Many people today think for a living. If you are one of these people, then like me you've probably noticed just how much better you are able to think after a break of some sort, especially a break where you haven't thought about work for a while.
It turns out there is now some very good science that explains the value, importance and function of a mental rest. In particular the research relates to our ability to have insights, the 'aha' moment when something that didn't make sense suddenly changes. (There is also the idea of just giving overused circuits a rest, but I think the more interesting issue is around how we solve complex problems.)
The research points to the idea of valuing a fresh mind more than we tend to, as this is the time we are more likely to be able to solve tough problems. Instead of valuing a quiet mind, we tend to automatically fill it up with emails or every day challenges, and waste a precious commodity.
Research in the lab by Mark Beeman, one of the fathers of neuroscience research into insight, shows that we tend to solve about 60% of problems with the 'aha' phenomenon. No one has studied complex real world problems yet, but the figure is likely to be higher than 60% when there is no linear or obvious solution.
The insight phenomenon involves finding a sudden solution, that you can't really explain. It's non-linear problem solving, and it's the way we solve a lot of complex problems. There are several aspects to this research that are worth noting.
A rested mind isn't stuck in the wrong answers
One aspect of the research on insight is work by Stellan Ohlsson. Ohlsson explores how we need to stop thinking about a problem one way before a new solution can emerge. I explain this in detail in a chapter in my forthcoming book, 'Your Brain at Work'. Here's an excerpt:
Ohlsson explains how when facing a new problem, people apply strategies that worked in prior experiences. That works well if a new problem is similar to an old problem. However, in many situations this is not the case, and the solution from the past gets in the way, stopping better solutions arising. The incorrect strategy creates an impasse.
"The projection of prior experience has to be actively suppressed and inhibited," Ohlsson explains. "This is surprising, as we tend to think that inhibition is a bad thing, that it will lower your creativity. But as long as your prior approach has the highest level of activation, you will get more refined variations of the same approach but nothing genuinely new comes to the fore."
So it turns out that the ability to stop oneself from thinking something is central to creativity. For example, if you are trying to solve the 6 letter anagram 'Bmusic' you would have to stop thinking about the word 'music' to get the correct word (which is 'cubism'.)
After a vacation, this happens all by itself as your circuits for solving a problem one way have become less dominant. This idea also explains why I like playing pieces I have written on the piano after a long break. I tend to naturally do things differently, because the circuits are not held as tightly, and I stumble upon happy musical accidents along the way.
What this means at work is that new answers to tough problems are more likely to emerge into mind when you haven't thought about a problem for a while. So use this resource, use your fresh mind, to tackle big challenges, not little things you could do anytime.
A quiet mind notices subtle signals
Another discovery about insight is that just before the moment when an 'aha' occurs, there tends to be alpha waves in various regions of the brain, connoting the audiory and visual cortices shutting down. Here's how I describe this in Your Brain at Work:
Beeman has found that people experiencing insights have an intriguing brain signal just before the insight occurs. The brain in some regions goes quiet, like a car going into idle. According to Beeman, "About a second and a half before people solved the problem with insight they had this sudden and prolonged increase in alpha band activity over the right occipital lobe (the region that processes visual information coming into the brain)." The alpha activity disappeared exactly at the moment of insight. Beeman continues, "We think the alpha activity signifies people sort of had an inkling that they were getting close to solving the problem, that they had some fragile weak activation that was hinting at the solution somewhere in the brain. They wanted to shut down or attenuate the visual input so they could decrease the noise in their brain, in order to allow them to see the solution better. Kind of like saying, ‘Shut up, I am thinking about something.'" You all do this all the time, probably without noticing. You are talking to someone then just for a moment you avert your eyes, perhaps looking up, to be less distracted. It's the brain's way of shutting down inputs to focus on subtle internal signals. If you don't do this, insight is unlikely to occur.
In another paper in the NeuroLeadership Journal, Beeman says that '...variables that improve the ability to detect weak associations may improve insight solving'. So if we want to solve tough problems, it's useful to tackle things where our mind is quieter, with less overall activation. Like after a vacation.
A happy mind is an open mind
Another study by Subramniam et al in 2009 explored the mechanics involved in how positive mood increases the likelihood of insight, a fact that has been established in other studies since 1987. The findings are that positive emotions open up a broader awareness of internal information, allowing us to access those more subtle signals I mentioned above. This has been recently fleshed in research that shows that our field of vision literally opens up with a positive mood. The opposite can be true as well, negative emotions like anxiety make it harder to distinguish subtle signals amidst greater ambient neural activity. That happy feeling left over from your vacation is not just a good feeling, it can be an asset for tough problem solving.
The Clarity of Distance
What all this means is don't use up a precious quiet mind to answer pointless emails. Use a fresh, rested mind to do the harder thinking, that would normally be too difficult any other time of the year. Like what your goals are for the next quarter, what you should do about that tough problem, or what the next step in your career might be. The more subtle a problem, the more helpful it can be to tackle it with a quiet mind, when you have some distance from a problem. When we are too 'close' to an idea, either by knowing too much, having an agenda or experiencing strong emotions, it's hard to see an idea completely. A recent study on creativity showed that distance literally makes you more creative.
Think of a mountain. If you are a foot away you only see grass and shrubs. Twenty feet away you see a slope. 100 feet away you see the contours. A thousand feet away you see that it's the biggest mountain in a set. Even further you see the way the mountain creates the weather. The further away from an idea, the less details you hold in mind, and the more context you can perceive. Seeing the big picture, the connections between information, is also more likely to active the right hemisphere, which appears important for insight.
For those just coming back from vacation, think carefully about what you are going to put your fresh, valuable mind to in your first few days. Value this resource highly. It may be your only chance to see the mountain you are on, to decide if you're taking the right path up, or even if it's the right mountain to be climbing at all.