Aaron Sorkin takes six showers a day to overcome writer’s block. If his screenwriting Oscar isn’t enough proof that he’s onto something, a new study in the journal Thinking & Reasoning provides evidence that you’re a better idea generator when you stop trying so hard and just let your mind wander.
Researchers had people solve word puzzles, and then asked the subjects whether the answers came to them through a sudden flash of insight or an analytical approach. When the answers came via an “Aha!” moment, they were more likely to be correct than the answers that came from a problem-solving approach.
Here’s why: When you use a methodical technique to solve a problem, the frontal lobe of your brain is highly activated, says researcher John Kounios, Ph.D., coauthor of The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain.
Your frontal lobe keeps you hyper focused—which is good if you need to power through a spreadsheet, but bad if you’re stuck on a problem.
When you’re stumped, you need a fresh perspective. But that hyper-focused state gives you tunnel vision. You’re more likely to stick to an established script, and less likely to come up with new ideas.
On the other hand, when you relax and let your wind wander, the activity in your frontal lobe decreases and the activity in a part of your brain called the anterior cingulate ramps up.
The anterior cingulate monitors the brain for unconscious ideas that you otherwise wouldn’t notice. “It literally expands your scope of thought,” Kounios says.
That’s why you can stare at your computer screen for 40 minutes trying to figure out an answer, and then the second you walk away—bam—the perfect solution hits you.
You don’t have to spend all day strolling around the office or taking showers to make those eureka moments come to you, though.
Try setting a limit for how long you stare at a screen before you force yourself to take a walk, Kounios says.
If you drive yourself to work, turn off the radio and see what pops into your head in the moments of rare silence. It just might be your next great idea.
By: Ali Eaves