Science Says: The Most Surefire Method for Producing Brilliant Ideas

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Do you find yourself running low on ideas for new product designs, marketing strategies, website content?

Do you scramble to come up with each “new thing,” worried that your well is running dry with each one?

Good news! It’s not. Really.

But you just might be doing something to hinder your ideation process right now. (It’s kind of a delicate flower, you know? But more on that in a moment.)

It’s normal to think that ideas, or “insights,” come to us only when the stars align. That there’s no consistency to it; it’s never a repeatable event. But if you’re like most people, you’re wrong.

To quote an academic paper by neuroscientist Dr. Mark Beeman, published in 2009 by Current Directions in Psychological Science:

A sudden comprehension that solves a problem, reinterprets a situation, explains a joke, or resolves an ambiguous percept is called an insight (i.e., the “Aha! moment”)…

A series of studies have used electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the neural correlates of the “Aha! moment” and its antecedents. Although the experience of insight is sudden and can seem disconnected from the immediately preceding thought, these studies show that insight is the culmination of a series of brain states and processes operating at different time scales. [Clarification] of these precursors suggests interventional opportunities for the facilitation of insight.

In layman’s terms, we know how insights happen! And by being mindful of the steps I’m about to outline below, you can learn to facilitate more of your own.

(Note that these three steps are an adaptation of author David Rock’s ARIA model. For our purposes, I’ve left off the “I” and “A” of David’s acronym and added in a clearer-cut starting point.)

1. Know what outcome you’re looking for

Science Says: The Most Surefire Method for Producing Brilliant Ideas

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The ability to deliberately produce insights hinges on something called an impasse. That is, a mental block, or a problem that needs solving.

So first, identify an outcome you’d like to achieve. “I need more creative ideas!” is not going to work here. Rather, do you need creative ideas for how to market X product to Y target customer this upcoming holiday season (that will help you stand out amidst steep competition)?

2. Focus… loosely

Science Says: The Most Surefire Method for Producing Brilliant Ideas

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Once there’s no ambiguity about what you want to accomplish, the next step is to focus on this problem… but not too hard.

The key here is to:

  • Think about the problem in “big picture” mode, without any of the fine details, so it isn’t overwhelming. If it helps, think about how you’d describe the problem in a single phrase, then keep just that much of it in your consciousness. For instance: “Marketing X product at Christmastime.”
  • Relax!! Take a walk. Or a shower. Let yourself even so much as drift into kind of a dreamy state as you entertain thoughts about your problem. Point is, if you feel anxious and up-tight, it won’t work.

3. Think about your thinking

Science Says: The Most Surefire Method for Producing Brilliant Ideas

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As you dreamily hold this problem in your mind, notice when you’re getting stuck in a loop, and gently intervene.

Let’s say I’m thinking about “Marketing X product at Christmastime.” And I get stuck on ideas involving advertising campaigns– Facebook ads, Twitter ads, blog ads. I’m just running through all the things I could say or show in an ad to grab attention, and I’m not coming up with anything else.

When you feel this way, you must stop and deliberately say to yourself– again, gently, because this is all going down in a state of relaxation: “Hmm. Okay, got it. What else besides advertising? No more advertising ideas for now.”

More advertising thinking will likely arise, but you’ll gently dismiss it. Then you might begin to pull in ideas about special gift bundles or gift wrap options. Or partnering up with other small businesses to do some kind of contest.

Boom!

… And then it happens. You have an idea so brilliant it astounds you. And the drudgery and obligation that’s built up around your business has cleared like clouds.

The high-energy, exhilarating feeling comes from a sudden jump from having super-slow, dreamy brain waves to crazy-fast, focused ones. The fast “gamma” frequency that scientists see happening in the brain at a moment of insight is a sign that many areas of the brain are communicating with each other. Meaning: thoughts and experiences that you haven’t necessarily connected before, have just connected.

Pretty cool, right?

Please do take this exercise for a test drive and let me know what happens!

Also share in the comments below what problem you’re currently racking your brain with. Getting another person’s perspective is often like employing step #3 but without any of the mental work it entails. Plus I’d just love to hear what you’re up to!

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