Claudia Helmert

Innovation is a new combination of things that have previously been separate

Interview with Neurobiologist Gerald Hüther

Gerald Hüther is a neurobiologist and author. He studied biology in Leipzig and also received his doctorate there. In 1988, he qualified as a professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Göttingen and received the teaching license of Neurobiology. Professor Hüther has published a variety of books, most recently “Etwas mehr Hirn, bitte” (“A little more brainpower, please”), where he sums up his experience and insights into the topics of purpose, individual constructiveness and the love of joint creativity. We discussed these topics with Gerald Hüther from a brain research perspective.

From experience to attitude

The notion of artistic attitude was often encountered in our conversations. Based on this discovery, a central question must be dealt with: Is attitude innate or can it be developed? Huether explains: “Structural changes to the brain are possible as long as we live. This means that we can build new networks until old age. Attitudes are a complicated thing, because we gain them through experience.” He adds that experiences stem from both cognitive and emotional areas of the brain. Such attitudes are a rather determining factor, says the neurobiologist, “because they direct our perception and form the basis of decisions.”

So generally speaking, attitudes evolve from experience. According to Huether, this concept could now be applied to the area of curiosity, or – that’s the term he prefers – passion for discovery. In this context, restoring this passion plays an important role: “We can lose our passion for discovery through negative experiences in relationships with other people, when individual interests are being pursued or subjective discoveries are made. It is taken from us because someone else is not happy. Often, it is all about others dictating how things should be handled and ideas, actions, or assessments are adopted from them. This blocks the passion for discovery. What you can do now in every stage of life is helping a person to make a new and different experience that shows them the joy of discovering something new. This would strengthen the initial interconnection of discovery and passion or joy, and the linkage of the passion for discovery to anxiety and inhibiting structures will be suppressed.

As an example, there are artists who create works of art in collaboration with people who are not experienced in matters of creativity – without pressure, but with a room for experience. For these people, claims Huether, the joy of dealing with something and exploring it, would be restored. “The union of the playful with the artistic component, so that someone rediscovers what they can do, is a good approach.” Thus, art allows adults to “indulge in a realm of experience, without any pressure, and pursue a certain activity or insight.”

From fear to fearlessness

In contrast to these detached actions fears are relevant, too, in a sense that relief from anxiety might not be the result of training, but can be strengthened by positive or pleasant experiences: “The first great resource to be used against fear is the confidence in yourself.” However, it may also be that “your own competencies do not suffice. In such cases, it is helpful if a second resource, based on trust in others, is available.” The neurobiologist explains further: If this resource is not reliable, either, there is still the belief that everything is going to be alright again. “In other words, one is held in place in this world. This trust is immovable once you’ve developed it, but in today’s society, most people have lost it.  […] If one possesses these three resources of trust, chances are extremely high that you actually can no longer fail.” This state of balance ultimately leads to a situation where people are not only freer of anxiety, but will also perceive problems as challenges that allow them to grow rather than obstacles.

From experience to creativity

Gerald Huether also talked about the lateralization of the brain hemispheres and the related gender differences, which hardly have any effect in terms of creativity: “Proper creativity takes place when something really new comes into the world. Creative breakthrough innovations such as the invention of the steam engine were never based on linear, progressive thinking. This way of thinking will also work under pressure, if absolutely required. But these creative breakthrough inventions really only occur when there is no pressure, and this is because this type of innovation requires us to simultaneously activate multiple sources of knowledge and experience stored in our brains. This means that as much brainpower as possible needs to be ‘switched on’. […] However, one has to admit that this is not really a novelty, but rather a new combination of things that existed before. It is a new combination of things that have previously been separate.”

Innovative ideas are thus largely determined by connectivity in all possible directions and, ultimately, between old and new experiences. This means that creativity requires certain conditions, namely, the mentioned combination approach and a multitude of experiences.

Companies are now called upon to create a setup where employees can gain appropriate experiences to foster a modern attitude – without “friction”, a “waste of resources”, or poor performance.

It is therefore necessary to overcome the one-dimensional profit orientation and to enable an operational variety of goals: “This means, if the way employees interact with each other or executives work with their team members improves, performance will develop as a by-product. Currently, we always focus on performance and generate troubled relationships as a by-product. This is precisely the predicament from which we seem unable to escape.” However, in this context there is no intention to treat human beings as objects that serve ideas, goals, objectives, assessments, measures, and so on. “This is a culture of relationships that at the end of the day just stagnates and only produces the ability to better turn others into objects, or better escape from this type of objectification. However, this culture of relationships is unable to produce something that is essential to any evolutionary process: co-evolution and co-creativity. These things have to develop together; otherwise, self-organization is not going not happen. […] In my opinion, this gives you the key to almost all of the problems we currently have in our society.”

Leveraging your potential through self-organization and teamwork

Huether sees the aspect of self-organization as a key success factor to collaborative creativity. However, it can only be caused by “bottom-up rethinking”, not by giving orders. “That’s why the hope someone is going to come and save us is just an illusion. When you work as a team, you can try to form a small community in which you adhere to what you think is essential. This is what I call a community of leveraging potential, where you develop a way of interacting that is based on not using each other as objects. This allows you to create islands where special achievements grow. These special achievements will make such a culture of relationships attractive and cause it to spread.

This means that your own willingness is a prerequisite. However, it does not matter whether you know how to start – the intentionality must be sufficiently large. If this is not the case, people will end up with therapists or coaches. “Again, it is the act of pushing away the responsibility for yourself, your actions and the way you live together with other people and beings. No one is willing to really take responsibility for it. That‘s why we are constantly looking for someone who does it for us. However, this search is going to remain a futile one, as no one will come. We have already tried so many instances: the Almighty, the genes, and now the brain, but none of these options apply. Now we are running out of instances and this is why the insight is inevitable that we have to do it on our own.

In this context, we were also interested in how digitization affects the speed of acquiring insights. With processes that are based on trial and error, “digitization will lead to an enormous acceleration of all processes in society, which keeps making the deficits of society ever clearer. In the context of self-organization, this means that people understand how they cannot do it at an increasing speed. This creates the opportunity to do things differently. If things continue to be as slow as before, one is not going to react.”

Communication means that we know about all processes in the world and that we can feel affected by them – but without producing solution proposals. A process should be initiated to “change the way we live together.” In terms of required competences, Huether mentions the following: “What can be observed is that it is very difficult to break free from such patterns if you are on your own. Therefore, from a neurobiological perspective, it would be much more favorable to team up with others and decide as a team to do it differently. Then you can keep each other strong. You may even be able to face the tough wind that is going to blow out there in the old world, because you know from your own experience that you are on a good way.

Gerald Huether founded the “Academy for Leveraging Potential” to apply his theories to people who aim to improve society. These candidates will be assigned to a research fellow. However, there will be no interaction with the entire group, but only with one person. As an example, “one week is used to try what it means not to turn each other into objects any longer.” The corresponding experiences turn, as already described, into attitudes, automated actions, and into a different, newer culture. “You simply cannot predict the performance that will grow from such a community of leveraging potential. That’s why there is no sense in defining in advance what you want to achieve. But there is certainty that something will emerge that is very exciting and above all, very creative and innovative.”

The complete interview with Gerald Hüther in German language


Text by Claudia Helmert.
Translation by Hendrik Achenbach.
The interview was conducted by Dirk Dobiéy on 02/07/2015.
Image source: Gerald Hüther.

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