Aptitudes for the Conceptual Age




I love the expressions, “deeply processed” and “elaborately rehearsed” because they describe so well what makes information stick in our memories, what we do when we study something carefully or are deeply interested in something. We think carefully about it, consider it from different angles, ask questions about it, compare to other things like it. Whether “it” is a text, an infographic, visual art, a piece of music, a recipe for beef bourguignon, if we deeply process and elaborately rehearse it, it will become part of our repertoire for a very long time.

I’m fascinated by our brains’ memory processes because until the last few years, I had an excellent memory. I think that was part of why my IQ tested at 141 and my SAT scores were 690 verbal and 700 math (back in 1986), probably not unlike a lot of people in our class. The older I get, the more complicated life becomes, and the more type 1 diabetes affects my mental processes, the harder it is to focus and remember things. My friend Lorri studies the brain and tells me I’m lucky I started out with so much juice, especially because I’m a visual-spacial thinker with strong logical-sequential skills. She has an excellent point.

Back to stickiness, I miss the days when remembering and focusing were easier, so I’m very interested in ways to make things stick. I use some design elements at home on my desk, although I did not think of them as “design” until taking this class. Stacks of related papers keep current projects in sight (alignment and proximity). Colored Post-Its quickly identify important information in the stacks and where to find it (contrast). More colored Post-Its identify important dates in my calendar, adding contrast to the easy-to-interpret repetition of the calendar design. Pens, pencils and scissors are held in a chipped coffee cup so I don’t lose them under the stacks of papers (alignment, proximity). And so on, lending a bit of order to the entropy of my office. I’m trying to wrestle my various class projects into a similarly-designed orderly chaos. That is a work in progress.

6 variables of Stickiness, from Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach through Design by Jill Butler, Kritina Holden, William Lidwell:

  • profound, but succinct (is that possible?)
  • concrete is better than abstract
  • element of surprise
  • ideas based on credible sources or common sense (not, I would add, the kind of common sense we see so often on the internet, not the “truthy” things; when in doubt, find a credible source to back-up common sense)
  • appeal to emotion (pathos)
  • story, story, story!

These variables made me think of the author, Daniel Pink, because in A Whole New Mind, he discusses aptitudes of people with a certain kind of mind, people who will thrive in the post-Information Age world, the Conceptual Age. They are often called right-brain thinkers. These aptitudes are: design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning. Imagine my happiness when I found a visual representation of Pink’s book by another of my favorites, Austin Kleon:


As we move farther into the Conceptual Age, the right-brain aptitudes of meaning, story, empathy, symphony, play, and design will become more and more important, as explained in Pink’s book. I think the six variables of memorable design are closely related to those aptitudes. And it’s no wonder. According to Dr. Roger Sperry’s research on the brain’s hemispheres, while the left brain stores information in short-term memory, the right brain is responsible for long-term memory storage. This could explain why the variables for stickiness contain elements appealing to both sides, but predominantly to the right.

One element, profundity, is all about meaning. The element of surprise appeals to playfulness. Eliciting emotion requires empathy and cooperativeness (symphony). Emotion can also be elicited with insensitivity and opposition, but that approach does not increase understanding or create positive memories, so I would argue that those tactics are less effective. The last element, story, is also one of the aptitudes Pink argues will be so important. Humans are story-telling animals so it stands to reason that we remember ideas better when they are part of an interrelated narrative, giving meaning and context to those ideas.

As for left-brain characteristics, the variables include concreteness and logic (credibility and “common sense”), both predominantly the domain of the left hemisphere.


There is so much more to say on the related topics of memory, sticky ideas, the aptitudes of right- and left-brainers, and the role of design in the Conceptual Age, but I am over the word-limit. In the interest of mercy on readers, I’ll stop here.


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3 responses to “Aptitudes for the Conceptual Age”

  1. filixfemina says :

    What’s a Word Limit?

    It will be interesting to see how this new era plays out. Culturally we’re sticky, you know, so sticky that when we attempted a late turn, 60’s and 70’s instead of immediately after WWll, the recoil of the 80’s slapped us back into measurable standards rather than creative standards. I think we have a mess – chaos might be less messy. 🙂 Not that I have an opion on that, ever, right?

    I’ve long wished for the brain to not have been tossed into the air and sliced by the man who “killed seven with one stroke” of the sword. Let’s just take the whole and give parts to psychiatry, psychology, sociology, neurology, and those other very strange brothers, education and educational psychology. That’s only six…but…then there is creative/positive psychology, and now we’re off!! I can’t wait to see what creatures poke their way out of Stanford’s new Imagination Institute with Scott Barry Kaufman as its Scientific Director. I can see Dan Pink’s eyes popping!

    Anyway…to put our brains back together in one package would be nice. That’s what it is, really….most days, anyway.

    Profound but succint – 100Word Efforts. Poesy. There is scienfic basis to the story, story, story, and I’m so happy that in my life I am able to see the daily effects of teaching adults by telling stories, the long and short of them. A picture is worth how many words?

    At 141 what you take in sticks…but you may have to find it later. We prioritize, even when we don’t know we’re doing it. We didn’t make it for howevermany generations by being conscious of most of our own compensatory decisions. If so, we’d have banged our heads on trees and rocks, and not just our desks.

    Hope you are following CreativityPost.com…


    • Mary C. says :

      I am now! Following CreativityPost.com, that is. It looks great.
      I love your perspective on the last few decades. It gives me hope that the rigidity of the 80s and 90s will not last long.
      It is definitely time to acknowledge the attributes of both “sides” of the brain, and take it as a whole. If we made it 8, we could give some to cultural anthropology and talk about how much cultural knowledge filters for us before we are even aware of it.

  2. jamesericsentell says :

    I love how you connect neuroscience to the readings. The brain’s functioning explains why Heath and Heath’s “suggestions for stickiness” work; otherwise, they can seem a little mysterious.

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