Seeking your very own light-bulb moment? One neuroscientist says it comes down to overcoming your brain’s natural laziness, Tori Lawrence writes.
The brain is “a lazy piece of meat” and it’ll take the easiest path it can. So if you want to maximise your potential, it’s up to you to work it, says neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, author of Iconoclast: A neuroscientist reveals how to think differently (Harvard Business Press, $55).
The problem with shortcuts
According to Professor Berns, the brain runs on about 40 watts of power the same as a dim light bulb. With all the data it has to churn through at any one moment, the brain has to be energy efficient. So when your eye takes in information, the brain quickly processes it using whatever shortcuts it can. It’s accessing the sum total of what you’ve previously seen to categorise information as fast as possible.
But it’s this same efficiency that makes it hard to come up with new ideas, even when you really, really try. Even the genius impressionist Henri Matisse struggled with this. He once commented that there was nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose. “Before he can do so,” he said, “he has first of all to forget all the roses that were ever painted.”
Whether we’re struggling to paint a rose or think up a lucrative internet business idea, Professor Berns says our brain follows the same patterns. “When you’re trying to do something consciously,” he says, “you’ll fall into the usual ways of thinking because your brain ends up using the same neural pathways. You need to find something from outside that triggers the brain to reprocess things.”
In order to think creatively, we may have to dare to go against what others around us think. But our brains won’t necessarily cooperate here, because most of us are wired to conform to what the rest of the tribe think. Professor Berns has found this wiring is so strong, it can affect our brain’s decision-making ability. In one experiment, he gave subjects a simple mental task, but placed them among people who expressed a different opinion about the task’s solution.
He scanned the brains of these subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging and found that when subjects succumbed to dissenting opinion in a group situation, the decision-making area of the brain, the prefrontal lobes, shut down. The brain stops thinking critically in order to fit in with the crowd.
Solution: Be prepared to challenge the status quo. In the words of the once radical columnist Cynthia Heimel: “Any time uncertain, do a fool of yourself. There’s a microscopically little difference among becoming remarkably innovative and behaving like the enormous simpleton on the planet. So what the heck, climb.”
Make the effort
Are parenting or work commitments making it hard to even get out on an inspirational day trip? Hoping to try and rewire your brain by picking up a copy of National Geographic or watching Discovery Channel? Not good enough, Professor Berns says. “There should be a certain bit of stress and discomfort associated with it,” he says. “A lot of people want the easy answer, but it’s not easy.”
Solution: For the time-poor, it still helps to vary your daily routine, however, possible, Professor Berns says. “It can be as simple as driving a different route to work, or when you’re walking, running or exercising, do it somewhere you haven’t done it before.”