EUREKA! - I am stuck. I need new insights...
What neuroscience teaches us about cultivating insights consciously on a regular basis.
Are you often confronted with extremely complex problems with a lot of uncertainty, where you feel that your usual analytical thinking is just not enough to find a solution? You are probably right – sometimes these problems are just too big for our conscious mind to process – what we really need is an out of the box solution, a fresh perspective – a new insight.
As an executive coach who facilitates positive change – unlike consultants or advisors who give advice – I enable people to think better. As their thought partner, I can help them asking the right questions, and becoming more aware of their own thinking process, reflecting on their situation or problem, recognizing their obstacles, where they get into an impasse, then helping them to act differently than they have tried before, when they got stuck.
It sounds easy – but what is that magical step between reflection and action, the secret sauce of this process, which in the end makes a different behavior possible?
The answer is: insight. The revelation, or the “light bulb moment” which sparks a new realization that enables a different way of thinking, a brand new perspective and eventually a different set of actions. These moments of sudden inspiration or recognition that help executives to come up with a new solution, that they have not thought about before and which will help them to get unstuck and move forward.
But what is an insight?
If we look at the definition of insight in a dictionary, we find the following:
“a clear, deep, and sometimes sudden understanding of a complicated problem or situation, or the ability to have such an understanding" (Cambridge English Dictionary)
They are also called as an “aha” moment, “Eureka feeling” or “epiphany” – a special moment when a solution for a difficult problem just appears unexpectedly as if out of thin air.
On a smaller scale we all experience having an insight, when looking at a puzzle and suddenly the image appears in front of our eyes, or we finally find Waldo on a ridiculously crowded page or simply when we are getting a clever joke.
Each time this happens, our brain and neurons are making new connections. Suddenly something makes more sense. Besides solving till then unsolvable problems, we also feel uplifted, energized, engaged, get more things done.
We all had these moments of “spontaneous brilliance” occasionally in our lives when a solution for a longtime problem just occurred to us – in the middle of the night, under the shower, while running or gardening… But would it be possible to cultivate them consciously on a regular basis?
In most organizations, problem solving starts with gathering more information, brainstorming, detailed spreadsheets, step by step plans and excruciatingly long and tumultuous meetings. We often leave exhausted, stressed, but not always with a viable solution.
David Rock, who is a researcher on creativity and insight in the Neuroleadership Institute, – suggests that we need to do the exact opposite of the above.
So, what would be a better approach to “create” insights?
Thanks to neuroscience, today we can use tools such as the electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to unravel the neural mechanisms that underlie creative insights and determine some of the few conditions which significantly increase the chance of insights to occur.
These are the following:
Insights themselves are quiet and we need to shut down our internal chatter to notice them. Peace and quiet, silence and solitude are the right nurturing environment for our mind to relax. By eliminating the constant noise, our consciousness finally can be at rest, and we have a better chance to create “aha” moments.
When we are quiet we can also pay more attention inside, and inviting deeper thoughts. Instead of focusing on what’s going on around us – or on our phone – shutting out external stimuli, we allow our mind to wander, and to look inside which is also a crucial ingredient of generating insights.
Mark Beeman, one of the most eminent neuroscientist who is studying “aha” moments, showed that when people are happy they tend to notice a much wider range of information, than when they are anxious, which makes them more “tunnel visioned”. Stress, anxiety, being preoccupied is the enemy of creative insight. Good mood, openness, curiosity all promote problem solving according to researchers who do brain scans studying creative problem solving.
4. Not effortful
According to the psychologist Stellan Ohlsson’s “inhibition theory” we need to inhibit the wrong solutions for the right ones to come to our attention.
It might sound contra-intuitive, but if you want to solve a problem, you need to stop focusing on the problem directly, as our non-conscious processing resources are much bigger than our conscious ones. This is the above mentioned situation when we come up with a solution at night, under the shower, during exercising, etc. – when you would not expect it.
Seeing something that others don’t – is not only very compelling and powerful but it can be an absolute game changer in today’s very competitive environment. While we can not force insights to come, we can still create the right environment and conditions in which they have a increased likelihood to occur.
A few tips to get started:
Take a break between meetings and spend some time alone
Take a walk, listen to music or meditate daily
Always have a note book with you to capture your ideas, and reflections
Adopt a reflective habit : journaling, gratitude journals, learning journals
Don’t over schedule your days – allow some down time without feeling guilty or reaching for your devices. Let your mind wander for a while every day
Lift your spirit : going out with friends, enjoying a play or a book, exercising or being in nature are all having beneficial impact on not only your mood but on your capacity to create insights as well.
What is your favorite insight provoking method?