Cognitive stimulants are the things that alter perception and stimulate imagination and sensitivity. Their main importance is in bringing different points of view and expanding the phase space of possibilities available at every moment of time, acting as a deterrent against stagnation, boosting innovation and evolutionary development.
Any form of expression can manifest itself as a cognitive stimulant: an inspiring piece of music, a film that feels like a psychedelic experience, physical practices that change the state of the body and mind, software tools that change the way people think, an art piece, or an inspiring text.
Practice: Long-Term Effects
There are various cognitive enhancer drugs, such as Adderall or amphetamines, as well as other drugs, such as nicotine, MDMA or LSD which have a similar effect. The main problem with many of those chemicals is that they have a detrimental effect on health if used regularly. Also, the enhancements they bring are only temporary and usually, more substance is needed to make it work in a continuous and lasting fashion.
A very important aspect of any cognitive stimulant is the practice that it proposes. This way the stimulant has a continuous effect and better inscribes itself into the real. For example, a techno track may come alive as a cognitive stimulant when regularly performed in the context of a techno club, engaging people in a dancing practice. Cognitive stimulation capacities of a book realize themselves fully when the book comes with a practice that inscribes its (non)fiction into the real.
Reinforcement vs. Transcendence
Another important aspect is the quality of the stimulation provided. For example, Facebook is a cognitive stimulant, but it does not always stimulate cognition towards enhancement. Many studies show that people are using it to increase the feeling of self-worth and get a sense of the social belonging rather than to expand their mental capacities. Therefore, Facebook is a kind of stimulant that keeps people locked into the already existing patterns (filter bubbles), simply reinforcing what already exists, rather than pushing perception and sensations towards transcendence. Alternatively, apps like Quora (Q&A website) and StackOverflow that encourage mind-opening discussions and collaborative thinking, as well as MOOCs like Udemy and Coursera, which are educational resources, are the kind of cognitive stimulants that lead towards transcendence (going beyond the limits of one’s knowledge, enhancing one’s work practice etc.)
So far we’ve used the term “cognitive stimulants” to describe the effects of the practices, tools and artefacts on the humans who come in contact with it. The effects and transformations are much more intense when they extend beyond the realm of knowledge (cognitio) and provide a somatic experience. One of the reasons is that our body has faster processing speed than our mind. First we have the experience, then we interpret it. Also, when stimulants affect the body they operate not only in the realm of thoughts, but also engage the movement, body chemistry, hormones, neurotrasmitters, etc. – therefore the scope of action is much bigger.
An effective somacognitive stimulant affects both the mind and the body, blurring the distinction between the two, engaging both the experiential and intellectual faculties.
Designing Somacognitive Stimulants
Systems thinking can be very instrumental for designing cognitive stimulants. The framework of networks can be used to construct meaningfully interconnected entities, which engage certain aspects of perception. These dynamic entities can propose alternative narratives, which inscribe the imaginary into the real. This can be done through engaging practices, various tools that propose to enhance cognitive capacities or simply through aesthetic experience that operate on affective levels.
Step 1: Building the Heart of the Construct
The first step is to construct interconnected entities, which engage certain aspects of perception in a way that assimilates their natural tendencies and then redirects them towards the new frontiers.
For example, betabook is a tool that is a somacognitive stimulant. It is a portable whiteboard, which can be used to sketch ideas. It works as something familiar (a standard whiteboard) yet it adds a novelty to this process (making it portable and thus readily available on the go). It assimilates the natural tendency of people to represent and invites them to try it out more frequently and to even use it to communicate with one another.
Step 2: Integrating the Construct into an Existing Process
Find a context where the construct can propose alternative narratives, which inscribe the imaginary into the real. Implement.
This can be done through engaging practices, various tools that propose to enhance cognitive capacities, or simply through aesthetic experience that operates on affective level.
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