A Simple Brain Hack For More Creative Problem Solving

Think innovation is out of your reach? You’re just not approaching the thinking correctly.

A Simple Brain Hack For More Creative Problem Solving
[Photo: Flickr user theilr]

Think outside the box.


This time-worn advice has been offered as a panacea for getting out of all manner of ruts and for jump-starting innovation. But how you exactly go about coming up with a creative solution to a problem isn’t always so clear.

Theodore Scaltsas, a professor of classical philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, points to the work of Jakob Hohwy, author of The Predictive Mind, as proof that our brain solves problems based on how they fit solutions based on our previous experiences.

In an article for Harvard Business Review Scaltsas posits, “If all solutions are old ones in some way, then why are we so good at producing new ones?” Especially since we humans tend to equate our creativity with eureka moments that just occur to us spontaneously.

Scaltsas has an explanation that involves a simple cognitive trick. He writes:

“Although the brain’s solution-generating mechanism is inherently predictive (bringing familiar solutions to a given problem) you can also address an intractable problem by reinventing the problem itself. Doing so coaxes the brain into proposing old solutions for types of problems these old solutions have not solved before.”

To get there, Scaltsas recommends a little visualization exercise. “Imagine ways out of the fix you’re in by imagining that the circumstances blocking your progress are being lifted one by one,” he explains. By getting your mind to generate different versions of the challenge, it’s likely that one of them will stand out as being similar to a problem you’ve solved before. Then, your past solution will surface and your thought processes will adapt it to fit the new problem.

Scaltsas illustrates this by describing a common situation: You are in a room and you need to get out of it. The door is your most likely exit, or a window, provided you aren’t that far off the ground. However, if a new scenario presents where you are on a higher floor and the building is on fire, simply jumping out the window may not be possible. But it will lead your mind to think how you might get out of the window safely, he explains, and trigger thoughts of parachuting. From there, it’s a small leap (pardon the pun) to pull down the window curtains and fashion a parachute to slow your fall.


Although this is an extreme example, it does demonstrate creative thinking and innovation. Scaltsas refers to this technique as “brain mining.” He writes, “Defined this way, creative thinking is clearly a natural process because the mind naturally solves new problems through old solutions, thanks to our biased and predictive brain’s mechanisms.”

Some of us may need a bit of coaxing to get to this creative space. This is where great leadership guides innovation. Xerox chief Ursula Burns, for example, says that decision making at the company is guided by having executives and team members think about what the customers’ problems are and then apply some technical or process innovation to solve it.

Other executives use these methods: Mark Zuckerberg has urged Facebook’s staffers to creative solutions through persistent inquiry. In an interview with Fast Company, Nike CEO Mark Parker said he also uses this technique. “I end up asking a lot of questions, so the team thinks things through. I don’t say, ‘Do this, do that.’ I’m not a micromanager. I don’t believe in that,” Parker explained.

Related: Three Habits Of The Most Creative Problem Solvers

All of us average thinkers have innovation in our grasp, according to Scaltsas. “If the solution triggered by the redefinition is very different from conventional solutions of the original (pre-redefinition) problem, then we have an innovation.”

via Harvard Business Review


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.