Hit a roadblock? Turn your brain off

According to professor Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, more than 50% of workers today do creative work. This means they write, invent, design, draw, colour, frame, code, manage, or somehow tinker with the world and solve complex problems.

Creative people need to put together information in a new way, new means it gets attention, and in business, attention means revenue. Thus, creative people are a big part of the wealth creation machine.

When a creative person reaches a mental road-block, meaning they cannot make a connection they want to make(this can be anything from trying to remember an old teacher’s name, to not being able to decide what name to give your future child, to full-on writer’s block) they experience what is called an impasse in neuroscience. This is something we all experience quite regularly, but it’s especially problematic when you need to be creative.

Impasses are basically when the wrong answers stop the right ones from coming up.

A creative person should learn how to get around impasses.

Insight experience

An insight experience is what you need to get around an impasse, it may not always be a logical solution, but one that (re)combines knowledge you already have, in a completely new way.

It doesn’t matter if you are a designer making your next logo, or a CEO tinkering with new ideas, having an insight will have a huge impact on your success. And the strangest thing about them is that to achieve an insight experience, you need to switch off your brain.

A basic explanation of what is going on in your brain

Your brain has, among many other parts, something called the prefrontal cortex, to put it very briefly, this part of your brain is responsible for complex behaviour, including planning and “predicting” the outcome of everything it can get its hands on. It’s what keeps you up at night when you can’t sleep.

This part of the brain requires tremendous amounts of energy to function(energy you get from food). And there isn’t enough energy available for all parts of the brain to get an equal share. Thus, an overactive prefrontal cortex could be the reason you’re at an impasse!

Leading Neuroscientist Dr. Mark Beeman, an associate professor at Northwestern University, in Evanstown, Illinois, studied how humans solve cognitive problems. This led to a fascination with the insight experience, in 2004, Beeman, along with John Kounios and others, performed some groundbreaking neuroscience studies to find out what happens in the brain before, during, and after an insight experience.

Quick game:

Find the word that has something to do with the following terms:

  1. Tennis
  2. Strike
  3. Same

The answer is match, you can have a tennis match, you can strike a match, and match and same have similar meanings.

Beeman’s studies found that about 40% of the time people solve this logically, iterating over ideas until something clicks. The other 60% of the time, an insight happens. The insight is characterized by having no logical progression to the solution, you suddenly “know” the answer. Beeman explains, “the solution comes to you suddenly and is surprising, and yet when it comes, you have a great deal of confidence in it. The answer seems obvious once you see it. It also often comes at unusual times, when you’re putting no conscious effort into solving the task at hand, such as whilst driving, taking a shower, or at the gym.

Let’s try again, same exercise, but now the words are:

  1. Pine
  2. Crab
  3. Sauce

Take a mental note of your thought process until you arrive to the solution, did you get to it logically? Did it come to you out of seemingly nowhere? When it came to you, did you immediately know it was correct?

Insights feel obvious and certain, that gives us a clue about what’s happening in the brain when you have one.

Beeman and his team wanted to see if the brain was processing below the level of conscious awareness, and his research supported the theory.

This gives us one possible way to stimulate an insight experience: Go take a walk. Let your subconscious work on solving the problem, thinking too hard about it will require your prefrontal cortex to use up all the energy that would otherwise be available to other parts of the brain responsible for the insight experience.

The answer to the last exercise was “apple”, you can have a pineapple, crab apple, and applesauce.

To show how challenging it can be to break out of a way of thinking, here’s yet another game, it’s so ridiculously obvious once you’re given the answer, but nearly everyone reaches an impasse when faced with it. What do the following letters mean? H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O.

Take your time to figure it out, and make a note of your thought process once again. Did you get stuck? Where? It’s common for people to get stuck at trying to solve it as an acronym(“He Is Just Kindly Laughing”, for example). The real answer is incredibly obvious. They are the letters of the alphabet from H to O, this is something you drink every day, H2O.

This shows how easy it is to get stuck in a perfectly valid method of thinking, and completely push away other methods that could have shown you the answer.

Your brain decides that it wants to make connections related to acronyms, and it works really hard to do that, making it impossible for other connections to be made.

Turning your brain off

When you take a break from a problem, you shift your thoughts to something else, meaning your conscious way of thinking slows down a little. This works even just for a few moments, next time you’re presented with a problem, try doing something else even if just for a few seconds, take your mind off of the problem, re-tie your shoes, stretch, or go to the water cooler. And then come back to the problem and see how it goes. You will probably notice how the overactive prefontal cortex was keeping you from finding the answer. Slow it down, and you get a solution.

This also explains why others can often see a solution that you can’t, they started with a different train of thought, they weren’t locked into your way of thinking.

Sometimes knowing a problem too well may just mean you’re the worst person to fix it.


Your brain is complex, and different parts of it compete for a limited supply of energy, by slowing down active thoughts you allow your subconscious to work silently on problems, providing you with insights or “Aha!” moments.

Next time you face a hard problem, slow down your active thinking by switching to a different, menial task, eg: tie your shoes, stretch, as long you’re not actively thinking about the problem at hand.(and please don’t open your smartphone to inundate your brain with dozens more problems and further overload your thoughts)

This post was based on scene 6 of the book “Your Brain At Work” by David Rock, I recommend reading it to understand much more about how your most important tool works.

Strong opinions, loosely held.

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