In 2016 I wrote and posted here an article on the power of music that summarized over a dozen benefits of music. It included its beneficial impact on stress, creativity, pain, depression, healing, sleep, fatigue, memory, performance, blood pressure and more.
But music affects different areas of the brain in different ways. For example, sad music can make some people feel sad while not affecting others. A moderate noise level is the sweet spot for creativity while loud noises can impede creativity. Listening to music can drown out fatigue during low or moderate-intensity exercise, but not during high-intensity exercise, and so on.
With music, in some cases it’s a trial and error process of determining what works for you.
Music can actually distract us while driving – although most people believe otherwise. Studies have shown that it is safer not to listen to your favourite music. Drivers listening to their own choice of music made more mistakes and drove more aggressively. It would appear that unfamiliar or uninteresting music is better when it comes to driving safely.
Although the above comments indicate that music is not a panacea for health and happiness, research keeps revealing more and more advantages of introducing music into our lives at any age.
An article from New York Times magazine stated that “surrounding ourselves with music and an environment and décor from our younger years can help keep our attitudes young.
Ephraim P. Engleman, a noted rheumatologist who was still active before he died at 104, when interviewed for an article on aging in the January, 2015 issue of Reader’s Digest, claimed that “playing music is a real stimulus, and very, very good for the soul.”
Research has pointed to the astounding effects of learning an instrument; one study carried out by the Radiological Society of North America found that taking music lessons increases brain fibre connections in children, which is why music is such an important part of learning.
Doctors are recommending that older people learn to play a musical instrument to keep their brain young; much in the way that brain games enhance important skills such as problem solving and creativity, music, too, can keep the brain sharp, staving off memory loss and dementia.
Pat Martino was one of the most original of the jazz-based guitarists to emerge in the 1960s, made a remarkable comeback after brain surgery in 1980 to correct an aneurysm that caused him to lose his memory and completely forget how to play. It took years, but he regained his ability, partly by listening to his older records.
Music is used to rev up spectators at hockey games and other sporting events – so it might rev you up as well if you find life is not as exciting as it used to be.
And anything that helps develop cognitive reserve is worth some time.
Deep reading involves slowing down, concentrating on the meaning of what you are reading, highlighting key sentences, and sometimes flipping back to previous pages as necessary so you are sure to understand the information being communicated.
Reading is an active process in which you are searching out information with a highlighter or pen in hand while focusing fully on the task. I have recommended in the past, for instance, that to actively read an article, you might change the title into a question and search for the answer or answers as you read.
In order to focus effectively you must have adequate time to do so, and strong attention skills, one of the brain based “executive skills” that improves with age and practice.
The results of deep reading include enhanced comprehension and enjoyment of the text, improved memory and recall, and an increase in both your knowledge and your ability to think, analyse, and express yourself. It also exercises your brain.
This is not to say that you cannot participate in deep reading on screens when reading electronic books or web articles; but it is more difficult. The nature of the medium leaves you more vulnerable to interruptions – everything from advertising pop-ups to the notification of an email or incoming text message or a Twitter retweet. Also, people use the technology to save time, speed up work and get more done in an equivalent amount of time. The tendency is to grab snippets of information that appear relevant and ignore the rest. It is difficult to resist the urge to skim, skip ahead, and take quick side trips to check email or respond to a text message.
Most people find it difficult to slow down and focus on their reading when doing so on a computer or iPhone. Canadian author John Meidema refers to the web as a “distraction machine”, and indicates in his book, Slow Reading, that deep reading requires time, care and effort.
Nicholas Carr, in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains, claims that studies by psychologists, neurologists and educators find that when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Links are particularly distracting, and studies show that jumping between digital documents impedes understanding. Comprehension declines whether or not people actually click on them.
According to Carr’s book, the depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory (short-term memory) to long-term memory. But a bottleneck is created since working memory can only hold a relatively small amount at a time. When we are swamped with information, links, images, and advertising, the information spills over, so to speak, and doesn’t make it into our long-term storage. It’s like watering a house plant by continuing to pour on more water without giving it a chance to soak in. But when we read paper books for instance, we transfer information a little at a time into long-term memory and form associations essential to the creation of knowledge and wisdom.
That being said, we have to face the fact that the digital age is here to stay. Every year more bookstores go out of business, and only the megastores survive. E-books are easy to buy, readily available and less expensive.
I still buy hardcopy books; because I find them easier to highlight, make notes in the margins, and to reference long after I’ve gone on to other books and topics. I tend to remember more of the information – even its location in the chapter – and I find this essential when using information in my books and articles. The flipping of pages with a highlighter in hand seems to keep me focused. And I’ve yet to experience eyestrain or headaches when reading a hardcopy book.
I do buy Kindle books as well, and currently have over 150 of them on my iPhone; but many of them are duplicates of the hardcopy versions in my library. This allows me to refer to them while travelling, and in waiting rooms – anywhere away from the office for that matter. The bulk of them are the free or 99 cents or $1.99 specials announced daily by BookBub.com. I use many of these for reference only.
If you have chosen the e-book route exclusively, remember the importance of concentration. According to an article by Naomi Baron in the Washington Post, over 92% of those surveyed said they concentrate best when reading hardcopy. Reading is not a passive exercise like watching TV.
And don’t forget the human aspect of reading. How many family members gather around the fireplace with their e-readers in hand or take their iPhones to the monthly book club meetings?
In my book, How to grow older without growing old, to be published in late February, 2018, I discussed over a dozen strategies for strengthening body, mind and spirit. But one significant strategy that I failed to discuss is “silence” – probably due to the incessant background noise of our loud, distracting fast-paced world. My brain was not operating on all cylinders, so to speak, when I originally put together the outline before moving from the city.
That’s what exposure to noise can do to us over a long period of time. I’m not talking about the construction that was going on down the street or the annual fireworks display or the car crash we witnessed at the intersection. I’m talking about sound pollution, both indoors and outdoors from such things as TV, radio, air conditioning, computer printers, cell phone chatter, traffic and other noises of the city.
We don’t realize what this overstimulation of our hearing does to our brain cells. And among other afflictions it has been proven to cause stress, moodiness, anxiety and depression. It has been discovered that noise pollution can lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks and impaired hearing. Those exposed to loud noises, usually for long periods of time, can suffer from such things as tinnitus, a constant or intermittent ringing noise in the ears that can interfere with sleeping, impede concentration and even interfere with work. One of my sons has tinnitus that was caused by the loud music of his and others’ rock bands during his youth.
You don’t have to be in a rock band or live near commuter train tracks to be victimized by noise. It’s now everywhere – unless you live in the woods, and according to the World Health Organization, persistent sounds of just 30 decibels, similar to that produced by people whispering in a library, are sufficient to disturb sleep patterns.
What can we do about it – short of living in a sound-proof room for the rest of your life? You might start by taking a “silence break” and gradually increase its duration until you are experiencing an hour or more a day of peace and quiet. This is referred to as “attention restoration.” According to a 2017 article in Science, “the brain can restore its finite cognitive resources when we’re in environments with lower levels of sensory input than usual.” This could take the form of a walk through the woods or a quiet park – far away from the noise pollution of the city.
If you want to experience what silence feels like, get a free hearing test. My first real experience of the “sound of silence” happened while sitting in a sound-proof booth waiting to have my hearing tested. It was nothing short of euphoria. Over a year after my move to the country, away from the constant background noises of city living, I find my hearing is more sensitive (even without my hearing aid) to the sounds of nature – such as the rustling of leaves, whispering wind, gurgling streams and the sudden flight of birds.
Silence has been found to repair and regenerate brain cells, relieve stress, improve our power of concentration, and in many ways improve our health and well-being. The article from Science, referred to earlier, mentioned a 2013 study on mice that found that two hours of silence daily led to the new development of cells in the hippocampus, a key area of the brain associated with learning, memory and emotion.
We’re not mice; but the research suggested that silence could be therapeutic for conditions such as depression and Alzheimer’s.
I regret having omitted it from my book. It sure is peaceful listening to the sound of silence.
Back in the late 1970s, when I first decided to carve out a full-time career as a speaker and trainer, I experimented with management topics such as time management, delegation, stress management, leadership, motivation and creativity. I also studied memory training based on techniques and tricks that were then being used by memory experts such as Harry Lorraine and Jerry Lucas.
Before I had the nerve to actually charge a fee (since I was already earning a living teaching at Humber College and well underway with an association management business), I offered brief morning workshops on these management topics no charge – and included memory training to add a little variety.
By the time I felt comfortable charging a fee (since the classes started growing), I had realized that you can’t be an expert in everything, so I dropped every topic except time management. It was the most popular session, and I guessed it would still be popular – and even more relevant – in the future.
My special interest topic, memory training, was the first to be eliminated, not that I didn’t enjoy it, but it was too stressful trying to remember everyone’s name. I had slipped several times and the big goof that cemented my decision was the time I was interviewed by a well-known TV personality on the occasion of my latest book, Managing your memory. It was published by General Publishing, which later became Stoddart Publishing and eventually disappeared altogether from the publishing scene. (Hopefully not because of my book.)
When I was asked by the interviewer to demonstrate how I would memorize her name using my techniques, I couldn’t even remember her name. I guess that’s way up there on my list of most embarrassing moments. (And my first lesson that stress can impact memory.)
I definitely made the right choice. Time management has served me well all these years, and I still facilitate workshops and give talks on time management to local organizations – mostly senior’s groups.
I find that many seniors are living with memory problems and a nagging fear of dementia – especially Alzheimer’s. I never thought that memory gimmicks would be of use in cases of dementia, even though I have been relying on them myself all these years to prevent more embarrassing incidents like the one experienced in my youth.
But last week I picked up a copy of Gary Small’s book, The Alzheimer’s prevention program: keep your brain healthy for the rest of your life. Dr. Gary Small, along with his wife Gigi Vorgan, has written several books on the brain, and in this book, they claim that memory training can slow age-related decline and even improve the cognitive performance of those with mild cognitive impairment. They claim that seniors “may be able to stave off some Alzheimer’s symptoms for years by learning and practising memory enhancement techniques.”
The book even backs up those statements with research. Perhaps I was right in predicting the importance and popularity of time management; but it’s nowhere near as important as brain health – a term never even used back in the 70s.
I have dusted off my old memory training notes. (Yes, I am a packrat when it comes to training material. I can survive another embarrassing admission.) Surprisingly, I can still recall most of those one hundred 4-digit numbers that I memorized over 35 years ago. There’s a trick or technique involved, of course; but it’s one of the techniques that I have been using all these years to remember my PINs, “To do” lists, and other information.
When I speak to those senior’s groups again, I will risk a little embarrassment and included memory training. Who cares if I forget a name or two – or a dozen or more? If you can help stave off dementia, it’s well worth it.
One study described in the book, Younger next year, involved rabbits stacked in cages up to the ceiling and being injected with cholesterol to study plaque buildup. The rabbits in the lower cages had 60% less plaque than those in the higher cages. Not a correlation that the researchers were looking for. Seems the custodian who fed the rabbits loved animals, and petted and fussed over those she could reach – and they prospered. When they reversed the cages the rabbits who had been in the higher cages prospered as well.
Animals thrive on attention, stroking and petting; but so do humans, as illustrated by another study that kept track of heart attack victims who did or did not have a dog. Those who didn’t have a dog were six times more likely to die of a second heart attack. So it’s not only the one being petted who reaps the benefit.
Hugging increases levels of the neuropeptide oxytocin, sometimes referred to as a “cuddle hormone” or “love” hormone. Oxytocin promotes relaxation and supports coping skills, and hugging is one of the methods that Gayatri Devi recommends in his book, A calm brain, to calm your brain and reduce stress. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak recommends at least eight hugs a day to be happier and enjoying better relationships.
There is nothing new about the positive effects of hugging. Ever since the time of Florence Nightingale, who illustrated how babies thrive when cuddled, studies have consistently shown that hugging, cuddling, touching and stroking all have a positive impact on health and well-being.
Isolation has the opposite effect. Single men die before married men. Go back to an empty house after your first heart attack and you double the risk of a second heart attack within a few months. The more friends you have, the higher the survival rate.
The lonely are twice as likely to have ulcers. And low levels of social interaction evidently have worse effects than being obese or not exercising. Companionship is good for everyone – assuming the feelings are mutual.
When you are with friends, you don’t have to do all the talking. It’s more important to be a good listener. In fact, according to the book, Younger next year, your blood pressure actually goes up when you talk, and down when you listen.
There is a common expression concerning mindfulness that suggests “wherever you are, be there.” In this age of technology, we should add, “And whomever you are with, be with them.” It’s interesting to observe the number of people and their companions who seem to be more interested in their devices then each other. Whether in restaurants, commuter trains, shopping malls or walking, it’s astounding to see how little communication is actually going on between partners.
The sheer volume of time people are spending on the Internet has to be taking time away from communications in the real world.
There are many studies showing that social relationships are good for your health and well-being. None of these studies seem to refer to social networking. There is no doubt a benefit, but it couldn’t possibly approach the benefits derived from the more intimate one-on-one relationships with those you can actually reach out and touch?
It may be time to trade a few hundred friends on Facebook for a few more hours of quality time with those you really love.
Spend more time with people and less time with things.
There are many advantages of repetition – whether it is committing a body of knowledge to memory or developing skills such as baseball or golf. In fact a highly touted book is termed the process “the 10,000 hour rule,” explaining that 10,000 hours of practice can make you an expert at almost anything. That’s how you can develop into a computer whiz or star basketball player.
But repetition can also develop you into an inflexible single-minded person who refuses to listen to reason or ignores any research that does not fit his or her belief system. So whether it’s politics, religion, or your relationship with money, repetition also has its disadvantages
Your brain likes to take the path of least resistance, so you should be careful what habits you allow it to develop. For instance, if you repetitively say “yes” to others’ requests because you don’t want to disappoint them or feel bad by saying “no,” you could eventually build a habit of saying “yes” without really thinking through the impact of doing so. This could disrupt your own schedule, delay an important project or even force you to abandon a personal activity.
Repetition of thought and/or action could be beneficial depending on its use. I can hardly see any disadvantage in memorizing people’s names or in strengthening a skill through repetition. But in other areas it might be wise to keep an open mind, follow research as well as reason, and be willing to change when the situation calls for it.
Sometimes referred to as” habits of the mind”, a person’s “executive skills” are those brain-based skills required to execute tasks – that is, getting organized, planning, initiating work, staying on task, controlling impulses, regulating emotions, and being adaptable and resilient. These skills primarily reside in the prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain that helps you manage complex problems, goals and self-control. We are all born with executive skills; but they take about twenty years to fully develop. The particular skill that you would probably need most in order to determine which activities would lend themselves to productive habits as opposed to harmful ones would be metacognition. It is one of twelve executive skills identified in the book, Work Your Strengths, by Richard Guare, Peg Dawson and Chuck Martin.
Metacognition is the ability to observe yourself in a situation and make changes so you’re better able to solve problems, build relationships and succeed in life. If you can see a situation objectively and evaluate how things are going, you are strong in this skill.
But if you don’t think through the possible results of your decisions, tend to make quick decisions, often repeat the same mistakes, and don’t think through long-term consequences, you are weak in this skill.
Metacognition is not an easy skill to develop because we have to step outside of ourselves — and our subjective thoughts, habits and biases — to look at each situation objectively. As David DiSalvo says in his book, Brain change, we have to “think about our thinking,” Although the prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher-order thinking and reasoning, multiple brain areas are involved in metacognition as well as in other executive skills.
We all have memories from the past – many unconscious ones — that influence how we think, feel, and react to different situations and behaviors. With a strong metacognition skill you are able to actively examine each situation on its own merit while resisting the impulse to react involuntarily. By doing so you can more easily adapt to change, make better decisions and become more creative and successful.
Since our brain is malleable, we can train ourselves to improve our metacognition; but it takes a conscious effort to reject unconscious and false beliefs and reasoning. The brain is more flexible than most people realize. Through practice you can strengthen any skill, and maintain conscious control of your thinking. You can’t stop thoughts and feelings from popping into your mind; but you can question their validity.
I choose to view the mind as a separate entity that can control the brain. The brain is a computer that will never be duplicated in its complexity and amazing functionality. But the mind is who you are, and the brain is at your disposal. But it doesn’t come with a user’s manual, except for the findings of the neuroscientists, and you must learn how to operate it yourself. And just as we can be controlled by technology instead of the other way around, we can be controlled by our brain if we don’t take charge.
You must do your own programming and updates. You must service your brain regularly with proper diet, exercise and mental challenges to keep it in good working order. Have a questioning attitude. Read. Continue with lifelong learning. Maintain an active social life. Never compromise on sleep. Manage stress. And question your own thinking so you don’t feed it faulty information. Remember the old GIGO acronym – garbage in, garbage out.
Keeping our brains sharp will make sure we neither become creatures of habit nor unduly influenced by others. We maintain our uniqueness.
Strengthening all twelve of our executive skills is discussed in my eBook, A brain’s eye view of time management: Strengthening your executive skills, published by Bookboon.com.
The September/October, 2017 issue of Popular Science gave the usual explanation as to why time seems to pass more quickly as we grow older. To quote, “To a child, one year can feel like an eternity, but to that kiddo’s grandparents, it passes in a flash.” They are referring to the fact that one year to a child is a lot larger percentage of their total lifetime to date as one year to an elderly person.
As an example, as explained by Barry J. Gibb in his book, The Rough Guide to the Brain, for a 10-year old girl, one year represents 10% of her existence to date. That’s a long time. But to a 60-year old woman, one year represents less than 2% of her life experience to date, giving the impression of it passing much faster. The older you get, the faster life will seem to pass. From experience most of us can vouch for the truth of this statement.
But what most people tend to overlook, is that there are more factors at play than age, Our perception of time is influenced by many things, such as heat, activity, stress, and speed – regardless of our age. Time goes just as fast for a child as it does for an adult when both are involved in an activity they enjoy. And it drags just as much when they are waiting in a line-up or taking a long trip in a car.
We can compensate somewhat for the age effect by modifying our lifestyle. For example, when we are busy, jumping quickly from one job to another, time seems to pass more quickly. So stay clear of multitasking and avoid busyness as much as possible.
Also, time spent with things seem to go faster than time spent with people. Cultivate friendships and don’t be stingy with your time when you are interacting with others. Gretchen Rubin, in her book, The Happiness Project, referred to a study that showed that doing things with someone rather than doing them alone is always more fun, regardless of whether it is exercising, commuting or doing housework.
Of fifteen daily activities, researchers found that the only one people preferred doing alone was prayer. Rubin goes on to say that strong relationships not only add more joy to life, it lengthens your life, boosts immunity, and cuts the risk of depression.
Mindfulness also slows down your perception of time. Just as gulping your food and rushing through meals takes the enjoyment out of eating while doing nothing for your health, rushing through life has its consequences. If you can’t remember what you had for dinner last night, you were probably mentally absent at the time. And the same thing applies to life itself. If you rush through life, multitasking and always thinking ahead about the next item on your bottomless “To Do” list, later in life you will wonder where the time went.
Speed is the enemy of time management, not its ally. Life is meant to be savored, not dispensed with as quickly as possible. Slowing down will result in fewer errors, fewer accidents, a healthier lifestyle, improved relationships, and a more enjoyable and memorable life.
Other factors are at play as well. A long period of time spent on the same or similar activities shortens our perception of this time later. For instance, if we fish off the same dock for three hours every morning, the time may not seem to drag at the time, depending on our level of interest. But looking back at it later, our brain doesn’t distinguish between one fishing session and the others. The past will have seemed much shorter since this part of our life has been compressed. Barry Gibb, in his book, The Rough Guide to the Brain, refers to this as “retroactive interference.”
These effects help move life along faster as you grow older. The longer you live, the more similarity in things you have done, and consequently the more compressed your life becomes.
You are what your brain says you are. You have lived and experienced what your brain says you have lived and experienced. External time passes as quickly as your brain tells you it passes.
Just as inactive waiting makes time drag, so a slow-paced, boring, non-eventful life seems longer while you’re actually experiencing it even though it seems shorter when recalled later. For many people, the days seem to pass slowly and the years seem to fly by.
If you race through life, multitasking, cramming as many activities as possible into a day, generally time will zoom by. And when you’re in your seventies or eighties, it will seem like you have lived only half of that amount of time. That’s what I call poor internal time management. But this doesn’t mean you should lead a slow, quiet, boring, non-active life with plenty of waiting and therefore appear to live longer. Because there are other factors involved, the most significant being memory.
When we contemplate how fast our day or life has gone by, we are relying on our memory. And our memory is very selective. It dismisses anything it deems insignificant. We remember the important things, such as graduation from college, that car accident, our first bicycle, a winning goal scored in a soccer game, a new job and so on. Our brain doesn’t bother with all the insignificant things that happen to us, such as those thousands of emails we reviewed and deleted or the mountains of paperwork that came across our desks or those trivial tasks we worked on, or those endless hours waiting for people.
If we have a lot of significant events in our life – if we achieve significant goals, and we live purposefully – we will have plenty of vivid memories, and consequently, our lives will have seemed longer in retrospect.
I discuss these things and more in my 64-page eBook, Internal Time Management: Slowing the Pace of Life, published by Bookboon.com, 2016.
Decades ago, we used to take coffee breaks to escape, if only momentarily, from the stress of continually focusing on one task after another – with few distractions or variety in tasks to provide any mental relief. Today, we need “work breaks” to escape the incessant and cognitively demanding interruptions exacerbated by handheld electronic devices that make sufficient concentration and contemplation impossible.
Cal Newport used the term “deep work” to describe “the activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”
It’s true that we can develop our power of concentration by strengthening our brain-based executive skills, particularly those relating to sustained attention, task initiation and goal-directed persistence. In fact, I have already written an e-book titled “Strengthen your brain’s executive skills“, published by Bookboon.com, that suggests ways of doing this. But in most cases our working environment is anything but distraction-free. And few people can ignore the chiming of their handheld device or even the brief bleep that indicates a retweeted tweet or the arrival of an instant message.
In today’s typical work environment it is obvious that technology, our greatest asset, is also our greatest distractor – or at least aids and abets distractions from others. Cal Newport, in his book “Deep work: rules for focused success in a distracted world“, mentions a 2012 study that found the average knowledge worker spends more than 60% of the work week engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching. About 30% of this is simply reading and answering email. So unless you work in the wilderness where Internet or cellular access is impossible, the place to start is with your use of handheld electronic devices.
Assuming that people were continually connected, in a few of my articles and books I suggested that people take “work breaks” to get the significant things done. I suppose this could be called “deep work“. A “work break” is a scheduled block of time during the day when you put your iPhone or whatever on airplane mode and concentrate for about 90 minutes on a priority task or project.
The assumption is that the world and everybody in it can survive for 90 minutes without communicating with others in some way or another. In fact there have been no reported deaths, bankruptcies or even major setbacks reported when people have actually done this.
It is known as planning and scheduling. You simply block off 90 minutes of time in your planner two or more times a day as appointments with yourself to get specific priorities accomplished. (Either electronic or paper planners are acceptable.) What you are doing is treating yourself with the same degree of respect that you would afford to others, including clients and employees, when you schedule an appointment to discuss something specific – whether it is to decide on purchasing an item or to appraise someone’s performance. Seldom would you cancel an appointment at the last minute or not show up if another person were involved.
In 90 minutes you could accomplish much when interruptions are minimal. With electronics silenced, it is much easier to do this. You may have to move to a boardroom or close your office door or work from home; but it is not impossible. And as you increase your ability to focus (since you are alone and very capable of daydreaming) you will find that your productivity will increase as well.
I know it works for some people – including me. I usually write my books, articles, newsletters, tweets, etc. in 90-minute work sessions – perhaps two or three such sessions in a normal workday. The rest of the time is not completely wasted; but personal productivity is minimal.
Even 90 minutes of focused working a day is frequently enough to succeed at what you do.
Alex Osborn came up with the brainstorming technique back in the late 1940s, and a set of guidelines that we followed for decades. Basically, it involved a group of people blurting out ideas, no matter how ridiculous, without fear of intimidating guffaws, prejudgment or negative reaction of any sort. Through the process of association, one idea, no matter how ridiculous by normal standards, may lead to another and eventually to a perfectly workable idea, which may never have been uncovered by traditional thought processes.
It was thought that the rapid fire thoughts in a successful brainstorming session would seem to come directly from our creative right brain before our logical left brain had a chance to put a damper on them. And it seemed reasonable that more ideas would come from a group of people than from brainstorming alone.
But more recent research has revealed that both the belief that groups came up with more ideas than individuals, and the belief that criticism or even questioning ideas during the brainstorming session would be counterproductive, are both wrong.
Jonah Lehrer, in his book, Imagine: how creativity works, goes so far as to say that brainstorming in a group, rather than unleash the potential of the group, actually suppresses it, and makes each individual less creative. He believes that the only way to maximize group creativity is to encourage a candid discussion of mistakes.
A study in Psychological Science also found that group decision-making makes people more likely to reject outside information.
According to an article by Evangelia G. Chrysikou, originally appearing in the July/August, 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind, and included in the 2017 special collector’s edition of Scientific American Mind on creativity, “group brainstorming is beneficial only after you have come up with a few solutions for a complex problem on your own.”
Shelley Carson, author of the book, Your creative brain, agrees, saying that research on brainstorming yields more quality ideas when individuals brainstorm alone and then have their best ideas evaluated by a group. It is believed that even though the brainstorming process is supposed to be nonjudgmental, individuals may be wary of shouting out ideas that their superiors might think are foolish.
A newer technique called brainwriting has each member of the group generating from 3 to 5 ideas written on an index card and passed anonymously to a spokesperson who then introduces the ideas to the group for further exploration.
Julia Cameron, author of the book, The artist’s way, agrees that dominant people tend to do most of the talking and groups inhibit a lot of creative expression. She has had a brainstorming team work together for five minutes, then work individually for five minutes, and then come together again for the final five minutes. She says it boosts group creativity – with twice as many ideas generated than staying together as a team for the full 15 minutes. She attributes this improvement to the fact that everyone has an opportunity to work on the problem individually.
There is more information on brainstorming and other techniques of creative thinking in my eBook, Creativity in action, soon to be published by Bookboon.com.
The amygdala area of the brain is known to generate feelings. It is the emotional part of the brain, generating such responses as fear and desire.
The prefrontal cortex, sometimes referred to as a manager, houses the executive functions and is considered the thinking part of the brain. You might expect it to be the decision-maker.
And it is. But it works in conjunction with the more intuitive amygdala, which draws on past experiences and feelings to influence the decision. After receiving input from the amygdala and other brain areas, the resulting decision may not appear so logical if you consider only the facts relevant to the situation in question.
According to John Lehrer, in his book, How we decide, the prefrontal cortex is linked to just about every brain area, and considers all feedback before making a decision. But no decision can be completely objective – at least not as far as other people are concerned – since we all have our own realities, values, beliefs and past experiences.
Probably more areas of the brain are involved in the decision-making process than even the neuroscientists are aware of. And perhaps without mirror neurons, which reside in many parts of the brain and help us to emphasize with one another, we would never agree on anything.
As Jonah Lehrer, author of How we decide, says, “Intuition isn’t a miraculous cure all. Sometimes the feelings can lead us astray and causes us to make all sorts of predictable mistakes.” He goes on to say that the “reptilian brain” is fighting the frontal lobes.
When it comes to decisions, sometimes the emotional part of the brain can take charge. It has been shown, for instance, that we can react to the presence of an unseen snake fractions of a second before we are even conscious of its presence. The brain’s priority seems to be to minimize danger and to maximize reward.
Since few, if any of us, have had similar past experiences, it is unlikely that we would all agree on a decision made by a group. As Charles Jacobs says in his book, Management rewired, “if we use logic to influence people unconsciously driven by emotion, we probably aren’t going to be very successful in getting them to embrace our point of view.”
According to a Canadian press article appearing in the March 23, 2017 issue of Telegraphjournal.com, emotion colors the meaning we give to things. This supports the opinion of Princeton political scientist Larry Bartel, who was quoted in Jonah Lehrer’s book as saying that voters invent facts or ignore facts so they can rationalize decisions they’ve already made.
If I am reading the brain research correctly it would appear as though we should try to avoid snap decisions on important issues, allowing the executive center of our brain to moderate emotional impulses. It would also appear that we should involve other people with different experiences in our decision-making process to compensate for our own biases. And we should go so far as to seek out different points of view. But when instant decisions are critical, such in the case of a wall about to collapse, trust your instincts. After all, that part of the brain is programmed for survival, and you have to survive if you want to make more decisions in the future.