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A neuroscience approach to innovative thinking and problem solving

Rebecca Merrett | July 28, 2015
New technique challenges the ‘keep at it and it’ll eventually happen’ tactic.

"When [Albert] Einstein died they, took out his brain ... and it was kept in a preservative for quite a few years. About four years or so ago, it was in 360 slices and they put it back together again.

"They found that where his parietal cortex was he didn't have a corpus callosum, so he had more connectivity between his right parietal and his left parietal. That's probably why he came up with all those aha! moments. And he always talked about imagination being more important than knowledge," Dr. Stratford said.

Canter added that our unconscious mind does the bulk of our thinking, which can process about 11 million bits of information compared to the conscious mind at about 40 bits. The brain wave patterns between an active unconscious mind and a fragmented or stressed state of mind is also vastly different, she says.

"There's actually a pattern in what happens around the aha! moment. What the research was telling us is it usually came after a period of frustration, where they had given up on trying to solve the problem and then all of a sudden they get a shot of positivity; they get this sense of certainty that they've had this breakthrough moment where they have got the answer. And this is repeated."

For the unconscious to come up with a new idea or a solution to a problem, it first needs to knowledge load, what Canter and Dr. Stratford call the 'Try Harder Cycle'.

"You are reading, you are talking to people, you are inputting a lot of information and a lot of data into your brain as a way of trying to work out the problem," Canter said.

"But if you stay in the stress associated with the Try Harder cycle, you are never going to solve it from there because the brain is in a threat state."

Lingering too long in the Try Harder cycle of frustration and stress leads the brain into survival mode where it loops around the same pattern of thinking, preventing any new thinking. Therefore, once the brain has knowledge loaded, it soon needs to go into a distressed, relaxed state of mind to avoid going around in circles.

"For the parietal [cortex] to become active and do problem solving, the rest of the brain has to be in an optimal state. The optimal state is your temporal lobe where you have all your emotions and stress and all that needs to be really calm. So there needs to be a lot of alpha waves, which is the calm and relaxed waves going on in the brain. When the brain is in that state, the parietal can do its work," said Dr. Stratford.

 

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