Rotman Magazine

Stuck on a problem? Then take a break

Special to The Globe and Mail

(Konstantin Grebnev/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

This is a condensed version of an article that appeared in Rotman Magazine, published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

The Neuroscience of Change: How to Reset Your Brain

While it might sound counterintuitive, taking breaks is an essential component of optimal thinking.

In the late Spring of 1905, an utterly frustrated 26-year old Albert Einstein poured his heart out to his friend and fellow Swiss Patent Office worker, Michele Besso. Einstein revealed the puzzle he had been wrestling with for the last decade: either James Maxwell’s equation or Isaac Newton’s laws had to be wrong, but he couldn’t figure out which was the case. Both were pillars of modern Physics, but in his mind they were completely incompatible.

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Einstein laid out the issue to Besso: the intricacies of Maxwell’s theory about light travelling at a constant speed contradicted Newton’s concept of absolute space and time. He talked for hours, until he once again surrendered to the problem – completely exhausted, both mentally and physically – whereupon he announced his defeat and intent to abandon the quest for a solution entirely.

Melancholy from his failure, Einstein pushed his thoughts to the back of his mind and headed home. Riding in a streetcar, he gazed out at the famous clock tower that dominated the city of Bern. Suppose, he pondered, this streetcar raced away from the clock tower at the speed of light. What would happen? He was suddenly struck with the realization that since light could not catch up to the streetcar, the clock would appear stopped, but his own clock – say, his pocketwatch – in the streetcar would beat normally.

“A storm broke loose in my mind,” he later recalled. “Suddenly, I understood where the key to the problem lay.”

Einstein’s sudden creative insight was not an exception.

Friedrich von Stradonitz discovered the round shape of the benzene ring after dreaming of a snake biting its tail; Philo Farnsworth was plowing a field as a teenager when the idea for projecting moving images line by line came to him as he gazed out over the even rows, prompting him to use his knowledge of electrons and vacuum tubes and invent the first electronic television; Richard Phillips Feynman was watching someone throw a plate in the air in Cornell University’s cafeteria when the wobbling plate with its red school medallion spinning around sparked the Nobel Prize-winning idea for quantum Electrodynamics; Kary Mullis, another Nobel winner, was driving along a California highway when the chemistry behind the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) came to him; Author J.K. Rowling was travelling on a train between Manchester and London in 1990, thinking about the plot of an adult storyline when the character of Harry Potter flashed in her mind and she was able to work out all the details of a children’s story without so much as a pen and paper; and Shell Oil engineer Jaap Van Ballegooijen’s idea for a snake oil drill came in 2005 as he was watching his son Max turn his bendy straw upside down to better sip around the sides and bottom of his malt glass.

These sudden insights have one thing in common: they all came at strange times and places, and they happened after an intense, prolonged struggle with a particular problem, followed by a break. It is the broken pattern that makes us sit up, take notice, and pay attention. In short, we think differently – and more resourcefully – when a break occurs.

There are two kinds of breaks: those you make, and those you take.

Making a Break

The mysteries of the mind are many and complex. Neuroscience, through the magic of technology, is just beginning to unravel some of them, including neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the mind’s ability to change the brain. Yes, you read that correctly: neuroplasticity radically reverses ages of scientific dogma which held that mental experiences result only from physical goings-on in the brain, and we can’t do much about it. But extensive studies confirm that our mental machinations do alter the physical structure of our brain matter. So, when you change your mind, you also change your brain.

I recently made a number of visits to Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a practicing neuropsychiatrist affiliated with UCLA, and author of several books, to learn more.

Dr. Schwartz is an internationally-recognized authority on one of the most prevalent and debilitating patterns in the brain – Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). He has developed a successful behaviour therapy at the UCLA School of Medicine for patients suffering from OCD, called the UCLA Four Steps. Here’s the thing: he doesn’t use drugs to treat patients. Instead, he teaches them to rewire their brain by changing how they think. As he described his four-step method to me, it seemed quite obvious that it could apply to anything we want to change.

Step 1: Relabel.

The first step is to relabel a given thought, feeling, or behaviour as something else. An unwanted thought could be relabelled ‘false message’ or ‘brain glitch.’ This amounts to training yourself to clearly recognize and identify what is real and what isn’t, refusing to be tricked by your own thoughts. You step back and say, “This is just my brain sending me a false message.” For someone with OCD, instead of saying, “I have to check the stove,” they would start saying, “I am having a compulsive urge to check the stove.”

Step 2: Reattribute.

The second step answers the question, “Why do these thoughts keep coming back?” The answer is that the brain is misfiring, stuck in gear, creating mental noise, and sending false messages. In other words, if you understand why you’re getting those old thoughts, eventually you’ll be able to say, “Oh, that’s just a brain glitch.” That raises the natural next question: What can you do about it?

Step 3: Refocus.

The third step is where the toughest work is, because it involves the actual changing of behaviour. Having recognized the problem for what it is and why it’s occurring, you now have to replace the old behaviour with new things to do. This is where the change in brain chemistry occurs, because you are creating new patterns, new mindsets. By refusing to be misled by the old messages, by understanding they aren’t what they tell you they are, your mind is now in charge of your brain.

Step 4: Revalue.

With a consistent way to replace the old behaviour with the new, you begin to see old patterns as simple distractions. You devalue them as being completely worthless. Eventually the old thoughts begin to fade in intensity, the brain works better, and the automatic transmission in the brain begins to start working properly.

“Two very positive things happen,” says Dr. Schwartz. “The first is that you’re happier, because you have control over your behavioural response to your thoughts and feelings. The second is that by doing that, you change the faulty brain chemistry.” Dr. Schwartz confirmed that his methods could be used to create change in any area of business, work or life.

Taking a Break.

In his recent best-selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer refers to the need to take breaks when grappling with difficult problems, writing that, “While it is commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to relentlessly focus, this clenched state of mind comes with a hidden cost: it inhibits the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs. We suppress the very type of brain activity that should be encouraged.”

New research is shedding light on the idea that to be more productive and creative, we need to make break-taking a regular business practice.

At the University of Luebeck in Germany, neuroendocrinologist Ullrich Wagner has demonstrated that the ultimate break – sleep – actually promotes the likelihood of sudden creative insights. In one experiment, he gave volunteers some Mensa-style number sequences to solve, along with two logical rules to use in manipulating them to find the pattern. But there was a single, simpler, ‘hidden’ rule that they might discover as they worked through the sequences. The subjects were allowed to practice several times with the given rules, and were then told to take a break. Some took naps, some didn’t.

Upon returning to the experiment to continue doing more problems, those who had taken a nap found the hidden rule much more often than those who hadn’t. Wagner believes that information is consolidated by a process taking place in the hippocampus – the part of the brain that bundles and repackages memories and fragments of information from other areas and sends them to the frontal cortex to be synthesized into higher-level thought – during sleep, enabling the brain to clear itself and, in effect, reset, all the while forming new connections and associations. It is this process that is the foundation for creativity. The result is new insight and the aha! feeling of the so-called Eureka moment.

Break-Taking Goes Mainstream

According to a 2009 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 70 per cent of employees work beyond scheduled time – staying late, taking work home, working weekends – and over half cite “self-imposed pressure” as the reason.

There are at least two reasons why we don’t take time out more often. The first is fear. Stepping away from our work is counterintuitive; it somehow feels wrong, like pre-emptive surrender. It’s scary to ease up, because we think may lose our momentum, and that if we take our eye off the problem even for a second, we may lose the energy we’ve invested. But the result is that we get anxious when the solution to whatever we’re struggling with remains elusive, and it’s easy to start doubting our creativity, abilities and even our intelligence.

This is our cue to take a break. But too often, we still don’t, for a second reason: we don’t know how. We haven’t practiced enough to develop a reliable and comfortable way to refresh our mental resources. There are a variety of ways to do this, but three are especially effective.

1. Meditation

Executives at GE, 3M, Bloomberg Media, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Salesforce.com do it. Google teaches a course in it at Google University. Ford chairman William Ford does it, as do former corporate chiefs Bill George of Medtronic and Bob Shapiro of Monsanto. Phil Jackson and Tiger Woods do it. Oracle chief Larry Ellison does it and asks his executives to do it several times a day. Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels and an author of Emotional Equations does it. Thomas Edison did it – mindful meditation.

New research from the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging suggests that people who meditate show more gray matter in certain regions of the brain, stronger connections between brain regions, and less age-related brain atrophy. In other words, meditation might make your brain bigger, faster and younger.

2. Pulsing

Pulsing entails working in 90-minute cycles, separated by short breaks. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, renowned for his research and theories on expertise, has pointed out that top performers in fields ranging from music to science to sports tend to work in approximately 90-minute cycles and then take a break. After each period, go for a walk, change the scene, exercise, doodle, listen to music that relaxes you, shower (if that’s an option) – anything that has a renewal effect and gives you the feeling of a ‘second wind’ – even if you think you don’t need it.

3. Daydreaming walks.

Research confirms the power of this tool. Jonathan Schooler, who has pioneered the study of daydreaming and mind wandering, has shown that people who daydream score higher on creativity tests.

In closing

Neuroscience has now confirmed something that most artists and creatives have long known intuitively: when a well-worn pattern is broken, creativity often emerges. When we need to find far-reaching connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, and when we hit a wall, this is precisely when we need to relax and stop thinking about work.

Countless examples indicate that the answer only arrives when we stop looking for it. As a result, Jonah Lehrer says he never feels guilty for taking long walks in the middle of the day. Nor should you.

Matthew E. May (matthewemay.com) is a creativity coach, innovation strategist and author. His latest book is The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything (McGraw Hill, October 2012).

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