The Science Behind Why You Should Switch Off Your Thinking Brain to Spark Creativity and Make Smart Decisions

Gathering more information, thinking through possibilities, and making careful, deliberate decisions is better, right?

Not always.

Eurekas are hardly ever discovered that deliberately. If a solution is outside of your brain’s familiar experience — which is shaped by your beliefs, culture, and biases — your conscious mind will most likely never find it. An analytical search for a solution can comb through the entire content of your mind’s “known” but not outside of it. Novel answers reside outside of your mind’s known box.

When you allow your brain to integrate new information with existing knowledge on a subconscious level, it can establish new connections and see patterns not obvious to your conscious mind. Creative solutions and ideas are more likely to bubble up from a brain that applies unconscious thought to a problem, rather than going at it in a deliberate approach with your frontal lobe. When your thinking brain is on thinking and inundated with information,  it doesn’t have the opportunity to connect concepts or make creative leaps.

Science shows that your brain’s resting-state circuitry, called the default mode network (DMN) — which is activated when you stop thinking about something specific and just veg out — is the best place to park a problem. In the DMN, your brain does some of its best, wisest, and most creative work.

More Information Is Not Always Better

There is an implicit belief in our society that more information is better.  According to economic theory, more information is always better unless the cost of acquiring further information exceeds the anticipated gain from it. Economists do concede and make the exception that more is not always better when the information isn’t free. This rule may work for economics, but in your brain, more information and thinking is not always better, for several reasons.

Your brain doesn’t like too much information.

Research indicates that people like to have choices when faced with making a decision. However, if they are given too many choices, they feel less happy about their decision and are less satisfied with the decision-making process itself. One study showed that as people received more information, activity increased in the region of the brain responsible for decision-making, problem-solving,  and control of emotions, the prefrontal cortex. However, when the load became too much it was as though a breaker in the brain was tripped and the prefrontal cortex just shut down.

Your working memory is limited. 

Even though the brain can store virtually limitless amounts of information in long-term memory, you can only keep a limited amount of information in short-term (STM) memory at one time. Research shows that the average span is 7.3 for letters and  9.3 for numbers. Information stays in STM  between 15 and 30 seconds.  Then, it either attended to by working memory or discarded. 

You learn better with spaced session than with contiguous practice.

You probably know from experience and science confirms that your brain performs better if you take in information in chunks with regular breaks rather than trying to cram everything into one long session. Your brain needs downtime to consolidate the incoming information before you can use it effectively. Studies show that napping can improve memory and creative problem-solving .

Why Your Unconscious Brain May Have The Answer

Research suggests that thinking about an issue too methodically is often a detriment to problem-solving because your brain actually blocks potential solutions from registering into consciousness through a phenomenon known as cognitive inhibition.  Basically, your mind tunes out any information it deems not relevant to the issue you are focusing on. But, the answer may reside in that extraneous info.

Mark Beeman Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, and John Kounios Ph.D.,  a professor of psychology at Drexel University, have been studying problem-solving anbd “Aha moments”. In the report, The Aha! Moment, The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight, they write:

A sudden comprehension that solves a problem, reinterprets a situation, explains a joke, or resolves an ambiguous percept is called an insight (i.e., the ‘‘Aha! moment’’). Psychologists have studied insight using behavioral methods for nearly a century. Recently, the tools of cognitive neuroscience have been applied to this phenomenon. A series of studies have used electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the neural correlates of the ‘‘Aha! moment’’ and its antecedents. Although the experience of insight is sudden and can seem disconnected from the immediately preceding thought, these studies show that insight is the culmination of a series of brain states and processes operating at different time scales. Elucidation of these precursors suggests interventional opportunities for the facilitation of insight.”

The article, The Meaning (and Science)  Behind Those Life Changing, Transformation Aha Moments, explained it this way:

‘It’s a bit like trying to look at a dim star,’ Beeman says. ‘You have to turn your head and spy it out of the corner of your eye; if you look at it directly, it disappears.’ In lab experiments, subjects who are given a brainteaser and sleep on the problem or otherwise back away from it are usually more likely to solve it than if they just keep pounding away.”

Timing is critical when it comes to putting your problem-solving subconscious mind to work for you. If you stay in the deliberate mode of thinking too long, you can inhibit possible solutions from emerging.  However, if you back off of a problem too soon, before you have all the puzzle pieces, your brain doesn’t have the information it needs to come up with an answer. The trick is to know how much time to spend concentrating on a problem and when to ease off and let your subconscious brain do the heavy lifting.

The Default Mode Network

Research shows that there’s a predictable pattern of neurological activity that’s your brain’s go-to state when it’s at rest, not focused on anything in particular, or actively engaging with its environment. This resting state of your brain is called the default mode network (DMN). Ruminating and worrying takes place in the DMN.

Science discovered the DMN using fMRI studies where people were asked to lay in the scanner with no specific thinking assignment. The DMN refers to the “internal mode of cognition,” which is a very abstract concept.  One study provided empirical support that the DMN is one of the most abstract networks in your brain. 

Research shows that the harder and more cognitively demanding a particular task is, the less the DMN is activated. Decreased activation of the DMN can also be brought about by mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation. Specifically, researchers who examined brain activation during meditation using functional MRI, found decreased activation of regions related to the DMN. The researchers also suggested that meditation training can increase the synchronization of activation between DMN regions that are related to the awareness of the ‘self’.

10 Comments

  1. So interesting Debbie. I remember reading that Eddison used to take frequent naps so that his subconscious would help him reach the solutions he needed.

    And Napoleon Hill, when he couldn’t come up with the title for his Book…Think and Grow Rich…went to bed each night instructing his subconscious to come up with the ideal title…and one night…it did exactly that. And the rest is history! 🙂

    • Neat examples, Elle. I’ll do that a lot too. I’ll tell my brain a question or situation to ponder over night. It works sometimes! 🙂

  2. Being an analytical person, it took me a while to learn the lessons from this article. In the past, I used to dwell on ‘pro’s and con’s’ lists and the like and usually didn’t make the best decisions. Now, I gather as much information as I can, sit with the question in meditation and see what my body or heart tells me, then sleep on it, asking my subconscious to work on it. Then I would have an ‘aha!’ moment sometime later, just like you’ve described.

    We’ll never fully understand the mysteries of how our brains work. The more we understand our inability to control the process and work with what is, the better our decisions and lives will be.

    • Thanks for the insight, Paige. I too have learned not to try to hammer a decision to death and just let it come to me. Works much better! 🙂

  3. This is fascinating, Debbie. It validates the importance of paying attention to our gut, our instinct, our intuition.

  4. Apparently Vitamin B12 helps the subconscious mind with lucid dreaming. Just something to think about as far as creativity goes. 😛

  5. Betsy Hanger Reply

    Thanks, Debbie! Just came on your blog today looking for resources for K-12 teachers who’re offering mindfulness in schools, and was very glad to read your cogent writing. Thank you, I will follow you from now on!

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