Ever since America started losing jobs to any country that could assemble, sew, or program for less than $50 per hour, we have turned our focus to the one thing we pride ourselves on the most; creativity. Since it was America that invented power tools, refrigeration, and the corn dog, we must certainly have the wherewithal to drive our economy with a steady stream of “what’s next.” This being the century of the brain, science has been feverishly mapping ways to increase the output of that three pound organ sitting on our shoulders. Websites like Lumosity.com tout simple games that are serious brain training. All these people are right and wrong at the same time.
Rewiring your brain is indeed possible throughout your lifetime, allowing you to expand your intellect in any direction you like, provided you have the perseverance to retrain your cranium. Simple games, if they contain the right qualities, can greatly enhance your quick-thinking and cognitive abilities. The implications of these techniques for front-line employees is the ability to handle daily interactions with ease, for managers it is the ability to solve problems quickly, and for high-level executives it is being able to create visions for the company never before dreamed. The problem lies not in how we train our brain and create new neural pathways, it lies in how we handle our day-to-day lives. For it is how we conduct our daily lives that determines whether all that brain work will actually work.
The Mayo Clinic considers 7.5% of the entire population of school-aged children to be afflicted with some type Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD. I believe almost the entire adult working population is afflicted with OAD, or Over Attention Disorder. And OAD is killing creativity. In order for the brain to produce new and crazy ideas, it must be in a state of relaxation. The brain, although quite complex, reacts in very simple ways. Since the brain’s chief function is to keep the host body safe, it will shift between high-level thinking and low-level reacting in an instant. Danger is rarely addressed with high-level thinking. Danger causes the amygdala, the reactive center of the brain, to take over. When stress causes the amygdala to react, high-level thinking is pushed aside in favor of a quick, life-saving reaction. This is why emergency services professionals must repeatedly role-play high-stress situations. The only way for them to allow high-level problem solving to occur during an emergency is to take a typically high-stress, unfamiliar situation and make it familiar.
Creative problem solving requires complete relaxation. That means focusing on nothing. The brain must shut down from analyzing, comparing, organizing, and communicating. When this happens, alpha waves burst into the brain, and creativity follows. Alpha waves are the building blocks for creative thought. When alpha waves are present, cool new ideas pop up and we feel good. The brain loves to put two different things together to create a connection. This connection, this new thought, surprises us. When this happens, dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, is released. We feel good and want more. Remember the last really good brainstorm session you had? The one where everyone jumped in to add onto each other’s ideas? One idea led to another until you were so far from where you started you didn’t even remember the original question.
That brainstorm session happened because you weren’t asking your brain to analyze, compare, or sort. You just let it go. Completely letting go of critical thinking is sometimes the best path to free and creative thought. However, letting our brains just go is a rarity these days. We wake up to the morning news, listen to the radio on the way to work, text during lunch, jump from one project to another during the day, take the kids to soccer (where we text during the game or coach the team ourselves), then it’s home to eat with the TV on in the background, then to bed with a book or more TV. If we take a walk we need music playing in ear buds or more texting. This is the essence of OAD.
Alpha waves, and creative thought, thrive on an atmosphere devoid of distraction. This is why the most alpha waves are created when you take a nice warm shower. A shower’s soothing atmosphere, warm environment, and lack of critical thinking create the perfect environment for random connections and cool new ideas. That is, unless you installed one of those water-proof TVs in your shower. If you did, get a life.
When was the last time you weren’t focused on something? Our culture doesn’t necessarily support, and often frowns upon, any activity that isn’t outcome based. This attitude could eventually lead to us dropping behind in the world of creativity. As much as our egos would like to believe, it is not possible to force mental productivity. You can either create the right environment or the brain will revert to reactive thinking, and no amount of conscious effort can change this fact. If you don’t allow periods of non-distraction, you will simply end up with ideas that have been done before, with maybe a minor twist. Stress forces us to revert, not to new thinking, but to memory. Memory isn’t about new thought, it is about what pulled us out of a sling before.
Someone who is trying to remain physically healthy will take the stairs instead of the elevator. It is a conscious choice in order to achieve a positive outcome. We also need to be conscious of OAD, and make the decision to tune out. Repetitive, rhythmic movement sparks brain activity, so a calm walk (not a power stride!) is a perfect time to engage alpha waves, but it won’t work if you bring your ear buds. How about keeping the radio off on the next long drive? Or try keeping the TV off when you’re folding laundry? Sit on a porch swing with no conversation. Meditation has been shown to spark alpha waves, but you don’t need to sit in the lotus position for an hour every day. You can create daily moments for the brain to un-focus. Get rid of OAD, solutions may come more easily than you think.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.