A neuroscience approach to innovative thinking and problem solving

Experimenting and cultivating a 'fail fast' culture has been hailed by many organisations as a way to foster innovative group thinking to solve business problems. But there's a science behind this that works by training the brain to process and arrange data to help people get to that 'eureka' moment.

Enter Extrem3e Thinking, a scientifically proven technique for achieving innovative thinking and problem solving. Based on neuroscience research and study, it helps people tap into their unconscious mind and parietal cortex to get to an 'aha! moment' faster than just waiting for it to happen by chance.

The technique was developed by Corinne Canter from Human Synergistics and neuroscientist, Dr Trisha Stratford from Sydney's University of Technology. Canter is project director and funded the initiative while Stratford conducted the study.

During the 21 day study, 30 senior business executives were hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG), which studied their brain waves when they were using this innovative thinking technique. This number of participants over that time period was enough to make the study scientifically valid, Canter and Dr Stratford say.

The idea for this project was borne out of a survey run by leadership consulting firm, Human Synergistics, which involved 6500 business leaders from Australia and New Zealand. The study found that 71 per cent of leaders were not considered visionary, and were seen as overrated, having too much authority, causing stress in others and not creating environments where people can do their best thinking.

"We decided we wanted to understand what was behind that statistic," said Canter. "We found leaders were saying, 'I have to do more with less, I have to process so much more information.' So it puts them in a state of mind we call 'fragmented mind', and it puts them in kind of survival mode.

"When you go into survival mode you literally go into tunnel vision and so you stop being able to see possibilities, you stop being able to see possible solutions. It [the brain] just does what it always has known to do because that is the most efficient thing when you are under pressure. So as a result, you don't get any new thinking, you don't get any innovative ideas," she explains.

Dr Stratford, who has spent 12 years studying neuroscience, was doing her PhD and had analysed 180 hours of brain waves in 1 second increments. She met Canter who supported her post-doctoral research to find out how to solve this problem of business leaders not effectively creating innovative thinking in their organisations.

"It's the unconscious that is the great untapped in the business world, in every world. We're finding that the unconscious is built for complex problem solving. And what I showed in my PhD was that when people were having these aha! moments the part of the brain that became significantly active was the parietal [cortex].

"When [Albert] Einstein died they, took out his brain ... and it was kept in a preservative for quite a few years. About four years or so ago, it was in 360 slices and they put it back together again.

"They found that where his parietal cortex was he didn't have a corpus callosum, so he had more connectivity between his right parietal and his left parietal. That's probably why he came up with all those aha! moments. And he always talked about imagination being more important than knowledge," Dr Stratford said.

Canter added that our unconscious mind does the bulk of our thinking, which can process about 11 million bits of information compared to the conscious mind at about 40 bits. The brain wave patterns between an active unconscious mind and a fragmented or stressed state of mind is also vastly different, she says.

"There's actually a pattern in what happens around the aha! moment. What the research was telling us is it usually came after a period of frustration, where they had given up on trying to solve the problem and then all of a sudden they get a shot of positivity; they get this sense of certainty that they've had this breakthrough moment where they have got the answer. And this is repeated."

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For the unconscious to come up with a new idea or a solution to a problem, it first needs to knowledge load, what Canter and Dr Stratford call the 'Try Harder Cycle'.

"You are reading, you are talking to people, you are inputting a lot of information and a lot of data into your brain as a way of trying to work out the problem," Canter said.

"But if you stay in the stress associated with the Try Harder cycle, you are never going to solve it from there because the brain is in a threat state."

Lingering too long in the Try Harder cycle of frustration and stress leads the brain into survival mode where it loops around the same pattern of thinking, preventing any new thinking. Therefore, once the brain has knowledge loaded, it soon needs to go into a distressed, relaxed state of mind to avoid going around in circles.

"For the parietal [cortex] to become active and do problem solving, the rest of the brain has to be in an optimal state. The optimal state is your temporal lobe where you have all your emotions and stress and all that needs to be really calm. So there needs to be a lot of alpha waves, which is the calm and relaxed waves going on in the brain. When the brain is in that state, the parietal can do its work," said Dr Stratford.

The participants undertook practices to calm their minds, distress and decompress after having gone through an intense information collection exercise. This got them ready for a hands-on building exercise where they used clay, blocks, paper and other tactile materials to 'feel' their way through the problem and activate the parietal cortex.

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"It's the idea that once have thought a problem through, done as much thinking and as much knowledge loading as you can around it, the best thing to do is to actually set it aside, walk away and do another task for a period of 15 minutes at least. At that point what your mind is doing is actually incubating your unconscious mind, your back office.

"Even though you are not attending to that problem anymore, you've activated the neural network in the unconscious mind. So even when you stop looking at it, the back office is still working on it. It's reorganising all that information that you input at the knowledge load stage and making connections between data points that are quite disparate. We wouldn't consciously think to do it," Canter said.

The results from the study showed 80 per cent of participants improved their performance in creative thinking and 63 per cent generated more viable solutions to problems. Thirty-three per cent improved their brain's cognitive function, with a 26 per cent increase in accuracy in problem solving and 25 per cent reduction in failed attempts to problem solving across participants.

There was an increase in gamma waves (associated with fast learning and the aha! moment) right across the entire brain for each participant, with a decrease in beta waves.

Helen Nott, national manager of new markets at IAG Commercial Insurance, who was one of the participants, said she is educating others in her organisation on how to problem solve faster and increase innovative thinking.

"It was quite enlightening for me, I'm definitely sharing the experience," she said.

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"They suggested trying things where I was active with my hands and to do something well removed from the problem. So I started gardening as a way to give me a challenge of redesigning the garden, which is completely separate to the type of work I do.

"During my gardening I was totally distressed, wasn't thinking about the problem, and I came at it at a completely different way and had that aha! moment."

Dr Stratford said many of the participants used to have eureka moments at times that weren't convenient such as 2 o'clock in the morning or on holiday.

"The unconscious is built for complexity, it's built to deal with complex problems, but we don't let it. The only time we really let it is when we go to sleep. And how often do we wake up with the answer You don't have to go to a sleep pod like at Google, you can actually do it in real time," she says.

Canter said this technique challenges the 'keep at it and it'll eventually happen' approach, where we are used to thinking that working harder and longer pays off.

"But what the science has shown us is that is actually not true. We've actually learnt a better way of doing thinking that gives you better solutions and is less taxing in your health and wellbeing," she said.

"If you can't come up with an answer to a problem, we now know through neuroscience that if you put your attention onto another problem that is not quite as difficult but still difficult, if you switch to another problem for 15 minutes and then go back to the original problem, you will come up with the answer," Dr Stratford added.

However, in order for the technique to work it does take discipline and commitment. Dr Stratford said it takes eight weeks on average to build a neural pathway, practising it every day so that the brain can form a new habit.

"It's mental discipline," Nott said. "You know, you always slip back into bad habits. So there's a little things that goes off in my mind that says, 'OK you haven't got to the answer wit this problem, so have you gather all the information

"Instead of spiralling down in terms of keeping on in trying harder, gather all the information that you need, and then be confident enough to step away from it for a brief amount of time and that will enable you to solve it quickly in the long run."


Rebecca Merrett

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