Neuroscience indicates particular brain states can help us develop new ideas.

A recent piece at Psychology Today looks to neuroscience to help identify the conditions that will help us generate more insights. The author, Dr. David Rock, identifies some key brain states that research has demonstrated will help us arrive at more of those ‘a-ha' moments;

Quiet: We tend to notice insights when our overall activity level in the brain is low; like when we're not putting in a lot of mental effort, when we're focusing on something repetitive, or just generally more relaxed (i.e., when waking up, or after a nap). Insights are quiet – and consequently require a quiet mind. Inward-Looking: People tend to have insights when they are ‘mind wandering', which is like a form of daydreaming. They are not focused externally on the problem. In order to save resources to notice an insight, people shut out external data. Insights are therefore more likely to happen when you can look inside yourself and not focus on the outside world. Slightly Happy: When people are happy they are more likely to notice a wider range of information. Anxiety, on the other hand, tends to lead to more ‘tunnel vision'. To be more insightful, be open, curious, and generally interested in something versus anxious in any way. Don't Try So Hard: If you want insights you need to stop trying to solve a problem. The reason for this is that usually insights happen because we become stuck at an impasse; the impasse tends to involve a small set of solutions that we have become fixed on. However, the more we work on this same wrong solution, the more we prime the brain for that solution and the harder it is to think of new ideas. The alternative is to let go of the problem for the solution to come to you. Why? Our non-conscious processing resources are much bigger than our conscious ones.

In conclusion, relaxing and quieting the brain, mind-wandering and letting go of the challenge itself are likelier to help us arrive at an insight than constant, focused brainstorming and a pressured deadline to solve said challenge. That said, it is clearly difficult to avoid those later conditions in most organizational contexts. We tend to put pressure on ourselves, brainstorm as a group, have that extra coffee, or gather a lot of data – all of which make the brain noisier, instead of quieter. A better approach to solving a complex problem within an organization, or team environment, is to define a question as a group, then allow individuals to take time out and do something interesting but repetitive and simple for a while. Teams can be structured or organized in a way that allows participants free time to use their non-conscious brains outside of the context of the office, or challenge – and allow that quieter, more relaxed mind frame to arrive at the best insights.

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