The human brain is an extraordinary information processing system. It is brilliant at executing certain tasks, particularly physical task that can be codified, like playing an instrument or driving a car. However our brains have some surprisingly big limitations when it comes to certain types of mental tasks. Take linear problem solving, which involves trying to logically work out a solution to a question, like doing math or calculating a time zone difference. Doing this kind of task sometimes uses what's called 'working memory': we hold information in our memory and manipulate it or work on it. We need working memory when we don't have an obvious answer to a problem: it's used for things like making decisions, remembering and other cognitive tasks.
Our working memory turns out to be much more limited than people generally acknowledge. What do you get when you add ten plus ten? That's easy. Twenty. Yet you don't really need working memory for that, the answer is stored in long term memory. What about adding 128 with 287? You can do it, but it takes working memory. Adding up just six digits is quite an effort. What about mutiplying 23 and 56, without paper or a calculator? For most people it's too much. Your working memory maxes out.
In the scheme of things, multiplying four numbers is not a lot of information to process at all. Just to remain standing up, your basal ganglia has to do a multitude of much harder calculations each second, to work out just the right amount of force to apply to various muscle groups. These are considered 'non-conscious' tasks. There are tremendous resources available to process information non-consciously. Yet our conscious resources are tiny by comparison. Relatively speaking, if you think of your conscious processing capacity as the coins in your pocket, then your non-conscious processing capacity is the entire US economy by comparison.
The challenge is that most 'real world' problems we face, especially at work, tend to be far more complex even than multiplying four digits. These are 'non linear' problems, that have no pre-existing, logical or easy answer. Like how to increase sales when the market for your product is down and everything you have tried in the past hasn't worked. Our conscious problem-solving resources, our working memory, is no good in this situation.
Over the years at various workshops, I have asked a few thousand people now how they solve complex problems like this. The answers are highly consistent. No one seems to solve complex problems at will. The answers always suddenly arrive, either as you fall asleep, in the middle of the night, as you wake up, as you exercise, shower or drive. Or while doing something pleasant and repetitive, like knitting, gardening or cooking. New research into these 'aha' moments is telling us a lot about how to increase the likelihood of having these moments of brilliance. And while it seems unlikely we can 'control' when we have an insight, it's now very clear that we can dramatically increase the likelihood that an insight emerges. My own research on this shows up to a five hundred percent improvement in having insights can be reached, by following a few simple rules. Here are some of the big discoveries about insight and the brain, to help you have more of them.
Mark Beeman is one of the eminent neuroscientists studying the 'aha' moment. As he said in a paper in the first NeuroLeadership Journal, "...variables that improve the ability to detect weak associations may improve insight solving." In short, insights tend to involve connections between small numbers of neurons. An insight is often a long forgotten memory or a combination of memories. These memories don't have a lot of neurons involved in holding them together. The trouble is, we only notice signals above whatever our base line of noise is. Everyday thought, like wondering what to have for lunch, might involve millions of neurons speaking to each other. An insight might involve only a few tens of thousands of neurons speaking to each other. Just as it's hard to hear a quiet cell phone at a loud party, it's hard to notice signals that have less energy than the general energy level already present in the brain. Hence, we tend to notice insights when our overall activity level in the brain is low. This happens when we're not putting in a lot of mental effort, when we're focusing on something repetitive, or just generally more relaxed like as we wake up. Insights require a quiet mind, because they themselves are quiet.
A second quality of insights relates to the first one though it is a little different. Our attention at any moment can be externally focused, like on these words, or internally focused, like on an image you might see in your minds eye activated by a word. We tend to flick between these two states all the time. When people have insights, Jonathon Schooler finds they are 'mind wandering', which is like a form of daydreaming. They are not focused externally on the problem. Mark Beeman finds an alpha effect in the visual and auditory cortex just before someone has an insight, meaning that people shut out external data in order to save their resources for noticing the insight. So, insights are more likely when you can look inside yourself and not focus on the outside world. When you feel safe enough to 'reflect' on deeper thoughts and not worry about what's going on around you for a moment.
There is a lot of research to show that being slightly happy, versus slightly anxious, has people solve more problems and be more creative generally. Mark Beeman has worked out the details of how this happens, showing that when people are happy they are more likely to notice a wider range of information, than when they are anxious and will be more 'tunnel visioned'. There's a more technical descriptionof this in a recent paper. So the third quality of the brain-state required for insight is to feel open, curious, generally interested in something versus anxious in any way.
This final piece of the puzzle is a bit of confound, as it basically says 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. 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. It's like changing traffic on the freeway - we have to stop the traffic going one way before it can go another. In the brain, wrong solutions push out the right ones. Psychologist Stellan Ohlsson developed this idea into 'inhibition theory' which states that we need to inhibit the wrong solutions for the right ones to come to our attention. Also, effort tends to involve a lot of electrical activity, and can reduce the likelihood of noticing the quiet signals of insight. The point is, you have to let go of the problem for the solution to come to you. This quality often surprises people, yet remember that our non-conscious processing resources are so much bigger than our conscious ones.
Implications of the research
Putting all these findings together points to ways to have more insights. While you can't make an insight come, you can put your brain into the state that significantly increases the chances of insight occuring. Its what highly creative people do everyday. It means not actively working on a problem but instead letting yourself happilly mind-wander, freely associating and relaxing into a quiet mental state. It is like being okay to feel how you feel when you first wake up in the morning - relaxed, with diffuse, easy attention. This of course is easier said than done. When we have a creative project we tend to get anxious, and the uncertainty of not being able to find a logical solution creates anxiety in itself. The brain is primed to experience at least a mild threat from most forms of uncertainty. Learning to be okay with uncertainty is part of the process of having more insights, because the more anxious you are, the less likely you are to notice any subtle insights.
In an organizational context, we tend to do almost exactly the opposite of what the brain needs, when trying to solve complex problems with others. We tend to put pressure on ourselves, or have that extra coffee, or gather a lot of data, all of which tends to make the brain noisier instead of quieter. Or worse, we brainstorm as a group, which creates a lot of mental noise. A better approach, if you need to solve a complex problem, is to define a question as a group, then for individuals to take time out and do something interesting but repetitive and simple for a while, and allow your non-conscious brain to do the solving for you. There's a study on the improvements you get in insights taking this approach here. In my work with organizations, we have generated a 100% to 500% improvement in manager's ability to solve complex problems with their teams, by teaching them about insight and giving them some models to practice with. There's a case study with details on this here.
Having more insights is fun and engaging. It gives your brain a great lift of dopamine from the novel connections. It helps energize you to get things done, and helps people unlock some of life's toughest puzzles. The trouble is, we have to get used to letting our non-conscious brains do the work. Relax, let go, and you might find a whole world of new insights emerging.
PS: There's more on the science of insight in my earlier book 'Quiet Leadership', which teaches leaders a process for bringing others to insight. Also my recent book 'Your brain at work' has several chapters devoted to unblocking an impasse.
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