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Sunday, June 10, 2012


I’ve often wondered about our amazing brains and how sometimes an idea or an insight just seems to pop into our consciousness from out of the blue.  That’s what needs to happen in a situation where you want to be innovative but trying to come up with a creative new idea doesn’t work. It can almost be compared to what happens to those with ADD – attention deficit disorder.  The more they try to concentrate on something, the less successful they are at it. So, if concentrating on a problem and trying to think of an innovative solution is the wrong thing to do – do you just relax and hope a creative solution pops into your mind?  The answer to that is a surprising Yes!

If you look for examples of companies that are very successful at coming up with original new ideas for products, probably the 3M company is one of the best. So far their employees have come up with more than 50 thousand different commodities for sale from post-it notes to packaged materials for lab tests! How do they do it?  It turns out that the company does encourage its staff to relax by taking regular breaks and they even provide lounges and gaming equipment where they can socialize and change their focus by doing something different. To top off the week they also have Friday afternoon beer and cake mixers – a very popular event. A successful electrical engineering company that is copying 3M’s lead in creating relaxing spaces for their staff, has added the stipulation that employees write any creative ideas they have on white boards available everywhere so others can see them.

So, although taking time to relax and being in contact with others proves to be the best way to elicit creative ideas, it is still pretty much of a mystery why it works and how to turn it on. The answers, in this ever more competitive world, have become so important for success that science has stepped in and is beginning to whittle away at discovering what is going on.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that measures where brain activity is occurring when you’re solving a problem logically, shows clearly that the dominant [usually the left hemisphere] of the brain is active. That’s no surprise but when you need solutions that require thinking ‘outside the box’ you must use the non-dominant right hemisphere. It is often described as the artistic side of the brain that is not logical or aware of time and seems to be involved in all sorts of things we are not conscious of.Taking an Electroencephalogram [EEG]  of the brain catches its activity in real-time and prints out a wavy pattern of electrical voltages we call brain waves. A busy brain occupied when we are performing complicated tasks, shows Beta waves in the brain and when you are relaxed, playing or walking or daydreaming, the brain waves are different and designated as Alpha waves. These distinctive Alpha waves are so related to the state we’re in when we get insights that when a scientist records the Alpha pattern occurring, they can predict the person’s likelihood of coming up with a novel idea before it actually happens.   

So the key to boosting innovative breakthroughs seems to be to increase Alpha brain waves. So relax.  My next blog is going to be about brain waves and new methods of how to induce Alpha wave activity. A word of caution from Steven Johnson is that a lot of bright ideas are not really useful and it takes time to invent something new.   Rie