When you have a problem that requires a creative solution, do you spend hours trying to find it? Do you fixate on the dilemma, trying to pick apart the details like you’re searching for an earring or a button in a field of grass? Do you live and breathe the problem, butt in chair or brainstorming while you cook, wash dishes and perform other tasks?
After all, inspiration doesn’t simply strike. We have to work at it. Right?
According to Friederike Fabritius, M.S., and Hans W. Hagemann, Ph.D, in their new book The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance, we can’t consciously trigger creative insights. That’s because it’s a process that occurs unconsciously.
As the authors write, “Paradoxically, the harder you strive to consciously solve the problem, the harder it is to solve it.” Creative insights are all about making connections, not working harder or concentrating more. Here’s an explanation from the book:
One of the key predictors of an imminent insight is a steady emanation of alpha rhythms from the right hemisphere. Alpha waves signal a departure from goal-oriented and intentional thoughts and are a sign of deep relaxation. They appear to shut out visual stimuli that might serve as a distraction to the problem solving.
Three hundred milliseconds before you arrive at the answer, there is a spike in your brain’s gamma rhythm, its highest electrical frequency. Gamma rhythms are believed to come from the binding of neurons. Your brain is almost literally connecting the dots.
What’s key is that the mental calculations that lead to creative insights are unconscious. “If Archimedes had consciously monitored his own thoughts in the bath,” neuroscientist Joydeep Bhattacharya of Goldsmiths, University of London, explained, “he never would have shouted ‘Eureka.'”
(You can find more info in this book preview.)
What we can do is create conditions that help creativity blossom—and avoid conditions that crush it. For instance, according to Fabritius and Hagemann, creativity killers include: sinking mood; sparking stress; and setting a rigid structure. In other words, it’s tough to have a creative insight when your mood is low, you’re stressed out and you’re firmly inflexible. This makes sense. What can you really accomplish when you’re emotionally overwhelmed and closed off?
Below, you’ll find specific conditions that do foster aha! insights.
Don’t think outside the box. Toss it altogether. The box here is the prefrontal cortex. This is “the seat of rational and analytical thought,” and it actually impedes our creativity, Fabritius told me in an email interview. Throwing away the box means doing something other than focusing on your problem or project. Again, this tends to be the opposite of what we do. We tend to sit at our desks and toil, and toil away.
“Taking a walk, taking a nap, taking a shower, doing something silly, or simply working on something else for a change are all excellent, proven ways to arrive at creative solutions, often when you least expect them, and to trigger a jump in gamma wave oscillations that signal an ‘aha’ insight,” she said.
Make it fun. “It’s much easier to be creative when you’re having fun,” Fabritius said. After all, isn’t creativity a kind of play? Fabritius noted that research has found that individuals were more likely to solve creative problems after seeing a funny video clip. To take this out of the lab and into a work setting, start creative meetings by telling jokes or watching funny videos, she said.
Plus, “Overall it’s important to foster a work environment of ‘psychological safety’ and trust. This will put the brain into a reward state and get the dopamine flowing. And when dopamine flows, both fun and creativity come much more easily.”
When you need to find a creative solution, whether for work or home or something in between, how can you make the process fun? How can you play?
Listen to yourself. Fabritius stressed the importance of scheduling a “meeting of one” so you can focus on your problem or project without any distractions or interruptions. As she said, “most people wouldn’t think of interrupting you if you are in a meeting.”
Also, avoid brainstorming. “[Y]ou are far more likely to arrive at a creative idea on your own. After all, Newton was sitting under that apple tree by himself and Archimedes didn’t have company in his bathtub—at least not as far as we know!” Plus, it’s hard to have any insights when you’re focusing on what others are doing.
And don’t be afraid of quiet: “You can’t listen to yourself and talk at the same time.” When you stop talking, you can actually hear yourself think, she said.
In sum, the best way to come up with a creative solution is actually to stop working on working on it. The best way is to play and to listen to ourselves. As Fabritius and Hagemann write, “It is the individual brain itself that has the eureka insight.” And what a brain it is. That brain of yours is truly an incredible, inventive and—yes even—magical machine.