Have you ever been in conversation and tried to remember an old friend’s name (insert actor, movie, or any other tidbit you once knew) and you just can’t? You push and push the folds of your memory to find out what you already know, but alas, the harder you push the more the name on the tip of your tongue gets swallowed whole. So you wisely decide to move on in the conversation because it’s not important to the gist of what you’re talking about. Three minutes later, while your friend is talking and mid-sentence, you stop the conversation with a blurt because you’ve had an “aha” moment, “John Smith…my friend is John Smith!” That connection to memory is similar to what happens when we have a “blinding flash of brilliance.”
Researchers John Kounios, Mark Jung Beeman and others are trying to demystify what happens in the brain when we have insight in order to help us set up the right conditions for creating it. After all, new insight is about innovation, creativity and the next billion dollar product. In short, they found that when an individual or group heavily primes the brain with information that is relevant to the issue trying to be solved, the brain can come to an impasse with information and scenario overload. That’s a good thing. Most work groups cave in at this moment and try to solve the problem because they feel too tired to go on. But it is likely the wrong time to solve, according to the research. In order to achieve that eureka moment, the next step is to stop thinking about the problem. Literally walk away from the discussion for an hour, a day or even a week. Walking away is kind of like trying to remember your friend’s name in the scenario above. When you come to a standstill trying to remember the name, you relieve the pressure to the brain by continuing the conversation and, BAM! the name often appears. In the business problem- solving scenario, we call the downtime incubation. You work and work and work, take a break by doing something else and the answer appears in the shower or on the ride home from work. During the incubation, our brain has the opportunity to sort and consolidate loads of data and then insight is often generated. Insight rarely happens in the room, which is what is expected from most company meetings.
So, to recap. There should be an initial meeting to prime the issue. Discuss lots of possibilities. Read several articles with differing viewpoints. Then incubate. Ignore the issue. Let it swirl around in your head. The next meeting should be used to gather all the brilliance that came to pass in the incubation period after everyone came to an impasse.
*John Kounios, Jennifer L. Frymiare, Edward M. Bowden, Jessica I. Fleck, Karuna Subramaniam, Todd B. Parrish, and Mark Jung-Beeman. “The prepared mind neural activity prior to problem presentation predicts subsequent solution by sudden insight.” Psychological Science 17, no. 10 (2006): 882-890.
*William Duggan. “How Aha! really happens.” brain 6 (2010): 1.