When innovation and creativity are competitive advantages, creating the conditions for employees to have insights—self-generated realizations, or “Aha!” moments—would seem to be a smart strategy. But typical work environments and corporate expectations can squelch insight generation, as panelists noted at the Insight and Creativity session at the 2015 NeuroLeadership Summit.
Letting your mind wander, getting lots of sleep, taking time for mindfulness meditation, and, if your company has an open-office plan, working from home—will support your arrival at unexpected concepts, including new creative possibilities and solutions to impasses. While it might be difficult to imagine most companies suddenly mandating mid-afternoon naps or praising employees for taking midday breaks to take walks, panelists encouraged session attendees to do their part in creating work cultures conducive to insight and creativity.
There are two kinds of creativity: convergent (putting things together in new ways) and divergent (coming up with previously unimagined possibilities). Insight, said Jonathan Schooler of UC Santa Barbara, is a kind of creativity that seems to driven more by unconscious processes, such as might arise during particular kinds of meditation or doing non-demanding repetitive tasks.
Jessica Payne of the University of Notre Dame was emphatic about the importance of sleep. The sleeping brain, she said, is not powered down in rest mode, like a laptop; it’s actually highly active in regions that are key for achieving insight and creativity—for both convergent and divergent thinking. Think of REM sleep, when we can have the most vivid dreams. These result from connectivity across brain regions that wouldn’t be beneficial in waking states.
She recommends simply forming an intention before you go to sleep at night, to solve a challenging problem. While there are no neuroimaging studies yet to describe how this works, we know that it does—come morning, even if it takes a few tries, you’ll arrive at some new thinking about the problem. Likewise, getting offline, doing light physical exercise (strenuous exercise will activate a different state), and going for reflective walks can prime a person to arrive at an insight.
But adequate sleep and a counterculture to a puritanical work ethic may be the most important insight supports companies could consider. Working longer and harder is still revered in many companies and industries—but ample data is clear about the diminishing returns of uninterrupted stretches of work at expense of sleep deprivation.
“Sleep is the gold standard,” Payne said. “It’s one of the most powerful brain states you have at your disposal—and it’s free!”