The Aha! Moment: How Relaxation Helps the Creative Process
I hated the SAT. It was long, difficult and very taxing. I remember spending lengthy periods of time on individual problems only to draw complete blanks. I did the test preps, the practice exams and even studied multiple choice strategies, but it was all to no avail. Why? One reason is that I am a horrible test taker. Some readers may take that as a euphemism for me be stupid – fair enough. But another reason is that tests stress me out enormously. And as anyone who shares my pain can tell you, stress is seriously detrimental to a decent score. Great test takers get in the zone, breeze through problems without second guessing and live to see the next day; I was, and still am, not one of those people.
There is something inherently mysterious about problem solving. I could never tell you why I had such a difficult time figuring how those stupid analogies, and I am sure my more intelligent counterpart would have an equally difficult time telling you why he or she had such an easy time. This is because much of what happens in our brains when we are trying to solve a problem is unconscious; our conscious selves are forced to patiently wait while the answer decides if it wants to “show up” or not. The mystery eludes neuroscientists too. In a New Yorker article a few years back, Mark Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, told science journalist Jonah Lehrer that moments of insights, “[are] one of those defining features of the human mind, and yet we have no idea how or why it happens.”
To lessen the unknowns, Beeman began studying what happens in the brain when we problem solve and have moments of insight. The first thing he did was develop a series of word puzzles that he called Compound Remote Associate Problems (CRAP, yes, that’s funny) for his participants. To solve a CRAP problem (still funny), you have to find a word that can be combined with three given words. For example, if you have “pine,” crab,” and “sauce,” the correct answer is “apple” (pineapple, crabapple, and applesauce). While participants were busy musing over the word problems, Beeman, along with his colleague John Kounios, measured their brains using fMRI and EEG.
They found several things. The first was a spike in activity in the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG) moments before the insight. Not much is known is about the aSTG, although it is linked to the processing of metaphors in previous research. This makes some sense, we understand metaphors by linking seemingly unrelated ideas. The second was less technical and more remarkable. By looking at the EEG data, which appears on a computer screen in real-time, they could predict up to eight seconds in advance if someone was going to find the answer. What tipped them off were alpha waves, which are electrical neural oscillations that are linked to times when we are most relaxed. They show up when we are laying down in bed, taking a warm shower or strolling through the park. You could think of alpha waves as the quite voice in the back of your head that subtly reminds you what the right answer is. (Funny story. I was once hooked up to an EEG cap in college as part of a neuro lab. My task was very simple. I watched a series of sentences flash up on a screen in front of me. Unfortunately, I hadn’t slept the night before, the room was dark and I had been yearning for a nap the whole day. Naturally, I started dozing off. Just as that happened the professor stopped the experiment and sent me home. I tried to play it off but he told me my alpha waves gave it all away – I was falling asleep and he knew just by looking at the data).
Here’s the interesting part. Culture tells us that red bull, coffee and intense focus are necessary for anyone to get work done. But Beeman and John Kounios findings’ are painting a different picture – it is when the brain is calm and relaxed that it has those moments of insight. This was supported when they brought in a Buddhist monk to solve CRAP problems. After failing dozens in a row, they saw his alpha waves spike and watched as he solved the next 27 in a row in no time. He was an “insight machine” as Kounios described. As Lehrer summarizes in his New Yorker article,
One of the surprising lessons of this research is that trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight. While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to focus, minimize distractions, and pay attention only to the relevant details, this clenched state of mind may inhibit the sort of creative connections that lead to sudden breakthroughs. We suppress the very type of brain activity that we should be encouraging.
To be sure, those double-shot espressos help, but just not all the time. Neuroscience research like Beeman and Kounios’ is simply suggesting that being calm and relaxed is just as important as being amped. So the next time I take the SAT, which will be never, maybe I should chill and let the answer find my consciousness instead of my consciousness finding it.
- More publications from Beeman and Kounios can be found here.