Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Chance favours the prepared mind

"Chance favours the prepared mind." That was Louis Pasteur's mantra, and new research suggests he may have been on to something. Interestingly, though, the "prepared mind" may be more flypaper than bear trap.

John Kounios at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Mark Jung-Beeman at Northwestern University in Chicago were interested in knowing what was going on in the brain in the run-up to a eureka moment. To find out, they scanned the "resting" brains of volunteers as they waited to be told what the experiment entailed. Then the researchers gave them anagrams - "MPXAELE", for example - and afterwards asked them to indicate whether the solution had just come to them as an insight or if they'd had to work it out. Comparing the activity in volunteers' resting brains, Kounios and Jung-Beeman found clear differences, with those who reported using insight seeming to let their minds wander. They had more activity in their right hemisphere, which is associated with processing loose associations, and more diffuse activity in the part of the brain that processes vision (Neuropsychologia, vol 46, p 282). The researchers suggest this may allow them to sample their world more broadly for connections that could trigger an "aha" moment.

Joydeep Bhattacharya at Goldsmiths University of London has also found that an unfocused brain is most likely to generate creative solutions. He gave volunteers particularly difficult word association puzzles: finding the word that unites "skirts", "black" and "put", for example. Bhattacharya monitored their brain waves as they worked themselves into an impasse. Then he dangled a clue, the first letter of the unifying word - in this case, "o".

The clue was enough to deliver the answer for people whose brain activity during the test had revealed a lot of slow alpha waves and few high-frequency gamma waves - the sort of pattern you would find in someone relaxing with their eyes closed. By contrast, people who had shown little alpha but a lot of gamma activity - normally linked to focused thought, consciousness and higher reasoning - still didn't strike upon the answer (PLoS ONE, vol 3(1), p e1459). "Whether the clue would be successfully utilised depended crucially on their prior brain state," says Bhattacharya.
He now wants to know whether deliberately putting your brain into a relaxed, defocused state could increase creativity. A recession-busting way of doing that might be simply to take a shower or go for a walk in the woods.

From New Scientist

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