In the shower. Just as we are going to sleep. Whilst driving home. Why is it that ideas and flashes of insight seemingly pop into our minds in an instant when we least expect it and at the most inopportune moments? “I wasn’t even thinking about it and it just came to me”.
‘Insight’ is a sudden comprehension that solves a problem or reinterprets a situation. It normally comes with that rush of ‘Yes, that’s it, I’ve got it!’. Do you want to know something crazy? Despite this experience of a sudden flash of brilliance, your unconscious mind had already figured it out before you became consciously aware of it. Yep, ‘aha’ is simply the precise moment that the conscious mind becomes aware of the solution.
Before you direct me to see an experienced medical professional (who ironically would agree with me), I have facts to back it up. It all comes down to the same principles which hypnotists use to access the parts of your mind that really make the decisions – your unconscious mind. Representing 80% of your brain, the limbic system is the emotional part of the brain which takes in information and makes decisions below your level of awareness. Arguably, it is the thing that is controlling much of you and your behaviour. When the brain is in a relaxed and positive state, such as when we are driving or in the shower, the thinking/rational part of our brain temporarily pauses, and gives the unconscious mind the opportunity to start weaving its magic. The irony is staggering – when we stop consciously thinking about a problem, we are more likely to generate an insight about a problem we weren’t even thinking about.
In 2009, John Kounious and Mark Beeman found that people were more likely to solve problems (through insight) if they were in a positive mood when they arrived at the lab than if they were in a neutral or negative one. Numerous studies using MRI machines (fancy brain scanners) have confirmed the same thing. The process of disengaging our mental maps and biases around a problem can support more fragile (and important) connections emerging in our mind.
Brainstorming is an Insight Killer
In a work context, many of us have been part of brainstorming sessions to help solve problems. The irony here is, brainstorming is often a very brain un-friendly practice. Most people I speak with get to the end of brainstorming sessions, only to walk away with not enough answers to the questions that were posed. Why does this happen? There are a number of reasons. Firstly, focusing too heavily on a problem tends to exhaust our thinking brain – it is only good for around 20 minutes of hard work before it needs a change of tempo. Brainstorming sessions often go for hours. The second reason is that sometimes, we need to take in information, reflect on the facts, and unlock memories which may be locked away. This often needs time. And the third reason is that there is often a deadline – we need to find a solution by 5pm – deadlines can stifle creativity.
So, if you are looking to solve a problem or make decisions in a team at work – get yourselves in a positive frame of mind, understand the facts and the situation, and then stop thinking about it. You just might put yourself in the best position to generate a flash of insight which solves your problem.
Jason Buchanan – General Manager – Insights & Innovation