Everything you know about brainstorming is wrong

by Peter Shallard

Neuroscience says everything you know about brainstorming is wrong

“I will figure it out” 

As far as entrepreneurial quotes go, this one is entirely unremarkable but utterly ubiquitous.

You figure stuff out – as we all do – because you’re an entrepreneur. That means you’re a problem solver. You brainstorm like you’re Thor.

When an ugly obstacle presents itself, you swing into superhero focus – you pull your notebook/smartphone/whiteboard close.

Turns out you’re doing it wrong. New neuroscience research reveals seriously counterintuitive truths about problem solving. This article gives you everything you need to put them into action, so you can solve problems better and bust through business challenges faster.

Proven: Your Problem-Solving neuroscience is broken 

A study commissioned by the Vienna Medical School shows that mental impasse – what you know as feeling “stuck” – is correlated with a specific excess of gamma brainwave activity.

The gamma brain rhythm is enhanced by “focus”. Simply put, the study’s participants consistently demonstrated that thinking hard about one specific thing only increased the gamma wave stuck-ness.

Focus doesn’t work. It turns out that the “Eureka Moment” – a problem solving breakthrough – happens when the opposite occurs.

A University of Houston study had participants solve puzzles while recording brainwave activity. The participants who found the most elegant solutions experienced a sudden drop in gamma wave activity seconds before insight struck.

If you want to experience the moments of insight that rocket your business forward, you need to relax. When a sticky business problem can’t be solved with any of the “obvious” options, it’s this lateral out-of-nowhere insight that separates the amateur from the tycoon.

Neuroscientists have found that relaxation is essential to move front brain thinking – where we make obvious linear connections – to the back of the brain. It’s in this magical part of our cranium that the anterior superior temporal gyrus is activated. Think of this spot, right above your right ear, as the home of unique and lateral connection making abilities.

Alpha brainwaves are the key. They’re well documented to correlate with relaxing experiences and they’re basically the opposite of gamma rhythms. The fact that the research shows a boost in Alpha brainwaves five seconds before those eureka moments is the final nail in the coffin…

Focus does not work. Here’s what to do instead:  

First, stop doing what you were doing. 

It’s highly likely the stuck feeling you were getting while problem solving is preventing your mind from relaxing. Disconnecting and giving yourself permission not to brainstorm is essential as a first step – especially for entrepreneurs who can’t help but itch that problem!

Get outside, move or do whatever it takes to hit the mental reset. Then find insight on the other side of mental stillness. Like so…

1. Meditate

This doesn’t have to be as scary as it might sound. There’s no need to climb a mountain and supplicate yourself at the feet of a Zen master. Ten minutes of eyes-shut wakefulness will produce alpha waves in total beginners. Check out www.calm.com to ease yourself into the practice.

2. Make music 

A University of Norway study shows that musicians rapidly enter an alpha state when playing. Sherlock Holmes played violin for this very reason. The research also points to long term music practice leading to highly developed brains – brains that compare with top athletes and business achievers also tested for the study.

3. Listen to music 

Not just any music. Baroque (specifically) is well documented to produce alpha brainwaves in listeners. Stick to slower Baroques from composers like Bach, Handel, Vivaldi or Corelli.

 4. Make some art

For many of the same reasons as music, playing with a piece of clay or free sketching will yield many of the same results. Avoid being productive or pragmatic. Instead, find a kinesthetic medium in which your mind can freely wander. Tip for those who are taking my advice and playing with the inner child: Try free form legos!

5. Practice mastering a sport 

Just like musicians, athletes under study exhibit alpha brainwaves when they access the “zone” and perform their genius. You can simulate the same thing by meditatively practicing the attentional, focal point of a sport. Shooting hoops, putting the green or juggling a soccer ball are good ones. Chess is the nerdy option, but it works wonders.

If nothing else, just quit trying so hard

Shifting your problem solving philosophy is important – even if you don’t practice any of these five methods yourself. By letting go of the obsessive focus on “figuring things out no matter what”, you free up your mind to make it’s own lateral – and vastly superior – connections.

The best part is what happens when you allow yourself to disengage completely. Putting your entrepreneurial intensity aside for a few moments fixes half the problem: You calm down. The anxiety the problem caused will disappear. Then, what you do next is an opportunity for inspiration.

There’s no research to back it up, but I believe that it’s after practicing stillness that we are truly open to be inspired – whether it’s by a great article, a novel, conversation, sunset or anything at all.

The best ideas aren’t within us, waiting to be extracted by brainstorm. They’re out there waiting to be discovered.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Martin September 10, 2013 at 8:46 am

Fantastic stuff, Peter. About time science confirmed this mechanism ;)

I’ve always found it helpful: can’t find my keys, can’t remember where I put them? The moment I stop looking for them or trying to remember, I suddenly remember.

Interesting that part about Baroque music. Why is it that type is most useful?

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Peter Shallard September 10, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Hard to find solid research on specifically WHY this happens, but the fact that it happens is proven: Something about the beats-per-minute tempo causes our brains to adopt Alpha wave states, in lab conditions at least.

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Martin September 10, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Curious, that. I knew that BPM has an effect on brainwaves, but I’ve always suspected harmonies in music also have an effect.

Thing is, different music from different era will have the same BPM as baroque, so how come baroque works better? Must be something to do with the compositions, harmonies and transitions.

I’d be curious to know if Bach is the most effective. I have a hunch he would be :)

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Peter Shallard September 10, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Not sure. It’s hard to sift through the piles of total BS online – whatever original research that was done on this topic has been co-opted by thousands of snakeoil sales people selling magic meditation CDs and listening devices and the link.

Chances are that baroque was the only type of music tested – i.e. the study was limited to a few different variables and baroque was the only one at that BPM.

Who knows? I certainly don’t. After a while I give up on exploring research and focus on personal pragmatism.

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Martin September 10, 2013 at 2:06 pm

Lol, quite right re magic meditation CDs.

Personal pragmatism: that’s exactly why your piece has got me thinking about music today. I find that certain kinds of music are fantastic motivators when I’m writing. Especially really complex jazz, or things like Nu-Jazz. Stuff that I would normally not want to listen to for more than ten minutes. Gives me fantastic focus and mental fluidity.

I theorize it’s because there’s insane logic behind complex music, quite the same as with Bach, and that this makes my brain work better. But I’m really no expert, I just know it works for me.

Fran September 10, 2013 at 9:01 am

Thanks so much for that link to calm.com. I had distinct reactions to the different videos it offers. Some made me feel like I was drowning or falling through the sky, no exactly relaxing! But others were very soothing. That was instructive in itself.

Calm.com is the flip side of coffitivity.com, which creates the noise and bustle of a coffee shop to help you work.

Isn’t it fascinating that both can work, at different times, depending on the problems?

Thanks, Peter!

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Steffen September 10, 2013 at 11:59 am

Fran,
if you like calm.com, maybe you like http://www.getsomeheadspace.com/ , too.

I am using it every day and i am loving it.

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Peter Shallard September 10, 2013 at 1:09 pm

hahaha that coffitivity.com website is hilarious! I think that’s why I love the internet so much: If you can imagine it, it exists out there somewhere.

It’s actually worth mentioning that things like this (coffee shops) that cause “infectious energy” are useful in a certain context but are NOT alpha-brainwave inducing.

The way I would use Calm.com versus Coffitivity.com : Calm for solving difficult challenges, Coffee for implementing on those solutions.

GREAT comment – thanks for contributing Fran :)

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Missy Cooke September 10, 2013 at 9:12 am

This is an excellent point with very good timing :). It is interesting how we can know something like this about ourselves, but fail to do anything about it until someone brings the point so clearly back to the surface. Thanks for the reminder.

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Peter Shallard September 10, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Hey Missy,

My confession is that a LOT of my writing is themed around unpacking “truths you’ve been suspicious of for a while” and explaining them so they’re clear and obvious. Most of the best psychological insights feel like you’ve known them your whole life.

The goal is to get you DOING STUFF DIFFERENT. Hopefully I’ve succeeded this week :)

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Steffen September 10, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Awesome article!

Music, sports and meditation all helped me in the past to get unstuck.

But is brainstorming always the same?

I wonder if there is a difference between brainstorming on a problem (where I am stuck) or an idea.

When brainstorming on an idea for the first time, I usually don’t feel stuck but motivated.

And at some point I need to get the ideas on paper and think them through.

Would it help to listen to Bach for example while “brainstorming” or thinking on ideas?

Thanks! :)

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Peter Shallard September 10, 2013 at 1:15 pm

Hey Steffen,

You’re right, there is a difference. This article focused on problem solving through brainstorming, which I would go so far as to say… is the only brainstorming that REALLY matters.

Why? Because the world is FULL of people who can have fun being motivated about new (untested, assumption ridden) ideas on a napkin. Sure, that has it’s place in any entrepreneurial endeavor but it’s a very small place. Excessive “new idea brainstorming” quickly becomes masturbatory.

I don’t think there is any need to add Bach to that kind of brainstorming – because everyone is already good at it. Don’t fix what isn’t broke.

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Marc September 10, 2013 at 1:36 pm

This is fascinating Peter, thanks… just one comment, though:
If gamma rhythms are what are slowing us down, the Hulk is the superhero analogy you’re looking for, not Thor… and given the size of his brainpower originally, maybe Marvel was onto something.

We’ve got to relax and get back to our inner Dr. Banner, and let the monster go.

lol

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Peter Shallard September 10, 2013 at 1:57 pm

haHA! Good point my friend. Good point.

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marcos October 31, 2013 at 1:36 am

See this:

” meditation is the best thing, ever. As a cientist i have been long years living a real brain storm. So i became anxios, nervous, angry. Those years i would become so angry that i just destroy everything around me. it is just like a second personality an agressive animal. Meditation made me control this. It will be with me for ever!”
(By bruce banner, survivor cientist from a gamma radiaton acident)

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Ali Davies September 10, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Always knew my gut feel to spend more time at the beach was spot on. Now I have the science to back it up. Thanks.

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Peter Shallard September 12, 2013 at 8:04 am

If the beach does the right thing to your brain, get there!

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Naomi Niles September 11, 2013 at 5:24 pm

This confirms my personal experience. However, I always thought it was just me, particularly because I’m an introvert. I have to do quite a bit of whiteboard brainstorming for UX work and the tough thing is that I personally need time to brew things awhile and the best ideas come after the session, after everyone else already seems to feel satisfied with the decisions made in-session.

So…now I have a place to back me up, thank you!

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Peter Shallard September 12, 2013 at 8:05 am

Hey Naomi! Schedule shorter sessions with more punctuating breaks to take advantage of this effect.

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Mike Turco September 11, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Hi Peter,

You kind of caught me by surprise! (Although I do agree with what you’re saying.) I used to facilitate brainstorming sessions at Mattel Toys, twenty or so years ago. So when I think about brainstorming, I think about structure.

Poster Boarding and the Ishikawa/Fishbone diagram, for example, for groups. I like mindmaps, too, when I’m “brainstorming” on my own. Although the way I’ve always used them is a lot different than what you’d see from Buzon.

I did a brief write-up on “the creative pause” about ten years ago and was able to trace it down online: http://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/business_brainstorming_tools/conversations/messages/27 . Note that the yahoo group in which it was posted is no longer maintained.

Mike

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Peter Shallard September 12, 2013 at 8:09 am

Interesting stuff Mike. I think structure has it’s place, and structureless-ness is important too for creative solutions that leap you way outside of your perceived constraints.

This is perhaps more relevant for entrepreneurs than it is for corporate managers.

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Henri September 12, 2013 at 7:48 am

Nice!

I’ve discovered this through trial and error. For many years, I tried forcing a solution, but then one day, I took a step back and boom, a solution appeared.

So now what I do is focus on something until I reach a point of stuckness or frustration, then I let it go. Usually an answer or solution will hit me in the next few hours or days.

And I can vouch for meditation. It has made a tremendous difference in my life.

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Peter Shallard September 12, 2013 at 9:19 am

This is awesome Henri, you’re totally practicing this right. I love how deliberate it is!

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Sukie Baxter September 15, 2013 at 2:43 am

6. Ride a horse. Horses, unbeknownst to most humans, are phenomenal problem solvers. Must be something about the Baroque rhythm of their hoof beats. Or something.

Great article. Keep ‘em coming!

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Mike Turco September 17, 2013 at 3:40 pm

I came across this piece on huffandpuffington. There’s a slideshow down at the bottom re. meditation and how a number of the big wigs make it a daily hapt. Its worth the two minutes to check out.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/16/happiness-habits-of-exuberant-human-beings_n_3909772.html

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marcos October 31, 2013 at 1:16 am

I have lot to talk about meditation and brainstorming so i ll simplify:
All we do, even suicide, is someway to improve our well been and happyness.
All society ask is someway related to sucess. But the way we see sucess make hapyness almost impossibe.
so if we have an peacefull ocean, so calm, we can see what is inside. If you have a storm it will lead ups in waves and downs in rocks it is efemerus, fast, time counted happyness.
We cannot meditate 12 h and live life 3 hours (living like a monk) and also we cannot depend on circunstances (living on a hightech tower and you only see window to jump).
i am in the middle but if i brainstorm i will meditate as soon as possible.

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Les December 18, 2013 at 2:58 pm

Hi Peter, as both a musician and visual artist I would like to share some further insights I’ve discovered for everyone. The arts is a brilliant way to channel your emotions, expressing them, exploring them and to an extent turning them into something quite remarkable. I learned that once emotions are expressed first it opens up a clear pathway in the mind, a rather tranquil experience. Its really setting oneself up in a creative state of flow, but often ideas to solutions come forth in the abstract which is another problem to be solved . With this understanding, I asked myself how I could replicate the process outside of music and outside my head of getting into a resourceful state of flow that brought forth concrete solutions. Starting at the level of emotional expression I experimented with writing how I feel, talking to others how I feel, collaborating on problem solving, exercise, meditation and a few others. I found the answer in creating a dialogue with myself through a series of questions, like a self facilitation process. I’ll start by asking “what thing I what I love to do right now If environment and finance where not an issue” after I answer which is usually to go somewhere abroad with amazing beaches and travel round the island discovering new things, then I’ll ask “what work would I like to focus on in this new environment” What I’ve done here is generated a new state by imagining where I would love to be and then I build the idea of work into it. In that new state, I’ll then ask myself “in the environment I’m in right now, what do I want to do” I always answer this with “I don’t know” then I’ll ask “when I don’t know what to do, what do I do” this is the turning point where I start getting resourceful, eventually through the dialogue I’ll work it down to revealing the real problems that were hidden underneath the perceived problem to solve. I find that once I go through these 10min dialogues I get clarity, my resourcefulness skyrockets and I have a profound solution. In the past, solutions could take weeks or at worst months, this way ….10mins to power. Waiting for eureka moments no longer necessary.

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