Let Your Brain Take the Strain – Getting to Great Ideas

Published by Grahame Cox on

As innovators, we’re nothing without ideas. But where do those ideas come from? Can anyone come up with the big idea? Or is the eureka experience reserved for the Steve Jobs, Albert Einsteins and Thomas Edisons of this world?

The traditional thinking is that we are either ‘left’ or ‘right’ brained – left brained people are more logical, right brained people, on the other hand, are the ‘creatives’. It’s only relatively recently, with the arrival of sophisticated MRI scanners, that scientists have started to understand more about how the brain works and this new understanding suggests that our ability to come up with ideas is more about how the ‘front’ and ‘back’ of the brain work, than the left and right. And this new thinking seems to suggest we all have the potential to be creative.

The key to those moments of ‘inspiration’ lies in a small area towards the back of the brain with the catchy title of the ‘anterior, superior, temporal gyrus’. Scientists have observed a spark of activity in this part of the brain immediately prior to the ‘eureka’ moment. It seems that this area is constantly throwing out new ideas – its just that these signals tend to be drowned out by the larger, noisier front of the brain. The pre-frontal cortex has developed and grown in size and dominance as humans have developed. It is the area where we think through problems, it regulates short and long-term decision-making. It allows us to plan ahead and create strategies to act and react to changing situations. It allows us to learn and evaluate complex tasks. It is an amazing part of the brain…… but it gets in the way of hearing those ideas. It’s much noisier and crowds out the signals from our little friend, the anterior, superior, temporal gyrus. So, it’s in those quieter moments, when the pre-frontal cortex is less active that the little anterior, superior, temporal gyrus tends to be heard. That’s why many great ideas, or connections, come to us when we are out on a walk, having a drink or two, in the shower, day-dreaming, walking, sleeping, just waking up…….. in these situations, the front of the brain is much less active allowing our creative brain to come to the fore.

As far back as 1926, Graham Wallis, without the help of sophisticated MRI scans observed this phenomenon. In his book, ‘The Art of Thought’ he suggested that the way to come up with ideas is to set the mind up, to prepare it to think about something. All we then have to do is let the brain mull the problem over, let it work away in the background and then Hey Presto, it sparks into action and we have our idea.

Of course, we may not be creating great ideas but as Linus Pauling, a double Nobel prize winner, said: ‘if you want to have good ideas, you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away’. So, the trick is to ‘prepare’ the mind – give it a brief. Then sift through the ideas it generates to find the ‘gems’. This is generally the part we are best at. Using that pre-frontal cortex, get out the red pen: modify and merge ideas, refine and improve, dig into the detail, find out what works and what doesn’t work, test, retest………. until you have a great idea.

So, go on……… give that amazing organ between your ears a brief, let your brain take the strain and then go for a walk, have a drink or take a shower to give that delightfully named  anterior, superior, temporal gyrus the space to be heard.