Have you ever struggled to find a brilliant solution to a pressing problem, only to be struck by the innovator’s equivalent to writer’s block? When this occurs, do you then try even harder to find a solution? Think harder? Focus more intently on the problem?
Maybe thinking is the very thing preventing you from discovering breakthrough ideas.
The Science Behind Great Improv
I’m a jazz sax player. Off the stage after a concert and having no recollection of the performance, when I listened to the recording, I was blown away. During my improvisational solos, my fingers were blazing away at riffs I never thought I could play. In those moments, there was no thinking needed. Conversely, during other concerts where I recall “over-thinking,” the recordings proved only a mediocre performance.
What’s going on?
Using a functional MRI, researchers Charles J. Limb and Allen R. Braun compared the brain activity of professional jazz pianists while improvising versus performing written music rote. What they found was this:
"… improvisation was consistently characterized by … extensive deactivation of dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions … accompanied by widespread activation of neocortical sensorimotor areas as well as deactivation of limbic structures (that regulate motivation and emotional tone). This distributed neural pattern may provide a cognitive context that enables the emergence of spontaneous creative activity."
While admittedly cerebral, this quote makes an important point regarding creativity. When professional musicians improvise, they automatically quiet their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), enabling spontaneous creation.
Read More: The Power of the Mind: How to Train Yourself to Be More Successful
The DLPFC’s primary purpose is to judge, assess and analyze. It's the portion of the brain used when making decisions. However, when activated, the DLPFC crowds out other parts of the brain, diminishing our capacity to be creative. In the sports world, this results in choking; a phenomenon most athletes have experienced at one point or another.
The concept of choking is a literal one; the neural pathways to the cerebellum—the place where practiced movements are stored—are literally choked. If a golfer practices a putt a thousand times, he can replicate the movement without thinking. However, as soon as he starts thinking, he activates the DLPFC and chokes the pathways to these preprogrammed activities, often diminishing performance significantly.
Analysis and judgment are critical skills that we summon on a daily basis. But for those occasions where we require more creativity and insight, we need to quiet the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. If we attempt to use “thinking” to find a solution, we activate the DLPFC, thus choking creativity.
But how do you find solutions without thinking?
Quiet the Mind
There are a number of ways to “quiet the mind.” More than likely, you've discovered a few that work for you. Some people use yoga or meditation; others generate their best insights in the shower or upon waking or falling asleep.
Aristotle reportedly found his own methods. While lying in bed, he would hold a ball above a brass plate that was positioned on his chest. As he drifted off to sleep, the ball would drop, hitting the plate and waking him. Supposedly, he devised some of his best ideas during these quiet moments. For me personally, I have my greatest insights while walking on the beach or while sitting in a hot tub early in the morning before the sun rises.
If you're struggling to come up with a solution to a perplexing issue or if you just can't seem to produce that insight or breakthrough you're looking for, don't work harder! Instead, find ways of quieting your brain. In doing so, you'll start seeing things you haven't seen before.
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