How To Solve Problems By Doing Nothing

Do nothing

The key to having an ‘aha’ moment is not what you might think.

You’ve probably heard of and had an ‘aha’ moment, that occasion when something changes and you suddenly have, for no apparent reason, the solution to a problem you’d been struggling to solve. What you may not be familiar with is the science behind this moment — and David Rock, author of Your Brain At Work, says it has a lot to do with nothing.

Doing nothing, that is. Giving yourself and your brain a vacation. Mark Beeham, known as one of the fathers of the neuroscience research into insight, found that we actually solve 60% of complex problems with the ‘aha’ phenomenon. Rock explains in a post on why mental vacations help us solve problems:

A rested mind isn’t stuck on the wrong answers. Brink recalls the work of Stellan Ohlosson, another noted insight researcher, who wrote:

The projection of prior experience has to be actively suppressed and inhibited. This is surprising, as we tend to think that inhibition is a bad thing, that it will lower your creativity. But as long as your prior approach has the highest level of activation, you will get more refined variations of the same approach but nothing genuinely new comes to the fore.

The mind you have after a vacation, offers Brink, is simply benefiting from less dominant use of the neural pathways you’ve been using to work through a particular problem.

A quiet mind notices subtle signals. Research has shown that just before your ‘aha’ moment, your brain tends to increase its processing of visual information. It’s a way of saying, “Hey! I think something’s up!” But then, at the actual moment of insight, the activity completely shuts off. Rock likens it to how you might avert your eyes when you’re speaking to someone to avoid distraction. You eliminate excessive input in order to maintain focus.

A happy mind is an open mind. Rock says several studies have shown that positive emotions lead to greater internal awareness of our brain’s subtle signals whereas negative emotions cloud our thinking. The happiness you feel after a vacation presents a great opportunity to see problems from a fresh perspective.

The clarity of distance.  “The further away from an idea, the fewer amounts of details you hold in mind,” says Rock, “and the more context you can perceive.” A recent study on creativity has shown that distance makes you more creative. Rock suggests using the immediate return from a vacation to address your biggest problems rather than email after email. “The more subtle a problem, the more helpful it can be to tackle it with a quiet mind, when you have some distance from a problem.”

The next time you have an ‘aha’ moment, see if you can trace it back to doing nothing!

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  • Kay-Lynne

    I was going to work on my presentation I’m giving tomorrow (and kinda worried about) but instead I think I’ll go do NOTHING!

  • Anonymous

    I wholeheartedly endorse your approach, Kay Lynne! :)

  • This is a somewhat simplistic view; Jonah Lehrer gives a more thorough treatment of “aha moments” of insight in “Imagine: How Creativity Works”.

  • Motivationalthoughts01

    Thanks for keeping the overview so simple, this helps in understanding if there is a need for happiness since there are lots of people especially here in our state who seems to consider it unimportant. Thanks for the effort posting this wonderful article it sure helped people understand the value of having knowledge about happines. =)

  • My Way!

  • Boarder202

    interesting… after struggling for some time trying to decide what to go back to school for, I finally decided about a week after returning from a weeks vacation

  • LindsayBrunner

    That’s awesome! Really show’s how a clear mind can help you define your goals and find solutions!

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