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Sleep On It

When you’re not looking, your brain can surprise you

Otto Loewi, an Austrian neuroscientist, found his life-changing aha! moment in a dream. He even got the dream to repeat itself.

He was at work on the notion of chemical transmission of nerve impulses. He'd been experimenting on frogs, but was getting poor results. He worried over the problem and had trouble relaxing. He often lay awake.

One night, Loewi had a vision. He knew exactly what he needed to do. He scribbled some notes. Then he went to sleep. To his shock in the morning, he could not read his handwriting.

He spent the entire day trying to recall the dream, because he thought it was the key to designing an experiment that would appropriately test his hypothesis. As hours passed, he grew desperate. Finally, worn out, Loewi went to bed.

Around 3:00 a.m., the images recurred. This time when he awoke, he got dressed and went right to his lab to perform the experiment he'd envisioned. For his discovery, he earned the Nobel Prize in 1936.

"Shadow-boxing," the title of my blog, is not just about our darkest impulses (although that's been my primary topic). It's also about anything that may lurk beyond our awareness, "in the shadows," so to speak. Certain brain functions are hidden from us, but neuroscientists are learning how to get indirect access, using insight puzzles and brain scans.

Neuro-psychiatrist Nancy Andreason suggests that the brain is a self-organizing system of feedback loops that constantly generates new thoughts, sometimes spontaneously. At times, our thinking processes can be quite nonlinear. Her research focused on random episodic silent thinking (the brain not performing a task), which she believes can illuminate a neural basis for the unconscious.

Using positron emission tomography scans, which measured regionalized blood flow, she found a great deal of activity in the association cortex, where information from diverse parts of the brain gets integrated.

The association cortex makes it possible to gather a lot of information in one place, and thereby creates the conditions for novel associations. It makes sense, then, that when sudden insight occurs, the idea seems to arrive fully formed and ready for action.

What our brains deliver during flashes of genius depends on the type of information load we supply. A musician's aha! moment is loaded for musical composition, a novelist's for characters and plot twists, and a mathematician's for theorems and equations.

So, when you're pounding your brain against an impasse, consider this: Don't work so hard. In fact, take a nap. The less you push, the better your chances of getting what you need. Your brain requires some space to do its best work.

Many creative thinkers have discovered the same thing. The solution arrives – aha! – seemingly from nowhere. Although they seem random, any of us can harness our mental resources to produce them.

I call this a "snap," because the flash of genius that really counts is insight plus momentum – it snaps you toward action. It makes you drop everything and run to your desk and might even push you out of bed.

What shoves snap insights from the tip-of-the-tongue to the top-of-the-mind is the mash-up of certain stimuli. For example, you're doing a crossword puzzle. You stall. But at some point prior to this, you had read an article or walked through a store that contained the correct answer. You'd packed stuff into your brain during unrelated activities that can now converge with a puzzle, and bang! You have the answer.

So, first, do your research. Be diverse. Gather lots of different types of data. Immerse in your field of expertise, but also read something new to you. This "idea stew" forms your information base.

Then, before going to sleep, focus on your impasse so you've positioned it in your brain as a puzzle that you want to solve. Relaxing your thinking brain during sleep allows the association areas to reshape the data into new patterns. When you least expect it, an idea will pop. It might even wake you up. I've experienced this aha! even a few days later.

Friedrich August Kekulè attested to his discovery of the benzene ring structure in a dream image of a snake devouring its own tail. Genius mathematician Henri Poincarè, who was well aware of how the pop of sudden insight helped him work out difficult formulas, viewed sleep as unconscious thought. It was the time when his questions and answers mentally mingled.

The impasse is just as important as letting go. It signals to your brain that you have a goal and urges it to get to work. The brain connections arrange items in their own way and recalculate your route. This might not always provide an answer, but this pattern recurs so often during creative insight that it's certainly worth a try.

More from Katherine Ramsland Ph.D.
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