Thirty years ago, when I trained as a school teacher, one of the skills I mastered and applied to enhance student learning was that of stimulus variation. Stimulus variation reveals the importance of contrast. I found that teacher mobility, pausing, storytelling, hypothesis testing, changing classrooms, the use of gestures and unstructured student interactions, all helpful. I still use contrasting methods today with audiences as a keynote speaker. Our brains are quite fixed (preferring to see reality as we are, not as it is) and lazy. Our brains are also efficient and are great at taking shortcuts. A little stimulus variation is good, too much is counterproductive. 

In the 1870s, life for Thomas Edison had become counterproductive. While still in his thirties, Edison’s inventions had brought him great wealth and even greater notoriety. The constant stimulus of outside ideas and stream of ‘would be’ inventors overwhelmed him. He needed to use time differently and he needed a different space. Edison moved from his New York City Lab to the quiet and secluded New Jersey countryside at Menlo Park. A location that offered him a different time and a different space, with a short train ride to New York, when he needed it. Menlo Park became a place of contrast, where Edison (circled) and his assistants created their most famous inventions. 

ACTIVITY

On a blank page, create a 2 x 2 table with column headings: Quiet and Busy; and row headings Time and Space. Fill out this table with all your daily activities. e.g. driving, commuting, cafe, meetings, planning, catch-ups, eating, washing, presenting, mentoring, networking, walks, meditation, sleeping, reading, writing, making calls, etc.  For example, sleeping and showering would best fit in the Quiet/Space cell of your table and catch-ups and meetings might go into the Busy/Time cell.

For each activity, write down the number of hours and minutes you spend each week on each activity. There are 168 hours in a week. Sleep should take at least 49 hours. How do you carve up the rest of your activity? How balanced is your table? Do you need more or less stimulus variation? Remember Edison. Do you have enough contrast during a week, or a month or a year? Are difference times or different spaces needed?