Learning Lab

Why thinking harder isn’t always more efficient

By Amy Brann

How often do you find yourself struggling to come up with a genius idea? Perhaps you have a deadline looming and you know you need to go into that meeting with a great idea, something that is going to impress the team. You’ve set aside 60 minutes to nail it – the rest of your time is chocca right up to the deadline. But during those 60 minutes nothing is coming to you, sure you have a couple of mediocre ideas, but you know they wont cut it.

Productivity isn’t always easy to ‘turn-on’. Einstein knew well the feeling of working and working at something, trying and trying to come up with the idea that was it. “I want to know God’s thoughts; the rest are details.” A goal such as this perhaps dwarfs our great idea for that meeting. Interestingly you could succeed in the same way Einstein did. He said, “After seven years of reflection in vain the solution came to me suddenly” The relativity revelation actually came to him while he was taking a break from his work.

Wouldn’t you love to be so efficient that you could just be coming up with genius ideas while crossing the street? Well that’s exactly what the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard did. One of the core ideas behind nuclear fission (used in atomic bombs) came to him while crossing a London street. Was it just random? Neuroscience reveals all…which is why at Synaptic Potential we base our corporate trainings and executive coaching on it!

When you hit a brick wall with your thinking you are experiencing an “impasse” (fancy neuroscience term #1). These can be small, like not being able to remember the name of someone, or complex – like knowing God’s thoughts. In these situations you are likely suffering from an over active pre-frontal cortex (fancy neuroscience term #2 – I promise they’ll only be 3!).

When you are trying to consciously process something you’ll probably have found yourself getting stuck with the same thoughts going around and around. Many people respond to this by trying to focus more intently, trying harder if you like. This has been shown to decrease “insights” (final fancy neuroscience term…and not all that fancy to be honest).

Archimedes is famous for an insight. He diligently worked on trying to determine whether the King’s crown was pure gold or had some silver – without melting the crown. When he’d really hit his wall (impasse) he asked his servant to draw him a bath and as he got into it the water level rose. He wasn’t thinking about problem at this point, his prefrontal cortex had been told it was having a break; he was relaxing. Then the insight hit him, and as the story goes he ran into the street naked shouting “Eureka”.

About 1.5 seconds before the Eureka moment you have a prolonged increase in alpha band activity in a certain part of your brain (the right occipital lobe – lets just think of that as the bonus neuroscience term).  You will tend to avert your eyes as a way to shut off external stimulus and focus on internal signals.

Practically what does this mean? Training to increase your ability to observe your own thinking and subsequently be more in control of how you think means you can quieten your mind when you need to. Training to manage your state (happier states lead to more insights, anxious states lead to less) means you become more effective at coming up with answers – both from genius to mundane.

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