Secret to problem solving: don't think too hard

Secret to problem solving: don't think too hard

Wednesday, 6 February 2008
Cosmos Online

Open your mind: Relax a bit, and don't think too hard, and you'll hit upon the solutions to problems more quickly, say researchers.

SYDNEY: A study of brain waves has revealed that too much concentration might be a bad thing when it comes to reaching that "eureka!" moment.

"Our findings suggest that it is actually better to tackle problems with an open mind," said brain scientist Joydeep Bhattacharya, of the Austrian Academy of Sciences' Commission for Scientific Visualisation in Vienna.

Bhattacharya's study in the journal PLoS One details for the first time the neurological mechanics at work as our brains proceed through the stages of solving a problem, encountering mental blockages and experiencing sudden flashes of insight along the way.

Train of thought

Often when solving a problem, we are able to follow a single solution path smoothly through to the correct answer.

But sometimes our sleuthing process may hit a "mental impasse" – a mental block stymieing further progress. Only after a restructuring of information will the individual then experience a "moment of insight", says the study, which is a sudden, unpredictable awareness of the solution.

By studying the EEG brain activity of 21 people working on word association problems, Bhattacharya and co-author Simone Sandkühler showed that high frequency brain waves are associated with these mental impasses. The waves they detected, called gamma waves, are typically associated with states of focussed attention.

At the point of mental impasse, the test subjects were ultimately offered a clue and, curiously, the researchers found that the higher their gamma wave frequency (and therefore focus), the less likely they were to hit upon the solution.

Furthermore, the researchers found that if the participants' brain waves registered the lower frequency alpha signature – associated with a more relaxed, less-focussed state of mind – they could make better use of the clue and hit upon the "eureka!" moment much more speedily.

Too much information

"The brain seems to be more receptive when it is in a less focussed state," said Bhattacharya. Too much focus not only causes a mental block, but also prevents the processing of additional information, such as a clue, he added.

The findings are important, commented David Liley, of Swinburne University's Brain Sciences Institute in Victoria, Australia.

This understanding of what the brain is doing as it approaches and proceeds through mental blocks and breakthroughs may be an important future tool for optimising our mental processing, he said. "Insightful problem solving is generally associated with more lateral and creative solutions to problems, so being able to enhance this ability would clearly be of great importance."

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