How Does Your Brain Work on Innovation?

Most of us are familiar with the image of a light bulb signifying the idea that emerges from our brain.  One moment the light is off, the next it is on and a “eureka” moment has occurred.

Your brain and creativity and innovation

Likewise, many of us have also experienced “eureka” moments when we least expect them – in the shower, on a long run, or in the middle of the night.

Neuroscience And The Brain

It turns out that neuroscience is offering some new insights into how the brain works for innovation.  In a recent article in Harvard Business Review (July/August 2013), Adam Watz and Malia Mason describe the brain’s default network.  Neuro-research shows that the brain is never at rest and this default network takes over when we think we are at rest (e.g. sleeping).  As the default network takes over, the brain begins processing internal information rather than just the new, external data coming from the five senses.

That our brains can solve problems while we’re not working specifically on them lends support to free-time thinking policies.  Many firms, including Google (until recently) and 3M allow employees to dedicate 15 or 20% of their time to projects of their own choosing.  This “free-time” is especially important for developing breakthrough innovations, leading to Gmail and Adwords at Google and Post-It notes at 3M, for example.

However, forcing brain detachment is tough in today’s technology-driven environment.  Encouraging innovation via the brain’s default network can be assisted by turning off distractions – email, calendars, cell phones.  Employers can encourage innovation by removing excess job duties and ensuring employees get away from the office.  Of course, free-time thinking also benefits the creative activities stimulated by the brain’s default network as well.

Using our brain’s default network can kindle introspective thought and visioning, both of which can jump-start innovation.

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6 thoughts on “How Does Your Brain Work on Innovation?

  1. The eurekas moments sometimes if you dont write it right the way on paper you will forget with the years and also is something you have to implement inmediately. It is like an electricy magnetic moment in your life. Amazing. And I prefer to be alone in that moment to have my mind clear and the idea correct.

  2. I’m glad there’s some scientific evidence that the whole “2 heads are better than one” thinking and that group activities automatically generate more/better solutions to a problem isn’t always right.
    there’s a time and place for teams, and there’s a time and place for working alone. By not recognizing this we drastically reduce our potential.

    • In my experience, its the combined benefit of individual and team/group ideas that are needed. A focus on only one approach (e.g. group/team only) reduced the likelihood that you will find the next great idea.

  3. Interesting and it makes sense, I’ve noticed that “sleeping on” difficult problems sometimes helps in solving them, also our state of mind when we go to bed impacts our dreams and our state of mind in the morning.

    • I tend to get the best ideas as the strangest times (e.g. driving the car, in the middle of a movie, etc). Its usually after I’ve walked away from a problem and let my subconscious churn on it for a few days …