We've all had the experience: You're trying to solve a problem or come up with a new idea. You've been sitting at your desk, or discussing it in meetings, but you haven't come up with a solution or the right idea. Then you step away—go for a walk, go to lunch, weed the garden, wash the dishes, or go to sleep. And then, suddenly you get an "a-ha" moment and the answer or new idea comes to you in a flash. Why does that happen?
It has to do with how your brain works. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is in the front of your head (think forehead). The role of the PFC (among many things) is to concentrate on the task at hand, as well as to go searching for existing information you have stored in memory, and combine it with other existing information you have stored. It is this searching and combining of the PFC that allows you to solve problems and come up with new and novel ideas. Here's the rub—if you keep your PFC too focused on the "task at hand" then it can't go searching for interesting combinations of information you have stored in memory. When you take a break (the walk, the garden, the shower, the dishes) then your PFC is freed up to go searching and combining. So if you need to solve a problem or want a new idea, let your PFC know what you want to solve and then take a step away and take a break!