Fast Company: 50 Most Innovative Companies

Fast Company magazine’s annual innovation ranking has been published in the March 2011 issue. I like their rankings, even though they don’t use a quantitative methodology to derive the rankings. (Perhaps because BCG already does that for Business Week magazine). Instead, the editorial staff of the magazine collectively chooses the top 50 every year, making it highly subjective, but also entertaining and surprisingly different every year. Here are the top ten:

  1. Apple
  2. Twitter
  3. Facebook
  4. Nissan (for creating the Leaf all-electric car)
  5. Groupon
  6. Google
  7. Dawning Information Industry (for building the world’s fastest supercomputer)
  8. Netflix
  9. Zynga
  10. Epocrates (instant drug reference for doctors and nurses)

Left Hand Activity Increases Associative Performance

I have always been a skeptic of the claim that creativity is located in the right brain. This claim originated in the early 1970s, after neuroscientist Roger Sperry discovered that surgically severing the connection between the two brain hemispheres could cure extreme cases of epilepsy. The procedure, called a commisurotomy, indeed cured the epilepsy. The problem was that the two hemispheres could no longer communicate. In most everyday life situations, these patients behaved normally and no one could tell they had, essentially, two distinct brains in their skull. But Sperry came up with a series of clever experiments such that information would be presented only to one hemisphere (to the right or left visual field) and the patient asked to respond with only one hemisphere (just the right or the left hand). The results were complex but intriguing.

The popular media grabbed onto highly simplified interpretations of these findings; books like Robert Ornstein’s 1972 The Psychology of Consciousness and Betty Edwards’ 1979 Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain popularized the notion that creativity was located in the right brain. The only problem was that this was completely untrue, a radical misrepresentation of Sperry’s findings. Through the decades since, pretty much all neuroscientists agreed that creativity involved the entire brain, the left and right hemisphere working together, and the serious research focused on the specific roles of each hemisphere in the creative process.

In the last ten years or so, brain imaging studies using fMRI have resulted in a new wave of studies of what is known as “hemispheric specialization” or “localization.” The findings are mixed*, with some studies showing increased LH (left hemisphere) activation and some showing increased RH–although the majority of the studies come down on the side of RH. Keep in mind that in all of these studies, “increase activation” means approximately 3 percent more than baseline, and even less of a difference between the hemispheres…reinforcing the general truth that creativity involves the entire brain in concert. And “creativity” means different things, depending on the test being used, but almost never means real-world creative performance.

The latest study on this topic was published just last year**. The researchers put 40 people into three groups. Group 1 was told to squeeze a ball for 45 seconds with their left hand (thus using the RH); Group 2 was told to squeeze with the right hand (thus using the LH); and Group 3 didn’t squeeze a ball at all. Then, everyone was given a type of creativity test called the Remote Associates Test (RAT) which presents you with three words, and asks you to identify a fourth word that’s related to all three of them. They were given 25 of these triplets and 15 minutes to solve them.

The findings were pretty amazing:

Right hand squeeze: solved an average of about 8 of the 25

No squeeze: solved an average of about 10

Left hand squeeze: solved an average of about 12

Something as simple as increased muscular activity on the left side of your body, stimulating RH activity, can have the effect of enhancing associative performance! And activating the OTHER side of your body and thus the LH actually inhibits performance.

I’ll close with a caveat: Of course, creativity is not the same thing as doing well on the remote associates test. The bulk of the research tells us that creativity is not lateralized in either hemisphere. But associative ability is one cognitive ability that is implicated in real-world creative performance.

*Hemispheric specialization and creative thinking: A meta-analytic review of lateralization of creativity Brain & Cognition, Volume 72, issue 3 Pages 442-448. Konstantin M. Mihov, Markus Denzler, Jens Förster

**Abraham Goldstein, Ketty Revivo, Michal Kreitler, and Nili Metuki. Unilateral muscle contractions enhance creative thinkingPsychon Bull Rev 2010 17:895-899; doi:10.3758/PBR.17.6.895

Groups Effectively Diagnose Alzheimer’s

I love this new study* from my Washington University colleague, political science professor Matthew Gabel. He studied whether groups could do a better job of diagnosing Alzheimer’s than solitary experts. Alzheimer’s is difficult to diagnose, because there is no clear and unambiguous biomarker, like a blood test. Usually, the physician makes a subjective diagnosis, after interviewing family members and doing a few memory tests with the patient, but these diagnoses can be incorrect.

The researchers used a database of 45 deceased patients, who had brain autopsies that could prove definitively whether or not the patient actually had Alzheimer’s. From the same database, the task was to diagnose based on clinical information and PET scans, from long before, when it wasn’t yet clear whether the patient had Alzheimer’s or some other disorder such as frontotemporal dementia (which requires different treatment).

Gabel and his colleagues compared the diagnosis of an individual expert with that of a panel of six experts, and also with a panel of six trainees. The six experts (or trainees) worked together using the modified Delphi method, as follows: First, each person analyzes the data alone and generates their own diagnosis; these six individual diagnoses are then presented anonymously to the group. After viewing the six diagnoses, the group members discuss them and work to reach a consensus. Each panel was told to decide for themselves what constituted a “consensus” and how they would work toward it.

The modified Delphi groups were more accurate in their diagnosis than the solitary experts (in cases where the patient received different diagnoses). Even the six trainees outperformed the solitary experts. Once again, the genius of the group wins out over the solitary individual!

*Matthew J. Gabel; Norman L. Foster; Judith L. Heidebrink; Roger Higdon; Howard J. Aizenstein; Steven E. Arnold; Nancy R. Barbas; Bradley F. Boeve; James R. Burke; Christopher M. Clark; Steven T. DeKosky; Martin R. Farlow; William J. Jagust; Claudia H. Kawas; Robert A. Koeppe; James B. Leverenz; Anne M. Lipton; Elaine R. Peskind; R. Scott Turner; Kyle B. Womack; Edward Y. Zamrini
Arch Neurol. 2010;67(12):1506-1512.