Winning the battle of the brain

publication date: Nov 1, 2012
author/source: Janet Gadeski
The next great idea you need just might be hiding in your shower. 

Janet Gadeski photoThat's the opinion of Mark Fenske, neuroscientist and associate psychology professor at the University of Guelph. Speaking to AFP Greater Toronto Chapter's D3 event in October, he commented, "I have a fabulous, well-equipped office, yet I get my best ideas in the shower. Why?"

Of course, this neuroscientist has an answer. He's concluded that focusing too narrowly can actually suppress the neural activity you need to be creative and solve a problem. 

Refereeing the signals 

Inside your head, he says, is "a battleground among signals from different parts of your brain." You have to influence that competition to get anything done, so when faced with a challenge, most of us filter out the non-intellectual, unfocused signals that don't seem directly related to the problem at hand. 

That's a good first step. You need to put in the initial time to consider the problem, think it over and gain the necessary expertise. But then you need to take a break and heed the more diffuse, broadly-focused signals from other parts of your brain. Letting go of cognitive control will lead you to thought processes and insights that recombine your prior experience and knowledge to create something new - the likely solution to your challenge. 

What could you do with a shoe? 

In an experiment that influenced Fenske's ideas, subjects were asked to find other uses for common objects such as a shoe. When subjects engaged in distracting tasks, he notes, their responses improved by 40%. Doodling and fidgeting have the same effect on many people, allowing them to take in more information than if they were forced to sit still. 

"Our prior notions of inattention and poor concentration are wrong," he emphasizes. Some distractions are good. So after your initial exposure to a problem, stop being too focused, self-conscious and judgemental, and allow yourself some distraction. You'll be surprised at the outcome. 

Read more about Mark Fenske's theory here.

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