For hundreds of years, scientists, artists, salespeople, and politicians have looked for ways to produce a flash of insight on command. It’s only in the last decade that neurologists discovered what that “aha moment” is–and they caught it on film.
In 2004, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing took an EEG of 14 volunteers while they tried to solve a riddle such as: “It’s very old, but very valuable.”
The volunteers then saw a black screen for a few seconds. Before they had a chance to come up with a solution, the answer flashed on the screen (in case you were wondering: antique).
By providing the volunteers with enough time to think about the riddle, but not enough time to actually figure it out, the researchers were able to trigger an “aha” experience.
After studying the EEGs, the scientist discovered a response in the part of the brain responsible for our emotional reaction to pain, the anterior cingulate cortex. It’s also the part of our brain that monitors conflicts. You can see it depicted in this image:
The “aha” experience, the researchers posited, is caused by our brain noticing the conflict between not knowing the answer to the riddle, then suddenly knowing it, and trying to make sense of it all.
How does this help us when we’re brainstorming? Well, the finding confirms various other psychological studies, which suggest that strengthening creativity is about triggering and fostering a conflict in your mind.
If you’re not sure how to create a conflict in your mind, here are four evidence-based ways to get your brain conflicted:
Next time your boss tells you that you should bring him solutions, not problems, you can point out that research shows exactly the opposite. You should look at problems longer, instead of trying to come up with answers to them.
Professor Thomas B. Ward is an expert on creative thinking. In one experiment, he had students develop a marketing survey and advertisements for a fictitious product.
He asked Group A to list important factors to consider about the problem, and to restate the problem in various ways before starting to look for solutions. Group B received no such instructions and were just told to start looking for solutions.
The result was startling: Group A, which spent more time thinking about the problem, eventually produced solutions that were both higher in quality and more original than the ones that Group B came up with.
A good way to think “problems” instead of “solutions” is to draw the problem. As part of a study at the Catholic University of Milan, volunteers were instructed to create a visual representation of a problem they were trying to solve.
The drawings weren’t Picassos. Yet the volunteers who drew were far more successful in solving their problems.
Images allow for a greater manipulation of the individual parts of a problem while at the same time providing a more complete image of the whole problem. It is this bird’s-eye view that often helps to find a solution instead of the focus on only one part of it.
Another approach is to think counterfactual thoughts. In other words, think of things that you know aren’t true.
In a Princeton study, some students were read a story about a girl named Jane, right before the students had to solve a task. In the story, Jane goes to a concert, where she learns that one fan will win a trip to Hawaii based on the seat number. Only moments earlier, Jane has switched seats with another fan—and surprise! Jane wins the trip. But OMG, what if she hadn’t changed seats? This last part is the counterfactual element.
The results of this study were amazing: 56% of those in the counterfactual group were able to solve the difficult task—compared to a puny 6% of those in the other group.
On a related note, researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara asked test subjects to find patterns in seemingly meaningless strings of letters (like XMXRTVTM).
Before the experiment, a group of subjects read Franz Kafka’s absurd short story, The Country Doctor. The other group read a story that didn’t contain absurd situations.
It’s not surprising that the students who read Kafka solved their task more quickly than their colleagues, leading scientists to conclude that surreal art or absurd texts have the ability to put your mind in overdrive for a short period of time.
Next time you have a difficult brainteaser to solve, don’t be afraid of “losing time” by exploring the problem, or by thinking of an absurd situation. It might be tempting to rush for an answer, but you might end up with a lower-quality solution for your conundrum. An “aha moment” only lasts for an instant, but rarely happens spontaneously.
Michael Hollauf is the co-founder of MindMeister, an online mindmapping tool for frictionless team brainstorms, and MeisterTask, a task management tool for creative projects. Michael blogs about creativity and the secrets behind great teamwork.