Chance favors only the prepared mind.
—Louis Pasteur

The creative process can seem mysterious—almost magical at times. That moment when we “get it”—when we have an “aha” that leads us to an outcome we didn’t see, breaks an impasse, and moves us forward—seems especially elusive. In fact, there’s quite a bit we know about what happens in our brains during the creative process, thanks to well over a decade of research by cognitive neuroscientists. And, there’s a lot we know specifically about that moment of insight. This knowledge about creativity and insight can help us to work and lead in ways that create the conditions for greater creativity and innovation.

The two neuroscientists known for their work on creativity and insight are Mark Jung-Beeman, of Northwestern and John Kounios of Drexel University. They were both interviewed in 2008 for an article titled “The Eureka Hunt” in The New Yorker magazine. I read it then and began to apply some of what I am sharing in this post—and can attest that it made a real difference for me.

Jung-Beeman and Kounios’ work is further explored in a second article, published in 2014 in the same magazine. In 2015, Jung-Beeman and Kounios published The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain.

How We Solve Problems

Jung-Beeman and Kounios found that when we are solving problems, we apply one of two strategies: analytic or insight. While we are not typically conscious of using these different strategies, once we think about it, it’s easy to see them as distinct from one another. When we’re using an analytic strategy, we systematically evaluate possible paths from where we are now to where we want to be. Insight, on the other hand, happens when a solution arises suddenly—often after an impasse, and seems obviously and immediately correct. This moment of insight, the “aha” moment, feels good to us—though we’re not sure exactly where it came from.

The creative process requires both types of thinking. As Maria Konnikovka argues in The New Yorker:

“In general, creativity seems to come when insight is combined with the hard work of analytical processing. A person can’t discover the theory of general relativity in a dream if he isn’t a physicist who’s done some heavy thinking about the subject beforehand.”

The Brain During Insight

Jung-Beeman and Kounios set out to understand what happens in the brain in the moments preceding an insight. They conducted a series of experiments using a type of word puzzle that can be solved through either insight or analytical problem-solving. Subjects in the experiment were given groups of words like “pine,” “crab,” and “sauce,” and instructed to look for the concept or word that links them. Sometimes people got to the result through testing lots of scenarios, at other times by just “seeing” the right answer (in this case, it’s “apple”). Jung-Beeman compared the brains of people in these two distinct problem-solving modes.

The experiments revealed that the various sensory areas of the brain, such as the visual cortex, go silent as the brain suppresses potential distractions before the moment of insight, becoming less aware of the external environment. Then, at that moment, there is a burst of brain activity as a new neural network is formed. A small fold of tissue on the surface of the right temporal lobe becomes unusually active. This is also the part of the brain that is activated when making sense of complex language that would also require the brain to make a set of distant and unprecedented connections.

There’s No Forcing Insight

Understanding how the brain works during insights gives us clues for creating the conditions for insight. One important finding, that probably makes sense to you from your own experience, is that insight can’t be forced. We know that attempting to force an insight can prevent the insight. According to Jonathan Schoole, focusing exclusively on the problem, minimizing distractions, and attending only to the relevant details of the problem might prevent creative thinking. When we are focused, we see the trees but not the forest. When we allow for “mind-wandering” we are more likely to see the forests, which is needed for insight to happen. This is precisely why insights often occur while showering or doing any undemanding activity that directs one’s mind away from the problem itself.

One of my favorite stories in the 2008 New Yorker article was told by Kounios about an expert Zen meditator who took part in one of the insight experiments. At first, the meditator couldn’t solve any of the insight problems:

“This Zen guy went through thirty or so of the verbal puzzles and just drew a blank,” Kounios said. “He was used to being very focused, but you can’t solve these problems if you’re too focused.” Then, just as he was about to give up, he started solving one puzzle after another, until, by the end of the experiment, he was getting them all right…Kounios believes that the dramatic improvement of the Zen meditator came from his paradoxical ability to focus on not being focused, so that he could pay attention to those remote associations in the right hemisphere. “He had the cognitive control to let go,” Kounios said. “He became an insight machine.”

We also know from the research that the benefits of allowing our minds to wander primarily helps us when we are looking for new solutions to problems we’ve already been working on. Practically that means that if we’ve been working on a problem analytically, walking away from it and consciously letting the mind wander (focusing on not being focused) can increase the likelihood of having an insight.

And, even though mind-wandering doesn’t necessarily help us if we are tackling a brand new problem, there is evidence that people who allow time for mind-wandering do better, overall, on new problems as well.

The key take-away so far is that taking time out—walking away when we’re stuck, and allowing others (our team members, for example) to do something undemanding or relaxing—is a great way to improve the chances of a breakthrough. We also know that rest makes a big difference, so “sleeping on it” is a great idea—especially if we allow enough time for adequate sleep.

Insight and Emotion

Another area of research is the relationship of emotion and mood on insight. Perhaps unsurprisingly, positive mood is associated with insight, and anxiety has a negative impact on our ability to have breakthroughs. It’s worth noting, however, that anxiety has no impact on analytic problem-solving—so if we are anxious, we’re better off taking on tasks that involve critiquing, refining, or analyzing, rather than struggling to create new insight. Another benefit of positive mood is greater cognitive flexibility. In other words, positive moods allow us to move more quickly between problem-solving strategies, and to find the best strategy for a given situation.

These findings about mood are especially important for leaders. If we want to build more creative teams and organizations—mood matters. Engaged and happy employees are much more likely to be creative employees. So, when things are challenging and anxiety and negativity increase—even as the importance of creativity and innovation also grows—addressing that negativity and anxiety is critical. Anxious, fearful environments are unlikely to produce creative results.

The Rush of Insight

The moment of insight is positive and energizing—it feels good. The energy of that moment of insight can propel us to action. And, while it might seem obvious, it’s worth noting that people experience the adrenaline-like rush of insight only if they make the new connections themselves. My insights don’t create an adrenalin rush in anyone else!

Part of our job as leaders (especially in a coaching role), is to guide others towards insight. Giving people the space to think, asking broad, open questions, encouraging rather than punishing, and allowing time for mind-wandering, are all ways to do this. Michael Bungay Stanier’s wonderful book, The Coaching Habit, is a great guide for creating the conditions for insight through coaching.

The bottom line is that if we support our teams in creating their own insights, they are far more likely to be energized about their work—and to embrace new challenges.

Putting it All Together

My hope is that what you’ve learned here can help you to create the conditions for insight—both for yourself and for your teams. In closing, here are a few key points to remember:

  • Experiences that allow people to have fun, get sidetracked and remove themselves from the challenge at hand can help people achieve insights. Allowing time for this in the workplace requires a mindset shift for most organizations. Even the ones that have built the environments that create the space for these experiences don’t always allow the time for them.
  • Leadership practices that support and encourage higher levels of employee engagement are much more likely to result in insight-conducive environments. Negative moods and highly stressful climates mitigate against insight and creativity.
  • The moment of insight is a positive and energizing experience. We are motivated to act on our own ideas. Coaching that encourages people to have their own insights is a powerful way to increase organizational commitment.

What are the problems you are currently facing with your team? Put them out of your mind, put on some music that lifts your mood, and get out for a walk. You might find the insight you’ve been waiting for is just around the corner.