Your brain is deaf, dumb and blind. It has no direct connection to the world. Inside of your head, it’s always dark, wet and 98.6°.
Because of the invention of MRI and CAT scans we now can learn more about the internal workings of the brain than ever before in human history. Scientists have learned that we can actually grow new connections, called synapses, between our brain cells. All along we thought our brain just lost cells and then we died!
Now scientists have learned that thinking through intellectual challenges actually grows the brain which is part of our anthropological heritage.
Dr. Gene Cohen in his book “The Creative Age” points out that we cannot grow new cells. However creative thinking and new endeavors actually help grow existing brain cells larger and enhance the connections between existing cells referred to as axons and dendrites. Those connections are critical to enhancing our ability to think creatively. The bottom line: if you don’t use it you will lose it scientifically.
According to the recent Harvard Business Review article “Your Brain at Work,” by Adam Waytz and Malia Mason, there is a consensus among neuroscientists that your brain is truly never at rest.
They learned that we have an actual default network that continues to function even when our mind is wandering or just “zoning out.” It is referred to as “task negative” because it functions even when we’re not focused on a particular thought.
The default network is responsible for one of the most prized abilities: transcendence. That is the capacity to envision what it’s like to be in a different place, in a different time, in a different person’s head or in a different world altogether. This is unique to humans. During transcendence people detach from the external environment, stop processing external stimuli and real creativity begins. This is groundbreaking stuff.
The authors point out that this discovery leads to the scientific conclusion that having unfocused free time is an important, and underutilized factor, in breakthrough innovations.
We can now understand the purpose of Google’s “20 percent time” policy under which company engineers get a day a week to work on whatever they want. While these programs are an excellent start, all of us agree that really detaching from the work environment is a near physical and mental impossibility.
Intuitively, we often admit that some of our best ideas come when we’re in the shower or out for a walk or maybe even on a golf course. Time and time again some of our best solutions have come when we’ve walked away from a problem. Authors who get stuck in the middle of writing a novel tell us they often “put it on the shelf” when they develop a creative block.
All of this is easier to say than to actually accomplish as we compete daily to ensure the success of our businesses. But the science is no longer in dispute. Our default network is functioning and does need the right conditions to drive innovative thoughts and stimulate creative thinking.
So how are you supposed to find time to isolate yourselves or our employees? You can begin by building quiet times into your own daily schedule every day. It may mean solo daily walking or sitting quietly in the dark room without interruption. It’s important to you not only in your business life but in your personal life as well.
Companies should think through a strategy. Ideas could include:
- Establish a “creativity room” which is dedicated to staff brainstorming sessions.
- If you’re a manufacturing company, you could follow the lead of the Detroit Tech shop. They established a facility stocked with laser cutters, 3D printers and CNC machine tools. Anyone with manufacturing skills could try out their ideas. Ford Motor Company is allowing some of its engineers to use the facility.
- If you’re in the software space you could do a one-day Hack-a-Thon. Define the software problem that needs to be solved and award a prize for the employee who can come up with a solution during an eight hour session.
- Schedule downtime when employees have no electronic access to e-mails, telephones, calendars etc.
- Send employees on missions such as visits to libraries or other sources of inspiration and require them to share the insights they come up with on their return.
- Encourage people to sleep. You heard that right! Everyone should get their sleep. Studies show that your brain processes ideas while sleeping as well as regenerates itself. Sleeping is critical to the innovative and creative process.
There are no easy solutions and the science is relatively new. But the evidence is clear. Use your newly acquired quiet time to think through building “innovative time” into the daily schedule of your employees as well as in your own personal life. It will accelerate the new ideas and innovative thinking you and your company needs to survive and prosper. n
Dan Steininger is president of Biz Starts Milwaukee; and president of Steininger and Associates that focuses on driving innovation for existing companies. He can be reached at Dan@BizStartsMilwaukee.com