The Mars Rover, cognitive science, and conference design

cognitive science conference design
A cool composite image of the Mars Curiosity Rover

What can we learn from cognitive science about conference design?

The Mars Rover

I love that the Rover that landed on Mars this month is called Curiosity. It speaks to a fundamental aspect of being human, a drive that makes us build an incredible machine and send it 350 million miles to explore another world. And yet…

“From the perspective of evolution [curiosity] appears to be something of a mystery. We associate evolution with ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ traits that support the essentials of day-to-day survival and reproduction. So why did we evolve to waste so much time? Shouldn’t evolution have selected for a species which was – you know – a bit more focussed?”
Tom Stafford in a recent BBC Future column.

Why are we so curious?

“Why are we so curious?” asks Tom (who’s a professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield by the way, hence the British spelling.) He explains:

“The roots of our peculiar curiosity can be linked to a trait of the human species called neoteny. This is a term from evolutionary theory that means the ‘retention of juvenile characteristics’. It means that as a species we are more child-like than other mammals…Our lifelong curiosity and playfulness is a behavioural characteristic of neoteny…And of course the lifelong capacity to learn is the reason why neoteny has worked so well for our species. Our extended childhood means we can absorb so much more from our environment, including our shared culture. Even in adulthood we can pick up new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking, allowing us to adapt to new circumstances.”

You’re probably thinking: what has this got to do with conference design? Just one more quote from Tom:

“Obviously it would be best if we knew what we needed to know, and just concentrated on that. Fortunately, in a complex world it is impossible to know what might be useful in the future…Evolution made us the ultimate learning machines, and the ultimate learning machines need a healthy dash of curiosity to help us take full advantage of this learning capacity.”

Design curiosity into conference programs

And so we arrive at conference design. Regrettably, far too many conference programs are designed with the assumption that someone, somehow knows what we need to know. Curiosity needed and evoked: not much!

A much better alternative is to create a conference that 1) addresses the issues that participants really want to learn about and 2) uncovers the interesting topics, knowledge, and experience that individual attendees possess that are of value to a significant number of their peers. That’s what well-designed participant-driven and participation-rich events do. Curiosity needed and evoked: lots!

What can we learn from cognitive science about conference design? If we are wired to be curious, let’s stop running conferences that attempt to control our learning. Instead, let’s create conferences that feed our curiosity. Our events will be all the better for it!

Photo attribution: Flickr user tjblackwell. Here’s the full story of this composite image.

5 thoughts on “The Mars Rover, cognitive science, and conference design

  1. Very interesting! I wonder what that kind of conference would look like? Do you have any examples (anyone?) of conferences that have succeeded in stimulating curiosity, engagement and innovation?

    1. Cathy, good questions! I know that my conference design supports curiosity, encourages engagement, and invariably uncovers session topics and formats that no one predicted beforehand. Well run participant-driven events do that, in my experience. Well-known examples of more conventional conferences that are successful in these areas include The Renaissance Weekends®, the Gordon Research Conferences, and DEFCON.

  2. Beautifully put! And your headline made me so curious as to how you’d hook the Mars rover into conference design that I had no choice but to read this post. Just the idea of participating in a conference designed to feed my curiosity instead of stuff my head makes the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I’d love to experience one some day…

    1. High praise coming from you Sue, thank you! (I’m working on my headline skills, but I still have a long way to go.) I’ll try to remember to invite you to the next Conferences That Work I hold in your neck of the woods.

      1. I would love that! I write a lot about these great ideas, but while I see bits and pieces implemented at various conferences I attend, I have yet to see this idea at the core of a conference’s design.

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