One sign that your brainstorming session is going well is an abundance of belly shaking laughter. Laughter can help people solve problems that demand creative solutions, by making it easier to think more broadly and associate ideas/relationships more freely. Recent research shows that people in a lighter mood experience more eureka! moments.
Karuna Subramaniam conducted research at Northwestern University and found that boosting the mood of volunteers increased their likelihood of having an aha! moment as measured by their ability to solve a word association puzzle, the standard test for creative problem solving. Those who watched a comedy were measurably better at the task using insight than those who watched a horror film, or worse yet, a lecture about quantum electronics.
Using functional MRI, she discovered that creative insight is correlated with increased activity in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) just prior to solving a problem. This region is involved in regulating attention and in problem solving. And people in a positive mood generally have more ACC activity going into the task, which probably helps. Participants who watched scary movies demonstrated less creativity in solving the puzzles. Other studies have shown that improvisational comedians generate more and better ideas than professional product designers.
Rex Jung, an assistant research professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico and a practicing clinical neuropsychologist proposes that creative capacities are not the same as intellectual capacities. The ability to acquire and process facts and observations—to reason—is fundamentally different from the ability to put them together in innovative ways.
When we perform intellectual tasks, neural networks appear to function in more directed and linear ways. However, when we attempt to perform more creative tasks, it is as if the neural pathways plot more meandering paths. Jung’s findings suggest that our usual neural process of seeing and processing the world switches off for a while to make space for a different kind of engagement.
What does this mean for you in your role as innovation manager or workshop facilitator? Well, humour, lightened mood, and mental spaciousness are important when it comes to encouraging creativity, ideation, and problem solving. This also validates the strange creative exercises that we facilitators like to do at the beginning of workshop sessions! In future newsletters I will feature some examples of how different types of humour can help us in different ways.