In The Possibilian, a riveting New Yorker profile of the neuroscience and Renaissance man Dr. David Eagleman, Burkhard Bilger explores our understanding of time. Eagleman is obsessed with understanding how the human brain processes time and whether that perception is influenced by one's mental state. For example, does fear make time slow down? This is just one of the many topics that interest Eagleman. The article is well worth a close read, and I also recommend checking out the transcript of the chat Bilger and Ealgeman hosted. Here, I would like to highlight three key takeaways that relate to innovation and creative problem solving.
Generate Lots of Ideas and See What Sticks
Before he died, Eagleman's mentor Francis Crick (the same Crick who, along with Watson, proposed the double helix model of DNA) gave him some advice. “The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he’ll fight and die for it. The way real science goes is that you come up with lots of ideas, and most of them will be wrong.” This is true in innovation as well. In creative problem solving meetings, the first goal is to get as many ideas up on the wall as possible. Only later should you pick one to pursue.
The Oddball Effect
Eagleman always has multiple research projects going at any time becuase he believes that by leaping from topic to topic he is able to deprive his brain of familiarity that would enable it to relax. He understands the power of focusing on a problem with a childlike wonder. As he says "I think this is why childhood summers seem to last so much longer than adult summers: when you're a child, everything is novel, and so more dense memories are written down. By the time you're older, you've seen most patterns before, and so at the end of the summer very little new has been encoded." This phenomenon is the same reason that we always include Wildcards and Naive Creatives on our innovation teams.
Trust Your Subconscious
Eagleman's research on time has demonstrated that our conscious brain is only registering a small perecentage of the data to which our subconscious brain is exposed. Eagleman compares cognitive functioning to the governing style of the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan. Khan sits on his thrown in the capital receiving messengers with dispatches from all over his empire. Disparate pieces of information come in bits and pieces, but Khan is able to paint a reasonably coherent picture of what is happening in his kingdom. Consciousness works the same way. As Eagleman puts it, "consciousness is like a young monarch who takes over the throne and takes credit for the glory of the country, without crediting the millions of workers that actually keep the place running." This is especially true when it comes to creative problem solving. When you are extremely focused, you are conscious of only a small amount of the work your brain is doing. Your subconscious continues to work on the problem long after you have given up and are no longer consciously thinking about it. This is why so many of our best ideas come to us when we first wake up, when we are in the shower, or watching a movie. You can help stimulate this process in meetings by conducting excursions, or mental flights of fancy to take your mind off the task.
I know I am just scratching the surface of how neuroscience relates to creative problem solving. I would love to hear other examples you can think of, from this article or elsewhere.
by Chris Dolan follow me @thechrisdolan