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The Secret to Insight: Letting Go of the Mind

Would Archimedes have had his eureka moment if he'd gone to the baths and immediately started catching up on email while trolling the Internet for half-priced togas?
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Mark Jung-Beeman is a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, and he has studied what happens inside the brain when people have an insight. He was quoted in a recent New Yorker article, saying: "If you want to encourage insights, then you've got to also encourage people to relax." The article notes that "Jung-Beeman's latest paper investigates why people who are in a good mood are so much better at solving insight puzzles."

What Jung-Beeman has discovered is that insight and creative solutions can be inhibited or blocked by being overly focused. Instead, what is often needed for insight is to focus on not focusing. The article continues, "As Jung-Beeman and Kounios [a cognitive neuroscientist at Drexel University] see it, the insight process is an act of cognitive deliberation -- the brain must be focused on the task at hand -- transformed by accidental, serendipitous connections. We must concentrate, but we must concentrate on letting the mind wander."

In other words, in order to increase our ability to innovate or solve particularly difficult problems, we need to find the one who is not busy.

This notion may seem to contradict the benefits of focused attention, but it doesn't. The difference is context. When we are beset by too many distractions, whether sensory or internal, we need to lessen distractions and increase our focus to be effective. However, when we become overfocused, so that our bodies and minds tense up with all the extra effort we're bringing, we need to distract ourselves in a positive way. Then, we need to relax and allow our minds to wander in order to be open to the next great Aha!

It can be difficult, especially in the midst of stress and pressure, to pause and relax. It may seem counter-intuitive to take breaks in order to increase our creativity and ability to accomplish more, but it is remarkably beneficial to do so. And yet, as we discussed in chapter six, and as we experience daily, this is harder and harder in our media and technology-saturated world. When we do take breaks, we usually fill all of our spare moments with podcasts and phone conversations, web browsing and texting, and watching TV and films. Increasingly, we carry all our entertainment and communication options in our pockets.

This is now an embedded aspect of contemporary life and it offers many benefits. But would Archimedes have had his eureka moment if he'd gone to the baths and immediately started catching up on email while trolling the Internet for half-priced togas? The breaks that lead to breakthroughs must foster open-ended mental wandering; they quiet the noise and busyness in our brains and relax us physically. We must literally turn off the noise and engage in activities that are refreshingly quiet. In fact, all the practices I discuss in chapter 6 can help you foster this, by creating a routine of mindfulness that you can access whenever you need it.

For many years, when I was a CEO of Brush Dance, I often went for walks during my lunch hour or at the end of the day, with the intention of quieting my mind to allow for new calendar or greeting card ideas to arise. In working with artists in developing new ideas, we would often begin our sessions by making and quietly sipping tea together before laying out the tasks at hand. I can't say that these activities always led instantly to new and creative ideas. However, I was clear that these breaks and pauses were an important part of our overall creative process. In order to be sure I took this time, I often put these break times onto my calendar.

Today, one of my regular routines occurs before my longest break of the day, when I am getting ready for sleep. When I lie down in bed, I often pay attention to my breathing and gently put my hands on my chest. I then think of a particular issue or problem in my work or my nonbusiness life that I need to think more clearly about. As the idea arises in my mind, I imagine some kind of hint or direction appearing during the night, during my dreams, or perhaps when partly awake during the middle of the night. I have tremendous faith in my unconscious mind.

When I awake in the morning I often sit quietly for a few minutes; sometimes I write in my journal. Very often I'm able to capture insights that have come to me through the benefit of sleep and rest. This morning time of sitting or writing is generally my most creative time of the day. The New Yorker article I cite above discusses this: "Jung-Beeman said, 'The problem with the morning, though, is that we're always so rushed. We've got to get the kids ready for school, so we leap out of bed and never give ourselves a chance to think.' [Jung-Beeman] recommended that, if we're stuck on a difficult problem, it's better to set the alarm clock a few minutes early so that we have time to lie in bed and ruminate. We do some of our best thinking when we're still half asleep."

Try these practices for yourself:

Every day, schedule a 10-minute break during the afternoon. Walk outside and just pay attention to your walking, to your breath, to whatever is around you. Let go of any agenda, of trying to solve any problem. As thoughts arise in your consciousness, note them, but always return your awareness to walking, breath, body, and environment.

Then, at the end of the day, as you lie down for sleep, lie on your back; put your hands on your chest and take a few deep breaths. Think of an issue in your life that needs more clarity. Let this issue arise in your mind. Upon waking up in the morning, lie on your back, again take a few deep breaths, and bring up this issue in your mind. Do any new and helpful insights come to you? Do you see the issue differently than you did yesterday?