The Creating Brain: What an innovation leader should understand about brain function
Updated: Jan 25, 2019
The single source for every idea in the history of mankind…every invention…every theory…every sculpture…everything from the pet rock to the internet is the human brain. Yet our ability to understand this complicated system has only recently emerged. Access to improved imaging techniques, an improved understanding of genetics, and a better grasp of brain chemistry allows unprecedented insight into the way the brain functions. Leaders who develop innovation-focused teams can achieve better results and limit frustration with a basic understanding of the neuroscience of the creating brain.
Creativity, the production of novel, useful solutions, is a cognitively demanding exercise relying on our brain’s ability to access our full array of knowledge and experiences while weaving between phases of broad, associative, divergent thinking and narrow, analytical, convergent thinking. Brainstorming sessions designed to produce a large volume of ideas is the quintessential example of divergent thinking. On the other end of the scale, convergent thinking examines a near-infinite array of possible solutions to find one appropriate for the problem. Solving a crossword puzzle, developing the theory of relativity, or implementing one of the solutions derived from brainstorming are examples of convergent thinking.
Every experience and piece of knowledge you have ever acquired is stored in your brain. There is not a single neuron holding the information about your grandmother’s secret apple pie ingredient, the origins of World War I, or the technical specifications of your company’s latest product. Instead, information is distributed across your brain. Each of those pieces of information are also connected to other pieces of information based on shared characteristics. The secret apple pie ingredient is also connected to your concept of apples, pies, cinnamon, your grandmother, the scent of your grandmother’s house, warmth, ice cream, and so on. The strength of these connections varies depending on the recency and strength of the memories associated with them. If you just made an apple pie, the connections are stronger than they were before.
Practical application: Recruit or develop expertise. Without a brain full of concepts, there is no opportunity for connections and associations. A creative product designer is unlikely to come up with creative brain surgery ideas because the building blocks of knowledge are not there. It is no coincidence that the design thinking process starts with building expertise through empathy and observing users. My first step in solving a tough problem is gathering available information to insert or strengthen connections to the building blocks of creative ideas in my brain. (BTW…the is exactly the approach the Wright Brothers took when they began developing the airplane.)
To prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed by the volume of potential connections to everything we know or imagine about apples and apple pie, our brains developed some information management business rules. Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg provides an informative overview of the neuroscientific implications of brains operating today in his recent book, Creativity: The Human Brain in the Age of Innovation. One of the processes he describes is the way the brain manages novelty and new information, a requisite for any innovation-minded brain. Novel information is predominately managed in the right hemisphere of the brain, the hemisphere designed to make connections between loosely related ideas and concepts. Goldberg uses the analogy of a subway system to describe these connections…long-reaching but with limited contact to the areas it passes through. In the right hemisphere, your brain works to make sense of new information and emphasizes the unique characteristics of the new idea. With time and experience, those ideas are no longer novel, and the information is managed in the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere’s talent is seeing patterns and categorizing information according to those patterns. Connections between bits of information in the left hemisphere are like neighborhoods with strong connections to closely related information but sparse connectivity to unassociated ideas.
A somewhat disappointing lesson an innovation-leader should understand about the brain is the brain has evolved to prioritize efficient information handling over novelty-seeking. Our brains are programmed to make sense of new information and move it into the left hemisphere where it can be handled most efficiently. In one study, researchers used brain imaging techniques to understand how novice and experienced musicians processed music differently. While the novice musicians used the novelty-seeking right hemisphere to analyze the sounds, experienced musicians used the pattern-seeking left hemisphere.
The innovation leader can see the impact of this information management process at work in brainstorming sessions. Almost invariably, the first ideas generated in a brainstorming session are very closely related to what the team already knows or does. The first ideas come from the relatively tight-knit neighborhoods of information in our left hemispheres. If the leader sticks with the process, someone will offer an idea that doesn’t fit into the exclusive neighborhoods we create. The brain recognizes this information as novelty and begins to make sense of it in the right hemisphere where there is more opportunity for a creative solution to emerge. Practical application: An innovation leader can use diversity of thought and persistence to move thinking from the what-we-always-have-done left hemisphere to the what-might-we-do right hemisphere.
The brain has another information management process working against innovation—latent inhibition, a pre-conscience process filtering irrelevant information before it gets into our conscience. This is the equivalent of turning our thought-neighborhoods into gated communities. When you are practicing divergent thinking, you want those gates and filters to be relaxed, but like most concepts related to creativity, there is sweet spot between the extremes. If the filters are set too fine, only the most common associations make it through. You only think about the size, shape, and flavor related to the apple pie you know.
On the other hand, the lack of a filter is equally unhelpful. People experiencing schizophrenia or other psychotic events have a filtering problem. Everything is associated with everything else, and without latent inhibition, the brain is overwhelmed. Apple pie is not only associated with an apple, but also with the scent of the color red, the sound of sweetness, and the imagined apple monster of your nightmares. Experiments with LSD were designed to artificially remove this filter and examine the brain’s function. Trying to facilitate a brainstorming session with a team tripping on LSD is the innovation leader’s worst-case scenario.
Chemicals inside our brains control latent inhibition and our motivation to find new solutions to tough problems. Simon Sinek provides one of the most understandable explanations of brain chemistry in Leaders Eat Last. Some of the most important chemicals for an innovation leader to understand, are dopamine, norepinephrine, and oxytocin.
Sinek says, “dopamine is the reason for the good feeling we get when we find something we’re looking for or do something that needs to get done.” Our brains not only get a shot of dopamine when we achieve a goal, they also get hits of dopamine as we move closer to that goal. At the same time dopamine is motivating us, it is decreasing latent inhibition. Treatment for Parkinson’s disease often involves increasing the level of dopamine available in the patient’s brain. In several academic studies, Parkinson’s patients increased their creative output or developed new creative pursuits while under treatment. Dopamine has been particularly linked to improvement on verbal creative tasks. As treatment is removed, creative production returns to pre-treatment levels. But, dopamine is complicated. Some Parkinson’s patients developed addictions to art production, shopping, sex, gambling or other dopamine-seeking behaviors. Dopamine is the reward for fulfilling an addictive urge despite its destructive effects.
Practical application: Leaders need to be aware that dopamine makes “doing what we have always done” feel good. It takes effort to disconnect from this deeply embedded circuitry. Meeting goals, however, is also rewarded with dopamine. Leaders can hack this brain chemistry by writing down short-term group goals, visually tracking progress to those goals, and highlighting goal accomplishment. The dopamine this generates will help lessen the pain of leaving the well-worn paths behind.
Where dopamine encourages the brain to adopt a feel-good attitude, norepinephrine tells the brain (and the body) it’s time to get serious. Norepinephrine is one of the brain chemicals responsible for our fight-or-flight response to novelty and surprise. The brain pathways responding to norepinephrine are more abundant in the right hemisphere of the brain than in the left. This makes evolutionary sense. If the left hemisphere can’t fit a new stimulus into an existing neighborhood of information, the right hemisphere must work quickly to decide whether this new thing is a threat. Norepinephrine increases our heart rate, dilates our pupils, increases blood pressure and gets us ready for action. It also focuses attention, and in emergencies, can create the sensation that time has slowed.
Like everything else in the brain, there can be too much of a good thing. Patients with post-traumatic stress disorder experience a flood of norepinephrine in response to stimuli that do not require it. The resulting hypervigilance and increased startle response are mentally and emotionally exhausting. Practical application: Leaders should use a variety of techniques, environments, facilitators, and methods to encourage release of norepinephrine. One of the most reliable ways to trigger a shot is by asking someone to present to the group; public speaking is sure to generate a fight-or-flight response.
Oxytocin is “most people’s favorite chemical” according to Sinek. This neurotransmitter is responsible for feelings associated with trust, love, belonging, generosity, and social connection. When we are under the influence of oxytocin, we let our guard down, lower inhibitions, and increase our cognitive flexibility. If oxytocin levels are artificially increased through nasal sprays or other treatments, oversensitivity to the emotions of others can result. In one study, those who took supplemental oxytocin tended to attribute stronger emotions to photographs of faces than those who took a placebo. Even without an oxytocin overdose, one study found that elevating oxytocin levels led study participants to tell lies to benefit the group, but not themselves individually.
Neuroeconomist Paul Zak showed trust “reduces the transaction costs associated with investment decisions by increasing confidence in what the other party would do.” (See his Ted talk here.) The same applies in a creative environment. Team members are more willing to offer wild ideas if they trust the team will not react in a way that puts them at psychological risk. This Harvard Business Review article defines psychological safety as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes”. When a team operates with psychological safety, latent inhibition decreases and more ideas are permitted to enter our conscious thoughts. More importantly, the conscious filters controlling whether we allow those ideas to be presented to the group are opened as well. Practical application: The leader sets the example for trust and psychological safety. Expressing belief in someone else’s trustworthiness generates trust (and accompanying oxytocin). When a leader takes a risk by sharing a new idea, the group is likely to show themselves worthy of that trust. Other team members see the safety net in place and become more willing to share the ideas you need to be creative.
When an innovation leader leads the team to demonstrate a group norm of psychological safety, she is not only practicing good leadership, but also hacking another anti-innovation part of the brain. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is a part of the brain managing the gap between expectations and reality. It is also responsible for social behavior, the regulation of emotions, and part of the parenting drive. Dutch researchers demonstrated it is active when a person appears to fail to conform to group expectations. The researchers had the subjects complete a subjective beauty assessment of photographs of women’s faces and then told them their personal opinions did not correspond to the group’s rating. Imaging showed strong activity in the ACC, and the stronger the activity, the more likely the subject was to revise their rating to conform with the group.
The innovation leader faces a daunting challenge with so many brain circuits wired against innovation. Dopamine rewards repeated behavior. Oxytocin can lead to hyper-loyalty to the group discouraging dissent and threatening personal integrity. The ACC alerts when our thoughts don’t conform with the group, and all the while, our latent inhibition mechanisms feed us a steady diet of thoughts corresponding to exactly what we expect.
Fortunately, there is at least one brain process working in favor of innovation, but uninformed leaders risk missing out on its benefits. Dr. Goldberg explains there are three basic control networks managing our brain’s cognitive activity. The Central Executive Network (CEN) works to manage tasks and stimuli from the outside world. When you are paying attention to what you are reading, actively involved in thinking to solve a puzzle, or having a conversation with a friend, the CEN is at work. It moves in a logical path from one related idea to the next in a relatively methodical way.
The second control network to consider is the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN and the CEN are mutually exclusive, only one can function at a time. The DMN controls the brain during all of the time when we are not consciously focused on a task. While commonly believed to be the “downtime” or “resting” period of cognitive effort, this is an unfortunate misconception. In reality, the brain is hard at work. Dr. Goldberg argues that the work our brains do under the control of CEN sets the boundaries for our thinking under DMN. When we focus our cognitive energy to solve a problem or come up with a creative solution, we construct a framework. When we stop thinking so hard, go for a run, take a shower, or daydream, our DMN fills in the gaps in this frame with connections across our array of knowledge and experience.
When our DMN wanders into a good idea, a third network, the Salience Network, alerts and triggers the CEN to start working again. This phenomenon explains how good ideas seem to come from out of nowhere when we least expect them. Practical application: The innovation leader can take advantage of this pro-innovation brain wiring by splitting ideation sessions into multiple days to allow the team’s DMN to look for solutions. This is the equivalent of bitcoin mining in our own brains. Leaders who only value direct, focused problem solving are missing out on the power of this process.
Creativity, especially creativity leading to lasting innovation, is difficult. After all, most new ideas are bad ones. For most of human history, learning today’s technology would benefit you for all of your life, and probably the lives of your children and your children’s children. The world of 18th century farming, construction, or metal working didn’t change as fast as the world of today. Now, it is hard to think of an industry that will not be impacted by technological change in the next 10 years. Never before has creativity been as important to such a broad array of the population. Innovation leaders have the daunting task of developing groups and wrangling brains optimized for repetition to come up with game-changing ideas. Armed with some neuroscience basics, innovation leaders can hack the natural brain processes to lean more towards creativity than efficiency.
Dan Manning is the CEO of Firepower Concepts, LLC, a firm helping businesses and non-profits apply creativity to solve their toughest problems. Combining academic study with techniques refined over a career as a fighter pilot and warrior-diplomat, Dan unleashes the transforming power of creative thinking to do what could not be done before. Dan is available for keynotes, team training, consulting, and guided ideation. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the opinions of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.