October 14, 2013
Scientists: Time free of work lets brain innovate
You're sitting in front of a computer screen, trying desperately to write the greatest workplace advice column in the history of the world and it's just not coming to you.
Then you step away for a few minutes (hours) and occupy yourself with something else (building a fort out of Chips Ahoy), and eureka! You'e got the idea, you start typing, and everyone loves you and wants to hang out in your Chips Ahoy fort.
There's a key in that process, and sadly it's not the chocolate chip cookies. It's the stepping-away part.
While it's almost cliche to tell someone struggling with a project to "go take a walk" or "go clear your head," brain researchers believe promoting periods of mind-wandering and mental downtime might be key to workplace innovation.
In 2001, researchers at Washington University identified regions of the brain that are active when people are not doing anything in particular. Called "the default mode network" or just "the default network," these regions were found to be responsible for introspective thought and our ability to imagine past and future events or even alternate realities.
In other words, the parts of our brains that are active when we're doing nothing are critical to our creativity and ability to think about things differently.
"Whenever people are mentally stepping outside of the here and now, these regions are active," says Adam Waytz, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "They're engaged in transcendence, which means thinking about yourself in the past or the future or in a different geological location, or even taking the perspective of another person and simulating what it would be like to be that person. When the brain is wandering or at rest, what it is likely up to is simulating different times and places and alternate realities, which is the type of thought you want people doing if they're involved in creative or innovative tasks."
Waytz recently co-wrote a piece in the Harvard Business Review that suggests businesses might benefit from giving workers more time to fully disconnect. He and co-author Malia Mason, of the Columbia Business School, wrote: "Companies could turn off employees' email and calendars; take away their phones; send them on a trip, away from all offices and staff members; and take all other job duties off their plates."
Some companies have concepts that operate on the fringe of this idea. At Google, for example, engineers are encouraged to work on "20 percent projects." Basically they can spend up to a fifth of their time on ideas that excite them.
In an email, a Google representative wrote: "We have found that this sort of innovation is a critical driver in Google's development of innovative ideas and products."
Twitter has a similar concept called "Hack Week," described in a company blog as "a full week to work with people from other teams, explore new ideas, experiment with different projects and let our creativity run wild."
Certainly, it's a good idea to give employees room to innovate, but those examples don't tap into the full potential of the default network.
Waytz says that when our attention is focused on any particular task -- using regions of the brain known as "the control network" -- the default network becomes more idle.
"The brain's capacity for processing is finite," he says. "When some regions are active, that means other regions are less active. When we engage in this hard-core cognitive control, where we're really engaged with a particular task or goal, that means we're doing less with our default network."
So it's a mental give and take, and mining these regions of the brain that specialize in outside-the-box thinking requires more detached time. Think of it as brainstorming in solitude.
"What's required to get this set of brain regions active is some free time," Waytz says. "What we know about this default network and what we know about what it does means we need to give people time to zone out, for lack of a better term."
In their article, Waytz and Mason suggest meditation as one means of putting minds at rest. But this is a new arena, and as Waytz says, "I don't know if we've figured out from the brain science how to structure free time in the most effective way."
So here's where I climb on my soapbox (made of Chips Ahoy, of course) and make a bold suggestion: Start experimenting with this idea.
Our progress in finding the most effective ways to foster creativity and innovation is often hamstrung by fear of failure. That's dumb, particularly when it comes to the default network, because this is not some whimsical concept cooked up by New-Agey kooks.
It's well-documented science.
We exist in an age of wearable technology and constant connectivity, and gaining time to rest our brains is increasingly difficult. Why not look for ways to carve time out from people's working hours to see what ideas a restful mind might deliver?
It could lead to fabulous new advances in Chips Ahoy architecture. Or a workplace advice column of unimaginable genius.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at email@example.com.
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