How Deep Are Your Neural Pathways?

Before you read this post, grab a pencil and piece of paper.

Now without thinking too much about it write down the first thing that comes into your head when you read these words:


What did you write down? Well, I did this exercise, which is called Mind Grooving (from The Systems Thinking Playbook by Dennis Meadows and Linda Booth-Sweeney) with a group of 21 people in a systems workshop last week. Here is what they came up with, out of 21 responses:

Colour: 10 people wrote “Red”, 8 people wrote “Blue”. (Only three people wrote a different colour)
Furniture: 12 people wrote “Chair”, with 4 people writing “Table”, (2 “Beds” and three others)
Flower: We had 6 “Roses”, 5 “Daisys”, and 5 “Tulips” (5 other flowers turned up on this list of 21)

When I first considered this exercise, I did not imagine that a group would actually display such consistency in answers. Years of associations and experience have created deep neurological pathways for people, shared habitual patterns of thinking. In spite of our individualist culture, socialization might be stronger than we realise. How can we notice and potentially challenge our own mental models? Or find those people whose “grooves” are not as deep as our own for insights and learning.

So when you say “Leader,” how many people expect to see someone get up and walk to the front of the room?
3 replies
  1. NicoleV
    NicoleV says:

    Hello Gillian,
    Red, Bed and Rose was the result when I did the exercise 3 years ago. Hostage of my mental models. Since then I try to live “life as an inquiry” (J. Marshall, 1999)- not an easy task – savouring the present, dancing with discoveries, poking them, spinning them around …paying attention to the ‘stories’ I hear and I tell, trying to keep in mind that they are all constructions fed by my cultural values, my purposes and perspectives. Let’s break once a month our mental models and see how it feels. Nicole Voillat

  2. Gillian
    Gillian says:

    Hi Nicole,
    Excellent comment, I like the notion of taking a vacation from our mental models regularly. It is amazing what you can see.

    When I was working on a leadership programme in Africa, we had an initial brainstorming about leaders in Africa. Immediately, most people came up with Nelson Mandela (he was the equivalent of the rose in this exercise), and while he is decidedly a leader, it was often the one person who said their mother or a community leader that got the whole conversation to turn to what being a leader means. For many people it was a paradigm shift.

    Nelson Mandela will continue to be seen as a leader in people’s eyes, as well as many of the situational and facilitative leaders around them, who will no longer go unnoticed.

  3. James Benson
    James Benson says:

    I thought immediately of a red floral upholstered chair. I didn’t for a momemnt realize that I was expected to think of separate items. I saw these as three facets of one object.

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