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Perception and imagination are linked because the brain uses the same neural circuits for both functions. Imagination is like running perception in reverse. The images that strike your retina do not, by themselves, tell you with certainty what you are seeing. And the likelihood of these explanations is a direct result of past experience.

Entire books have been written about learning, but the important elements for creative thinkers can be boiled down to this: Experience modifies the connections between neurons so that they become more efficient at processing information. Neuroscientists have observed that while an entire network of neurons might process a stimulus initially, by about the sixth presentation, the heavy lifting is performed by only a subset of neurons. Because fewer neurons are being used, the network becomes more efficient in carrying out its function.

Challenging America’s Innovators for New Ideas for a More Resilient Grid

The brain is fundamentally a lazy piece of meat. If you imagine something that you have never actually seen, like a Pluto sunset, the possibilities for creative thinking become much greater because the brain can no longer rely on connections shaped by past experience. In order to think creatively, you must develop new neural pathways and break out of the cycle of experience-dependent categorization. Often, the harder you try to think differently, the more rigid the categories become.

No, new insights come from new people and new environments — any circumstance in which the brain has a hard time predicting what will happen next.

What neuroscience reveals about how to come up with new ideas.

Fortunately, the networks that govern both perception and imagination can be reprogrammed. You need a novel stimulus — either a new piece of information or an unfamiliar environment — to jolt attentional systems awake. The more radical the change, the greater the likelihood of fresh insights. Some of the most startling breakthroughs have had their origins in exactly these types of novel circumstances.


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Chemist Kary Mullis came up with the basic principle of the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR — the fundamental technology that makes genetic tests possible — not hunched over his lab bench, but on a spring evening while he was driving up the northern California coast. Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not encountered before does it start to reorganize perception. The surest way to provoke the imagination, then, is to seek out environments you have no experience with.

They may have nothing to do with your area of expertise. Because the same systems in the brain carry out both perception and imagination, there will be cross talk. Novel experiences are so effective at unleashing the imagination because they force the perceptual system out of categorization, the tendency of the brain to take shortcuts. You have to confront these categories directly.

More new ideas of 2008

Try this: When your brain is categorizing a person or an idea, just jot down the categories that come to mind. Much of the earlier work looked at the role of gestures in communication, asking whether gesture grew out of speech or exploring why people gestured when they were talking on the telephone. But today, neuroscientists, linguists, and philosophers are making much bolder claims.

A few argue that human characteristics like empathy, or concepts like time and space, or even the deep structure of language and some of the most profound principles of mathematics, can ultimately be traced to the idiosyncrasies of the human body. If we didn't walk upright, for example, or weren't warm-blooded, they argue, we might understand these concepts totally differently. The experience of having a body, they argue, is intimately tied to our intelligence.

Embodied cognition upends several centuries of thinking about thinking. Rene Descartes, living in an age when steam engines were novelty items, envisioned the brain as a pump that moved "animating fluid" through the body - head-shrinkers through the ages have tended to enlist the high-tech of their day to describe the human cognitive system - but the mind, Descartes argued, was something else entirely, an incorporeal entity that interacted with the body through the pineal gland.

While a few thinkers, most notably the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty in the s, challenged Descartes' mind-body separation, it remained the dominant model up through the 20th century, though its form evolved with the times. After the development of the modern computer in the years after World War II, a new version of the same model was adopted, with the brain as a computer and the mind as the software that ran on it. In the s, however, a group of scholars began to contest this approach.

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Fueled in part by broad disappointment with artificial-intelligence research, they argued that human beings don't really process information the way computers do, by manipulating abstract symbols using formal rules. In , a major biological discovery brought even more enthusiasm to the field.

Scientists in Italy discovered "mirror neurons" that respond when we see someone else performing an action - or even when we hear an action described - as if we ourselves were performing the action. By simultaneously playing a role in both acting and thinking, mirror neurons suggested that the two might not be so separate after all. This realization has driven much of the recent work looking at how moving and thinking inform and interfere with each other.

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For example, a pair of studies published in by Sian Beilock, now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and Lauren Holt, one of her former students, examined how people who were good at certain physical activities thought about those activities. In one study, Beilock and Holt had college hockey players, along with a non-hockey-player control group, read a sentence, sometimes hockey-related, sometimes not. Then the subjects would be shown a picture and asked if it corresponded with the sentence.

Hockey players and non-hockey players alike almost invariably answered correctly, but on the hockey-related sentences the response times of the hockey players were significantly faster than the nonplayers. In a second study, the researchers found similar results with football players. According to Beilock, the difference in response time wasn't a matter of knowledge - after all, all of the subjects in the study got the vast majority of the questions right. What it suggested, Beilock argues, is that the athletes' greater store of appropriate physical experiences served as a sort of mental shortcut.

These sorts of results aren't simply limited to thinking about sports, or other highly physical activities. A study by Michael Spivey, a psychology professor at Cornell, and his student Elizabeth Grant, found that people who were given a tricky spatial relations brainteaser exhibited a distinctive and unconscious pattern of eye movements just before they arrived at the answer.

The subjects seemed to unconsciously work through the problem by enacting possible solutions with their gaze. A study published in August by Alejandro Lleras and Laura Thomas, two psychologists at the University of Illinois, built on those results by inducing the eye movements Spivey had discovered. Lleras and Thomas found that doing so greatly improved the rate at which people solved the problem - even though most never figured out that the eye movements had anything to do with it.

Don't just stand there, think - The Boston Globe

Other studies have looked at non-spatial problems and at memory. Work led by Susan Goldin-Meadow, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, has found that children given arithmetic problems that normally would be too difficult for them are more likely to get the right answer if they're told to gesture while thinking. And studies by Helga Noice, a psychologist at Elmhurst College, and her husband Tony Noice, an actor and director, found that actors have an easier time remembering lines their characters utter while gesturing, or simply moving.

The body, it appears, can subtly shape people's preferences. A study led by John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, found that subjects all non-Chinese speakers shown a series of Chinese ideographs while either pushing down or pulling up on a table in front of them will say they prefer the ideographs they saw when pulling upward over the ones they saw while pushing downward.

Work by Beilock and Holt found that expert typists, when shown pairs of two-letter combinations and told to pick their favorite, tend to pick the pairs that are easier to type - without being able to explain why they did so. What's particularly interesting to neuroscientists is the role that movement seems to play even in abstract thinking. Glenberg has done multiple studies looking at the effect of arm movements on language comprehension. In Glenberg's work, subjects were asked to determine whether a string of words on a computer screen made sense.

To answer they had to reach toward themselves or away from themselves to press a button. What Glenberg has found is that subjects are quicker to answer correctly if the motion in the sentence matches the motion they must make to respond.