Have you ever worked on a puzzle or tried to solve a problem only to step away for a while, take a break, and have the solution seemingly pop up out of nowhere?
The world has taken to calling such moments “Aha!” moments, and recent research suggests that anyone can take steps to improve the likelihood that they will have such experiences. Chances are you have had this experience at least once in your life, even if it was just a video game task or a small problem at the office.
When our brain has been given enough time to work on a problem below the surface of conscious attention, there will be moments of aha. The process of “creative incubation” is when we give our brain time to process what it has learned, away from the hard work we put in to actually “feed” it information.
How could we solve a puzzle without trying? The tendency for our brains to find solutions when our conscious awareness is diverted from the problem we’re trying to solve has been a problem for researchers and laypersons for a long time.
It is not always what happens in the logical domain of math. The rational side of us would say that we need to work out each step of a solution linearly until we find the correct solution.
Our culture tends to hide its geniuses under a cloak of mystery. Many people believed that the same processes that happen in their brains can’t happen in their own. Sometimes a difficult problem can be hard to solve, but the most skilled mathematician can only come up with a solution after taking a break from the whiteboard.
Modern research is trying to demystify the process. Incubation is thought to be the most creative part of the process. Rules of logic and rationality can be used to analyze the conscious sequence. One feels almost the need to turn to mysticism to explain what happens in the dark spaces, because they evoke the original mystery shrouding the work of genius.
The subconscious is a factor in the latter element. The more conscious, linear approach to solving problems is necessary when working through difficult problems.
Modern science has barely scratched the surface when it comes to understanding the brain’s connection-making abilities. There are no short-cuts or easy methods of becoming a more creative individual or a better problem solvers.
Without our conscious effort, we will remain stagnant because our brains have undiscovered potential. The only way to improve our creativity and tackle difficult problems is through rigorous practice.
After years of learning the language of mathematics, the mathematician discovers the solution to a challenging problem only after attempting to solve it at the whiteboard. It’s possible to say that the trying is as important as the not trying.
The brain only gives in proportion to what it is given, by setting aside time for learning new knowledge and practicing its practical applications. It’s hard to imagine anyone making a song with a guitar without first mastering the motions needed to play the notes with grace and precision.
There isn’t anything productive to be gained from idling time. We need to give our brain a lot of dots that it can form connections between in order for creativity to take place.
It is no longer necessary to sell ourselves short in order to discover the limits of our own creativity. Recent research into the nature of creativity and how the brain produces it should be encouraged by anyone interested in practicing self-improvement, learning a new skill, or becoming a better problem-solver at home or in the workplace.
How can we make sure that we strike the right balance between conscious effort and subconscious time? We can make a huge impact on our own lives if we become creative, but we may or may not make a big impact on the world.
In our culture, we think of a person who looks down on leisure time as being a workaholic. Even as one tries to maximize their productivity, it helps to think about the importance of rest, relaxation, and taking breaks.
If you think back to a time when you tried for hours on end to solve a difficult problem, such as fixing a household appliance, car, or something of that nature, your brain felt like mush. In the long run, denying ourselves leisure time actually hurts our creativity and problem-solving abilities.
At some point, we become less productive and are more likely to make mistakes or go around in circles without ever making any progress on the task at hand. Over the course of my life, I have experienced that many times in relation to computer issues or school related problems.
Simply being aware of the importance of rest and relaxation, as well as society’s unbalanced work culture, is enough to start getting ourselves back in touch with our more creative sides by allowing our brain the time it needs to process information. It is when we feel that it is time to take a break.
Setting aside a few hours a week to simply do nothing, or enjoy some passive entertainment, is not a bad thing if said time is used to make our self-improvement practice moreholistic. It can be helpful to think of rest time as being worthy of its own spot on our schedules, even if it sounds like something a busy person would do.
If we enjoy the activity so much that it feels like a break from work, then it can be considered a break from work. We could take breaks by playing a musical instrument, which is still considered leisure even though it is less passive.
Maybe you will start having more of those moments yourself. Who knows?
The more significant the problem we are trying to solve, the more conscious work we will need to put in to give our brain enough material to produce a solution. Remember to have good expectations.
One thing is fixing a computer glitch, another is figuring out a theory of quantum gravity. Depending on the nature of the problem, how long is needed varies. It could range from a few hours to several weeks.
There is one thing that is clear. The former requires that we only take a fifteen-minute break to rest up before going back at it, whereas the latter requires a person to work on the same problem for the rest of their lives.
When we think about our self-improvement/productivity journeys, we need to think about both dedicated learning and practice, as well as the leisure time our brain needs to form new connections. We need to make sure that our conscious efforts to solve problems and produce novel ideas are balanced with ample leisure time in which our brain’s subconscious neural activities can work on the same problem.
Few people want all of their time to be relaxing. Most people don’t want their entire lives to feel like work. That is the best of both worlds.
We only have to move between them.