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The Brain Science Of Why Stepping Away Increases Creativity



Drawing of the brain

We’ve all had the experience: You’re trying to solve a problem or come up with a new idea. You’ve been sitting at your desk, or discussing it in meetings, but you haven’t come up with a solution or the right idea. Then you step away — go for a walk, go to lunch, weed the garden, wash the dishes, or go to sleep. And then, suddenly you get an “a ha” moment and the answer or new idea comes to you in a flash. Why does that happen?

It has to do with how your brain works. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is in the front of your head (think forehead). The role of the PFC (among many things)  is to concentrate on the task at hand, as well as to go searching for existing information you have stored in memory, and combine it with other existing information you have stored. It is this searching and combining of the PFC that allows you to solve problems and come up with new and novel ideas. Here’s the rub — If you keep your PFC too focused on the “task at hand” then it can’t go searching for interesting combinations of information you have stored in memory. When you take a break (the walk, the garden, the shower, the dishes) then your PFC is freed up to go searching and combining. So if you need to solve a problem or want a new idea, let your PFC know what you want to solve and then take a step away and take a break!

What do you think? Have you experienced the power of stepping away?

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5 responses to “The Brain Science Of Why Stepping Away Increases Creativity”

  1. Karin Avatar

    Absolutely agree! I find myself much more productive (and creative) when I go for a run/walk during the day or when I have a complex problem to work on.

    I always ‘sleep on’ something if it is complex or important and wake up with the answer, leaving me much more confident in my decision.

    We apply this in the work environment where it is not always so easy to get away and take a break by playing ‘serious’ games. The purpose is to try to engage your right brain a bit more by visualising data in colors and pictures, as well as ensuring that people have to get up and walk around in the room.

    I believe ideas only come through movement.

  2. Tom Wilson-copp Avatar

    Nice post. Defiantly have experienced the benefits of ‘stepping away’. I think because a lot of my ‘creative’ work time is spent crunched over a screen or desk – stepping way creates a change in my physiology and change in focus.

  3. Libby Avatar

    I have most definitely experienced this (actually just yesterday). My problem is I’m stubborn so by walking away I sometimes think I’m conceding defeat. After a good sleep I finally solved a problem where I thought I was just missing something obvious. Turns out that’s exactly what happened but by pressing on I couldn’t make the connection. I will remember to do that more often I think. Wonderful article.

  4. herb wiggins Avatar

    This is similar to Arthur Koestler’s “Reculer pour mieux sauter.” Fall back to leap ahead. One thing many have found about research, is that if we narrow our focus too much, we can’t make progress. But if we branch out, we find more, a lot more. I recall this rule in genealogy. If you do work for someone else, you will likely make a breakthrough on your own family. It sounds paradoxical, but it’s often true. Also, when we take walks, it’s more than just “freeing” up the mind. We are getting more inputs from all we sense around us, and this can trigger new memories, new ideas, and so forth. Very often if I write an article, and then sit on it a while, I’ll find a LOT more worthwhile material to write in it. New insights come. We cannot see everything at the same time. Giving it time helps. Time can be a tool, not necessarily an enemy. So yes, step back a while, the insights will come in time.
    Herb Wiggins, ret. clinical neurosciences

  5. Gary Avatar

    Definitely agree in terms of recalling information etc that is already present in your brain somewhere.
    The bit I don’t understand however, is its role in the creative process, ie stepping out of an immersive/research process for a while – only to find that your subconscious has ‘created’ something completely unique while you weren’t looking. I can remember this happening several times in art school – after days or weeks exploring some idea or issue with (importantly) a specific focus on or goal to ‘produce’ something at the end, an answer would emerge from somewhere, presenting itself in a more-or-less finished state. I guess that it may just be a process of assembling all of the components that I had been exploring individually into something that somehow ‘fits’ the required parameters.
    In other words, this particular brain function may just be an example of our evolved need to come up with creative answers to external threats in order to survive. And I’m sure that tasks set by teachers could quite easily be seen as external threats!

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