, etc.)


And so – the nudist situation would lead me to hypothesize

that it is a way of ‘creating safety’

using the social engagement system (talking, eye contact, facial gestures)
in a situation that would normally induce feelings of shame.

This gives us a sense of control over our nervous system –
which is incredibly empowering because our nervous system
can often be influenced by unconscious triggers.

The more we make those unconscious triggers conscious,
the more power we have over our life experiences.

​​​​​​Now… This does NOT mean I am promoting
social nudity in your workplace or classroom..

BUT what I will propose is the idea that you find some way
to allow for vulnerability and safety at the same time.

This could take the form of you – as a leader – talking about feeling nervous or embarrassed, about how you have no idea what you are doing sometimes.
Things like improv, spoken word, creating some type of art (which can be using words or objects) That lead your staff to feel ‘like a beginner’,
Like they have no idea what they’re doing..

But they’re doing it in a space that welcomes
Their vulnerability of being a novice or expert
And that expresses feelings – whether they are sad, nervous, joyful, raging, embarrassed, hopeful.

Find some way to allow for the people you are leading
to shed layers of what they think is the ‘approved of’ version of them.

And model what it looks like to really be who you are
– embrace your weirdnesses,
those things that don’t seem to fit with anyone else.

What a RARE thing to feel… And yet we all need to feel it,
the more the better: Safe AND Vulnerable … AT THE SAME TIME.


people are either obstacles or agents

we either see people as ‘obstacles’, as outside forces that can thwart us.

or we see them as agents – as catalysts that can spark our growth.

when i say agent, i am talking about the use of the word as it is used chemically.  as in for example laundry soap.

the agent there is one that breaks up the surface of the water so that it can allow the entry of the soap properties.

without this agent, the surface of the water is impermeable to change.

that is how we can view every single person on this planet.
as an agent.
as a teacher who pushes and prods us into allowing our external surface to dissolve – so that our awareness becomes more permeable to the energy and wisdom that is flowing through us.

each person triggers a new set of reactions within us. and these reactions lead to new desires. all of these are like chemical reactions, which then lead to more reactions – almost as though we are are a substance that is ‘chemically’ reacting to the medium of the universe .

Mistakes grow your brain – for parents & teachers

#1) The more you love mistakes, the more your brain will grow.

Brain scans actually show that our brain grows more when we make mistakes – because it means it’s entered new territory, so there’s more stuff ‘firing’.


People are way too scared of ‘failure’ and mistakes – which keeps them from pushing themselves into new challenges.  Science is showing that this fear is actually illogical, because mistakes are amazing for the brain!

Here’s how it works:

  1. The more you understand the brain ‘mechanics’ of failure and mistakes, the less you’ll be afraid of them.
  2. The less afraid of failure you are, the more you will try new things and push yourself to new levels.
  3. The more new things you try (and therefore mistakes you make), the more your brain grows, which helps it move up to another level of mastery of more and more advanced things.


To get better at loving mistakes, understand the science:
start with this article on how mistakes literally and physiologically lead to more brain growth than getting answers right.

Increased electrical activity occurs when the brain experiences conflict between a correct response and an error:

“the brain sparks and grows when we make a mistake, even if we are not aware of it, because it is a time of struggle; the brain is challenged and the challenge results in growth.” – Professor Jo Boaler, Stanford University


Then, watch (and show your students or kids) this video on how amazing mistakes are for your  brain
Khan Academy how to grow your brain

Research shows that the more kids understand that ‘their brain is like a muscle that grows the more they use it’, the more they persevere at and take on challenging tasks.


#2) To help students be less afraid of failure, focus on the process instead of results.

To get better at focusing on process and growth instead of results,
Start with..start with this summary of growth mindsets from Stanford:


Next, use “process praise” instead of “person praise”

For example, when an adult uses ‘process praise’, such as:
“wow, I love how much you kept trying new ideas!” or
“I love how you used a rhyme to remember that!” or
“I love how hard you worked on that!”

instead of  “wow, you are so smart!” (person praise)

– just changing these few key words in how we praise kids is confirmed by research to change their outcomes significantly and in the long term. (here’s a cheat sheet on phrases you can use)


Then, show kids videos that talk about how the brain grows :

There’s really fun animated videos for kids called The Mojo Show based on Stanford research


The more often kids get these messages, the better…  

Starting around 9-10 years old, kids start believing that ‘effort = lack of innate ability’, meaning, if something feels hard, it means they’ll never be good at it, so they stop trying.
(here’s the research on that)

This happens a lot in math especially – and teachers who focus too much on speed and getting answers ‘right’ actually block students from really understanding and enjoying math (and other subjects).
(read more research on that here)


So the more you and the kids in your life learn how to ‘celebrate mistakes’ and love the process more than the results, the better learning will feel, and the more we will all get to see what people are really made of as they take on higher and higher challenges.


When I have shared these ideas with teachers and they have implemented them, they have seen immediate changes in how their students tackle problems and deal with mistakes.
Let me know in the comments below if you have tried anything like this and what you’ve noticed!