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Thursday
Sep232010

"Going Out of Your Mind"

I was listening recently to a TEDtalk where the person who had done research on the subject of happiness, creativity and human fulfillment shared an interesting piece of his findings: The human brain can only take in about 110 bits of information/second. Only? That still sounds like a lot to me.  He went on further to say that if we really want to understand what is said or being presented to us, the number goes down to 60 bits of information/second.

Now imagine that you're trying to work a problem through. You're sitting in your office, trying to come up with a solution, writing up a plan that you have to deliver to the board of directors, etc.  Phone rings and someone has a problem they need your input on. You hang up and try to get back to where you were. Someone knocks on your door and discusses something else. More information taking up prime RAM in your working memory. The truth about our brains is that we actually have a shockingly short amount of time each day (about 1-2 hours) to focus enough do the very analytical heavy lifting performed by the prefrontal cortex. You have all sorts of incoming information that is battling for a piece of this real estate. It tires easily. So you sit there and you realize, you're stuck. You keep looping back through the same thoughts or you don't have any good thoughts at all that propel you forward. Then, as deadlines approach and you still have nothing, something else begins to happen in your brain that works against you...a triggered threat response which releases chemicals like cortisol. This interloper begins to wash over your brain and your ability to learn as well as solve complex problems starts to take a nose-dive. It is scientifically known in neuroscience circles that intuition and low-level cognition are involved in complex problem-solving and innovation. Focus too much in the conscious areas and you are "over-thinking" and going nowhere fast which again amps up your cortisol. There's only one thing to do: Get out of your head.

When I get calls from people who are just so flustered and frustrated with all the plates they have spinning and all the information and tasks they have to deal with, they'll often say to me, "I'm going out of my mind here!" To which I reply, "Good. Keep going." The best way to lower the cortisol, activate the dopamine (good chemical associated with pleasure and one of the chemicals that helps with problem solving) is to stop overtaxing the conscious brain activity. The idea here is to lower the neural activity that's working against us. The best way to do this is to do something novel, creative, physical or meditative. Anything to get out of our prefrontal cortex and into other areas of our brain and subconscious. Studies indicate that we solve 60% of the problems we face without knowing how we solved them. We claim, "it just came to me." Often answers and solutions come to us after a good sleep, physical exercise, engaging in artistic expression or observation or even meditation. The unconscious is a powerful ally. It accesses various areas of our brain and memory and pieces things together in a way that bubbles up to our conscious and that's how we have our Aha! moments. As it turns out, very few of our problems get resolved in our prefrontal cortex.

So, what can you do as a leader to get through problem solving yourself and with your team? Is your office building on expansive property, close to a park, a museum? One exercise is to go to a museum and find a painting or sculpture and just observe it and notice what you're observing, feeling, experiencing. Don't be surprised if it connects to your issue and ideas start to flow. Play a game, take a walk in a park. The point is get yourself and your team out of the office and out of your minds. You will engage your people and their minds in a very powerful way that may just shift the way you think about thinking!

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