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The Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction Excerpt from The Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction

by Rebecca Costa

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Bring Back the Break
by Rebecca Costa,
Author of The Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction

A great deal of research has been conducted on the benefits of periodically stepping away from a problem in order to look at it from a fresh perspective. One of the interesting aspects of insightful thinking is that people who have experienced sudden breakthroughs all report feeling "stuck" just prior to their "aha!" moment. They bump up against some cognitive barrier that prevents them from making the new connections needed to solve the problem. But once they step away -- relax and temporarily think about something else -- bam! The answer strikes from out of nowhere.

Today, many studies show the important relationship between unstructured "play" and cognition among schoolchildren. In a 1977 study, Saltz, Dixon, and Johnson demonstrated that playtime had a dramatic effect on intelligence tests because it encouraged creativity, vocabulary use, and spontaneous problem-solving. More recent research conducted by Dr. Anthony Pellegrini, psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, and Robyn Holmes of Monmouth University reveals the positive effect recess has on learning: "Children are less attentive to classroom tasks during longer, compared to shorter, seatwork periods."

Pellegrini and Holmes's research reveals that children learn and perform better in school immediately following recess. He also indicates that short periods of concentrated study work better than long periods without breaks. In similar studies, Japan and Taiwan report that instruction is more successful when the learning periods are "relatively short" and "intense" and "there are frequent breaks between these work periods." In fact, in China it has become standard practice to provide unstructured play in the school system every fifty minutes to facilitate concentration and learning in the classroom.

Moreover, the benefits of recess don't just apply to children who are loading content and learning to solve problems. Many studies confirm that the same benefits occur when frequent breaks are scheduled in the workplace, especially when an employee's work requires long periods of focused attention.

So it comes as no surprise that there appears to be a relationship between taking breaks, relaxation, and insightful thinking.

It turns out there's a reason we have some of our best ideas when we wake up in the morning or when we are taking a shower, driving, or just sitting quietly. Often, when we return from a short vacation, problems that once seemed intractable suddenly become solvable. How many times have we felt stuck, then stood up, stretched our legs, and walked away only to come sit back down and discover what we were doing wrong?

Stories such as the spilled can of paint that led to Jackson Pollock's landmark innovation in American abstract art or Nobel physicist Richard Feynman's habit of madly scribbling notes on cocktail napkins while sitting in topless bars all have one thing in common. In each instance, the insightful breakthrough occurred while the person was relaxing and allowing his mind to wander, providing it freedom to make new connections and uncover hidden solutions.

We have discovered that the human brain is much more likely to have a breakthrough when it is producing alpha waves -- the kind of waves that occur when we are meditating. "The relaxation phase is crucial," says cognitive neuroscientist from Northwestern University Dr. Mark Jung-Beeman, noting that some of our best thinking is done while we're half asleep.

According to Dr. Joydeep Bhattacharya, psychologist at Goldsmiths University of London, one of the predictors of insightful thinking is the appearance of alpha waves in the right hemisphere of the brain. These alpha waves allow the human brain to respond to new ideas and information by encouraging the mind to "wander." Thanks to sophisticated measurement devices, Dr. Bhattacharya is now able to predict when insightful thinking will take place, having found that participants solved insight puzzles "several (up to 8) seconds before the behavorial response."

Insight requires the mind to be in a relaxed state and in a good mood. Dr. Karuna Subramaniam of the University of California at San Francisco, along with Kounios, Parrish, and Jung-Beeman, discovered the following: "Participants higher in positive mood solved more problems, and specifically more with insight, compared with participants lower in positive mood. . . . Positive mood alters preparatory activity in the ACC [anterior cingulate cortex], biasing participants to engage in processing conducive to insight solving."

What are of these scientists trying to tell us? We often become our own worst enemy when it comes to deploying insightful thinking.

It's a lot like trying to fall asleep when we know we have a big presentation the next morning. As more time passes and we have less and less time for sleep, the more anxious we become as we try to force  ourselves to relax and sleep. This same sort of conundrum applies to insight. Trying to force ourselves to have an insight doesn't work. In fact, the more we try, the further from a relaxed state we get and the less likely insight is to appear.

Pressure, stress, judgment, negative attitudes, and bad moods all inhibit insightful problem-solving. Because these orientations are within our control, we can increase our capacity to manage complexity by simply relaxing the mind and creating a positive, upbeat mood so insights can be coaxed out of hiding. This may mean taking on complex issues just after resting, yoga, meditation, or a short walk outside. It may mean listening to music, taking a warm bath, or just sitting quietly. Anything we can do to "unwind" and allow the mind to
relax is good for insight.

The above is an excerpt from the book The Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction
by Rebecca Costa. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2010 Rebecca Costa, author of The Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction