When we’re stuck in busyness, our brains can’t produce new insights, creative ideas or a deeper understanding of ourselves and those around us. We can change this.

The busyness problem

Ever have a day (or week) when you feel like you’re spinning your wheels? You’ve got lots to do (as usual), so you keep plugging away, but at the end of the day, you begin wonder what the heck you’ve really accomplished.

I think we’ve all been there. Because we’ve got so much on our plates these days, and our culture puts a high value on productivity, we can spend hours or days just going from one problem or task to the next, seemingly without stopping until the head hits the pillow.

This kind of busyness is rarely satisfying. We might tick off boxes, but if we’re honest, it feels like all we accomplished was busy work when we could really use some new ideas or insights, creative thinking, and inspiration.

From the brain’s perspective, it makes total sense. Constantly ticking off our to-do lists requires the brain to be in control of our thoughts and behavior, but this control inhibits the brain’s ability to access new ideas and develop deeper understandings.

The good news is that when you know what’s happening in your brain, you can help it access the greater insights and understanding you seek.

Networks of attention

So what is happening in the brain when we’re spinning our cognitive wheels? The short answer is that we’re over-using one system or network in the brain and under-using another.

Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain has distinct networks for different types of attention. See if you can guess which network is involved in spinning our wheels, and which one can get us out of the rut:

(1) the central executive network (CEN) is like the brain’s cognitive control system, directing thought, emotion and behavior (e.g., focusing on tasks or planning). Think: planning and packing for a trip.

(2) the default mode network (DMN) is responsible for relaxed wakefulness, diffuse thinking or mind-wandering. Think: sitting at the beach, gazing out over the water.

Got your answer…?

When we are stuck in an endless cycle of doing, solving and planning mode, when we have lost insight and creativity, we’re over-engaging the central executive network. And the solution? You got it: engage the default mode network more. (Though we still need the CEN to assess our novel ideas and insights, we first need the DMN to access them.)

The neuroscience of not trying

More and more research is being done on the default mode network (DMN). Neuroscientist Sharon Thompson-Schill refers to the brain’s system of “cognition without control.”

When we think outside the box, let go of typical rules and expectations, we have loosened the normal controls on our thoughts and behavior; we are using the DMN.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you’re trying to think of something or solve a problem, you come up blank; but later, when you’re doing something mundane like taking a shower and not trying to think of anything in particular, suddenly an answer pops to mind? That’s your DMN.

When we’re not trying to control our thoughts or behavior, our minds can wander and access insights and novel thinking that are unavailable through our CEN or cognitive controls.

Consider this study from Thompson-Schill and Professor Evangelia Chrysikou. People were shown photos of ordinary objects and asked to report either a common or uncommon use for each object as their brains were monitored for activity. Those who came up with more unusual uses (e.g., a tissue could be package stuffing) had less activity in the prefrontal cortex where cognitive control lies, and greater activity in the posterior brain regions involved in mind wandering. (For those that reported usual uses, the reverse brain pattern appeared.)

Relaxed thinking or “cognition without control” is also useful for developing new understanding and social cognition. The DMN has been linked to self-understanding, identity, and understanding others. When we allow our minds to wander, we often replay events and conversations to develop greater understanding.

Loosening cognitive controls lets the mind churn through internal thoughts that help us make sense of ourselves and others. Researchers have even argued that constant distractions such as social media which inhibit the DMN have a negative effect on the development of identity and social cognition, especially for today’s youth.

The stress factor

One of the problems when we’re not accessing the DMN can be stress. When we’re stressed, our brains want to control things and find solutions, so it becomes difficult to relax and get out of the cognitive control system.

Simply put, a bad mood is not conducive to new ideas. Research has shown that being in a negative mood can dampen our creativity. Think about it: how many times have you come up with a great solution while in a foul mood?

7 ways to loosen control for inspiration and innovation

When we can loosen our control, relax, and let our minds wander, we can help our brains find innovative ideas, inspiration and creative solutions.

What’s more, we can learn to do this! Because the brain has the ability to change and strengthen neural pathways, we can strengthen our engagement of the DMN. The more we try, the easier it gets, and we improve our brain’s cognitive flexibility!

In my practice, I also use coaching tools and questions to help clients toggle back and forth between the networks, and help them recognize when they need to shift.

Here are some ways to get yourself started:

  1. Address your stress or bad mood. Pay attention to negative feelings, and take steps to address them. This may mean getting more rest or exercise, a hot bath, drinking tea or listening to your favorite music.
  2. Take breaks. Make time to get up, get out, take a walk, change the scenery. Do something totally different, preferably relaxing, for 5 minutes or more.
  3. Do something fun. A short game or fun activity will lighten your mood and help loosen cognitive controls. (Those tech companies with indoor golf or ping-pong tables have something!)
  4. Put your creative brain to work. Like the study mentioned above, challenge yourself to think of unusual uses for everyday objects. Create a new toy or game. Draw something.
  5. Chill out. Doing nothing lets the mind wander. Just be sure it doesn’t wander into negative thinking (e.g. rumination or worry). If it does, do something to lighten your mood first, then go back to wandering.
  6. Meditate. Although meditation is not about mind wandering (the aim is to keep a focus), let’s face it, unless you’re a monk in a cave for 20 years, your mind is going to wander! Some of my best insights happen during meditation – keep a paper and pen handy.
  7. Brainstorm alone. Because the DMN is about internal reflections, it’s best to start your innovative thinking on your own before a brainstorming with others.

So, now that you have a scientific reason to give yourself (and your brain) a break, what will you do? How will you relax, have fun, and let go of the cognitive controls? The more you practice, the more flexible you and your brain will become!

Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash.

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