An Excerpt from The Watchman's Rattle
October 25, 2010
We currently post links on Friday to provide you with a bevy of informative and interesting weekend reading. I am hoping to start a new trend here on Mondays—excerpts and guest posts—to provide some consistent insights to begin the week with. We'll see how it goes.
Today, many studies show the important relationship between unstructured "play" and cognition among schoolchildren. In a 1977 study, Saltz, Dixon, and Johnson demonstrated that playtime had a dramatic effect on intelligence tests because it encouraged creativity, vocabulary use, and spontaneous problem-solving. More recent research conducted by Dr. Anthony Pellegrini, psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, and Robyn Holmes of Monmouth University reveals the positive effect recess has on learning: "Children are less attentive to classroom tasks during longer, compared to shorter, seatwork periods."
Pellegrini and Holmes's research reveals that children learn and perform better in school immediately following recess. He also indicates that short periods of concentrated study work better than long periods without breaks. In similar studies, Japan and Taiwan report that instruction is more successful when the learning periods are "relatively short" and "intense" and "there are frequent breaks between these work periods." In fact, in China it has become standard practice to provide unstructured play in the school system every fifty minutes to facilitate concentration and learning in the classroom.
Moreover, the benefits of recess don't just apply to children who are loading content and learning to solve problems. Many studies confirm that the same benefits occur when frequent breaks are scheduled in the workplace, especially when an employee's work requires long periods of focused attention.
So it comes as no surprise that there appears to be a relationship between taking breaks, relaxation, and insightful thinking.
It turns out there's a reason we have some of our best ideas when we wake up in the morning or when we are taking a shower, driving, or just sitting quietly. Often, when we return from a short vacation, problems that once seemed intractable suddenly become solvable. How many times have we felt stuck, then stood up, stretched our legs, and walked away only to come sit back down and discover what we were doing wrong?
Stories such as the spilled can of paint that led to Jackson Pollock's landmark innovation in American abstract art or Nobel physicist Richard Feynman's habit of madly scribbling notes on cocktail napkins while sitting in topless bars all have one thing in common. In each instance, the insightful breakthrough occurred while the person was relaxing and allowing his mind to wander, providing it freedom to make new connections and uncover hidden solutions.
We have discovered that the human brain is much more likely to have a breakthrough when it is producing alpha waves—the kind of waves that occur when we are meditating. "The relaxation phase is crucial," says cognitive neuroscientist from Northwestern University Dr. Mark Jung-Beeman, noting that some of our best thinking is done while we're half asleep.
According to Dr. Joydeep Bhattacharya, psychologist at Goldsmiths University of London, one of the predictors of insightful thinking is the appearance of alpha waves in the right hemisphere of the brain. These alpha waves allow the human brain to respond to new ideas and information by encouraging the mind to "wander." Thanks to sophisticated measurement devices, Dr. Bhattacharya is now able to predict when insightful thinking will take place, having found that participants solved insight puzzles "several (up to eight) seconds before the behavorial response."
Insight requires the mind to be in a relaxed state and in a good mood. Dr. Karuna Subramaniam of the University of California at San Francisco, along with Kounios, Parrish, and Jung-Beeman, discovered the following: "Participants higher in positive mood solved more problems, and specifically more with insight, compared with participants lower in positive mood. . . . Positive mood alters preparatory activity in the ACC [anterior cingulate cortex], biasing participants to engage in processing conducive to insight solving."
What are of these scientists trying to tell us? We often become our own worst enemy when it comes to deploying insightful thinking.
It's a lot like trying to fall asleep when we know we have a big presentation the next morning. As more time passes and we have less and less time for sleep, the more anxious we become as we try to force ourselves to relax and sleep. This same sort of conundrum applies to insight. Trying to force ourselves to have an insight doesn't work. In fact, the more we try, the further from a relaxed state we get and the less likely insight is to appear.
Pressure, stress, judgment, negative attitudes, and bad moods all inhibit insightful problem-solving. Because these orientations are within our control, we can increase our capacity to manage complexity by simply relaxing the mind and creating a positive, upbeat mood so insights can be coaxed out of hiding. This may mean taking on complex issues just after resting, yoga, meditation, or a short walk outside. It may mean listening to music, taking a warm bath, or just sitting quietly. Anything we can do to "unwind" and allow the mind to relax is good for insight.
Author Bio Rebecca Costa is a sociobiologist whose unique expertise is to spot and explain emerging trends in relationship to human evolution, global markets, and new technologies. Costa joins distinguished business leaders, Nobel Laureates, scientists, innovators and Pulitzer Prize -- winning authors from around the world to address growing concerns over dangerous threats such as global warming, pandemic viruses, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and failing public education. A popular speaker at thought-leader and technology conferences as well as major universities, Costa is the former CEO of Silicon Valley start-up Dazai Advertising, Inc. Costa's clients included technology giants such as Apple Computer, Hewlett- Packard, Oracle Corporation, 3M, Amdahl, Seibel Systems and General Electric. She graduated from the University of California with a BA in Social Sciences. Rebecca Costa lives on the central coast of California. For more information please visit www.rebeccacosta.com and follow the author on Twitter and Facebook. The above is an excerpt from The Watchman's Rattle Copyright © 2010 by Rebecca D. Costa Published by Vanguard Press