Thinking outside the box with Professor Bhama Ramkhelawon


Professor Bhama Ramkhelawon obtained her PhD from the University of Paris VII, France in cardiovascular disease. She’s currently an Assistant Professor and head of a laboratory focused on understanding the immune response in aortic aneurysms at New York University Medical Centre in the department of surgery and cell biology.

At our specialist lectures, our students were given an interactive presentation by Professor Bhama Ramkhelawon on the topic of creativity and thinking outside the box. 

Creativity is a critical part of science, yet it’s something that’s frequently underdeveloped and/or ignored in science.

We’re reminded time and time again that scientific breakthroughs don’t come from following the status quo – they come from flashes of insight from people who dare to think differently, and who dare to fuse the rational with the intuitive and to think in lateral, unconventional ways.

Two Modes of Thinking

In her lecture, Professor Bhama Ramkhelawon described the two common modes in which human beings think:

Vertical thinking:

  • Characterized by stepwise reasoning and logic
  • Each new idea is built on the one before, and follows a pattern
  • Is one dimensional

Lateral thinking:

  • Characterized by a spontaneous generation of ideas and flashes of insight
  • Holistic and contradictory rather than rational and logical
  • Expanding outwards without boundaries in multiple directions

The human brain is an incomprehensibly complex piece of machinery that we don’t fully understand, but from recent studies in neuroscience and related fields we’ve come to learn that the brain can be divided into two hemispheres approximately responsible for two different ways of looking at the world.

The left hemisphere (responsible for coordinating the right hand and right side of the body) is largely rational, logical and reductionist in its interpretation of the world. It’s the hemisphere mostly involved with vertical thinking.

The right hemisphere (responsible for coordinating the left hand and left side of the body) is more lateral, intuitive, and creative in its approach to interpreting the world. It’s largely responsible for lateral thinking, flashes of insight and artistic or creative endeavor.

Opening Your Mind

Scientists tend to lean towards vertical thinking and sometimes, may find it more difficult using the intuitive, lateral and creative faculties of their brain. However, Professor Bhama Ramkhelawon reminded our students today that these neurological faculties are available to everybody, and like muscles they will grow and become more refined with practice:

“It’s not a natural way of thinking, so people are afraid to think like this because they’re afraid to be wrong and to go against convention. But everybody can learn it.”

The Lotus Blossom Technique

Professor Bhama Ramkhelawon prepared a couple of exercises to get our participants started in honing their lateral thinking abilities.

One such activity is known as the “Lotus Blossom brainstorming technique”, and it works like this:

  1. Write down a question or a problem that you are trying to solve.
  2. Around the question come up with eight words representing potential solutions.
  3. Expand on each of those eight words with another eight ideas for how you might implement that solution.
  4. Keep going until you converge on practical, actionable steps that you can take.

The goal of the technique is to divert you away from rational reasoning and to try and switch your brain into insight-mode. One of the keys to activating intuitive modes of thinking is to lose the fear of being wrong:

“It’s okay to make mistakes; the trajectory of thinking different in itself is a merit. You don’t have to be wrong or right. We learn from our mistakes; we just need to step back and take a different direction.”

By thoroughly thinking through each step and writing your thoughts down, no answer is right or wrong, you just write down the first thing that comes to mind and being to see what the outputs may be.

Creativity Can Be Proactive

Sometimes the results can be alarming but that’s just the nature of creative thinking. Professor Bhama Ramkhelawon commented on this and reminded our students to be prepared for resistance from established dogma and convention when bringing new ideas to the table.

“Thinking outside the box is more than just thinking differently. When you see things from a new perspective it can add value to what you’re doing.”

“Lateral thinking is provocative, and so the major discoveries in science are provocative.”

Participants came away from the lecture with a glimmer in their eyes and a head full of ideas. They were reminded of their capacity to think differently, and were encouraged to do so throughout their studies and in their future careers; it’s an incredibly important tool for Making Life Better.

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