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How to tap into brain science to have better ideas

There are things you can do to put your brain in the right place for creative thought.

How to tap into brain science to have better ideas
[Photo: Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images]

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to brainstorm good ideas when you need them? While you may not be able to innovate on demand, there are things you can do to put your brain in the right place for creativity, says Eric M. Bailey, author of The Cure for Stupidity: Using Brain Science to Explain Irrational Behavior at Work.

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A study on creativity found that there isn’t one “creativity” center of the brain. Instead, it emerges from the interplay of complex brain activity involving multiple more basic systems.

“In further understanding this science, we can consciously influence ourselves to have greater creativity,” says Bailey, president of Bailey Strategic Innovation Group, a consulting firm that focuses on the brain science of interpersonal connectivity.

Here are some ways to put your brain in a creative state, whether you are brainstorming alone or in a group.

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Remove Distractions

Our world is increasingly designed to be distracting. Bailey says brain-science research shows distractions reduce your cognitive abilities.

“All you need to do is glance at the phone, whether it makes a noise or not, and your brain jumps to all of the things you could be doing on it, such as checking email, checking your stocks, or playing a game,” he says. “When you come back to your brainstorming session, your brain doesn’t just jump right back there. You have to ramp back up to where you were at the same cognitive level, which takes time.”

To improve brainstorming sessions—either solo or in a group—remove distractions from your space, such as putting away your phone and shutting down your email.

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Engage Your Long-Term Memory

Sometimes when you’re brainstorming, it can help to recall things from the past. Introducing scent is a way you can engage your long-term memories, says Bailey.

“If you were at a food festival and the environment was inspiring, and you want to recreate that environment for a future project, introduce some smells that you would have encountered, and you’ll have better recall of some details of that event,” he says. “Our long-term memories exist in part of the brain that’s directly connected to our olfactory bulb in the limbic system.”

Turn Off the Lyrics

Creativity and brainstorming feed off feel-good chemicals in your brain, such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. Bailey says background music can be helpful for releasing feel-good chemicals—but with a caveat.

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“When you have lyrical music, what your brain wants to do is jump into following the lyrics, singing along,” he says. “If you’re trying to be creative, it can be a distraction.”

A cheat is to find the instrumental version of your favorite songs. “It’s much easier for your brain to tune it out but you also get the benefit of the music,” he says.

Account for Introverts and Extroverts Brainstorming Style

Brainstorming can be a collaborative effort, but it can also be a very individual effort brought forward in a collaborative fashion afterwards. Bailey says introverts are often bad at large group brainstorming sessions because they tend to think about things first, process them completely, and then say them out loud.

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“Traditional group brainstorming sessions are extroverts’ playground,” says Bailey. “When you understand how the brains work, you can improve outcomes by giving the topic or idea you want the group to brainstorm around in advance.”

For example, Bailey says you can share a few questions ahead of time, and suggest that everyone comes to the meeting with a few ideas written down. “What it does is it allows the introverts to process the question completely,” he says. “They’ll feel more comfortable sharing their ideas in the session. Then you’ll get more participation from both the introverts and the extroverts.”

Embrace Radical Curiosity

A hinderance to group brainstorming is what Bailey calls “the illusion of certainty.”

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“When we’re in a collaborative brainstorming session and someone throws out an idea that’s different than yours, our brain’s natural state of being is to prove that you’re right and that your idea is better,” says Bailey. “It’s an illusion of certainty. Your brain is telling you to say, ‘Let me explain to you why my idea is better.'”

We want to be understood before we’ll try to understand somebody else, but what can end up happening is the other person feels put on the defensive. When the atmosphere is tense, it’s hard to be creative or collaborative.

Instead, Bailey encourages people to be radically curious. “Understand that there is not only one way to solve a problem,” he says. “I may have my own idea, but if I’m curious [about whether] your idea might work, too. We can evaluate both more completely and come to a better conclusion together. If we work together collaboratively, we can achieve powerful things.”

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