A neuroscience approach to innovative thinking and problem solving

Rebecca Merrett

The participants undertook practices to calm their minds, distress and decompress after having gone through an intense information collection exercise. This got them ready for a hands-on building exercise where they used clay, blocks, paper and other tactile materials to 'feel' their way through the problem and activate the parietal cortex.

"It's the idea that once have thought a problem through, done as much thinking and as much knowledge loading as you can around it, the best thing to do is to actually set it aside, walk away and do another task for a period of 15 minutes at least. At that point what your mind is doing is actually incubating your unconscious mind, your back office.

"Even though you are not attending to that problem anymore, you've activated the neural network in the unconscious mind. So even when you stop looking at it, the back office is still working on it. It's reorganising all that information that you input at the knowledge load stage and making connections between data points that are quite disparate. We wouldn't consciously think to do it," Canter said.

The results from the study showed 80 percent of participants improved their performance in creative thinking and 63 percent generated more viable solutions to problems. Thirty-three percent improved their brain's cognitive function, with a 26 percent increase in accuracy in problem solving and 25 percent reduction in failed attempts to problem solving across participants.

There was an increase in gamma waves (associated with fast learning and the aha! moment) right across the entire brain for each participant, with a decrease in beta waves.

Helen Nott, national manager of new markets at IAG Commercial Insurance, who was one of the participants, said she is educating others in her organisation on how to problem solve faster and increase innovative thinking.

"It was quite enlightening for me, I'm definitely sharing the experience," she said.

"They suggested trying things where I was active with my hands and to do something well removed from the problem. So I started gardening as a way to give me a challenge of redesigning the garden, which is completely separate to the type of work I do.

"During my gardening I was totally distressed, wasn't thinking about the problem, and I came at it at a completely different way and had that aha! moment."

Dr. Stratford said many of the participants used to have eureka moments at times that weren't convenient such as 2 o'clock in the morning or on holiday.

"The unconscious is built for complexity, it's built to deal with complex problems, but we don't let it. The only time we really let it is when we go to sleep. And how often do we wake up with the answer? You don't have to go to a sleep pod like at Google, you can actually do it in real time," she says.

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