Your Brain’s Best Tips for Creative Problem Solving

Good Reads, a website that helps readers find and share book recommendations, categorized 240 books in 2021 under the general heading of “science,” including everything from climate change and astronomy to archeology. But one of the most prevalent topics, making up nearly 20% of the titles on its own, was neuroscience and insights into the explosive field of brain research written for a lay audience.
It seems we’re all junior neuroscientists now as we devour titles such as You & Your Strange Brain; Being You: A New Science of Consciousness, and How Each Brain Makes a Mind. Much of our push to understand the brain better started back when President George H.W. Bush declared the nineties the Decade of the Brain, a move credited with preparing the way for doubling the federal budget for neuroscience research.
An owner’s manual
The more science learns about the brain, the more the iceberg metaphor is often applied. It turns out that the vast majority of what a brain does is behind-the-scenes work that doesn’t involve your participation in any conscious way. From navigating the world and internal body systems to triggering memories based on certain sounds, sights or smells, your brian is often hard at work while you’re busy doing other things.
One of the things your brain spends a lot of time doing under the radar is arguing with itself. Not the kind where you are aware of conflicting desires or an angel on one shoulder and devil on the other. But baked into the brain’s actual structure and function is an endless loop of competition and cooperation that keeps it always searching for more creative solutions. Could bringing a similar technique to our conscious problem-solving efforts provide more creative and innovative solutions — and then encourage us to out-do our own best efforts?
Team of rivals
Rather than a well-oiled team working in harmony, we now understand that our brains are wired with incredible diversity that allows different parts to come at problems with different solutions. In Incognito, neuroscientist David Eagleman, Ph.D., says that biology doesn’t stop searching when it finds a good-enough solution. It keeps trying different approaches regardless of how many other pretty-good approaches already exist. “Biology never checks off a problem and calls it quits,” he writes.
The result is less sympatico status quo and more team of rivals, a la Abraham Lincoln who famously appointed several of his harshest critics and fiercest opponents to his cabinet.
University of Virginia Professor James Detert, Ph.D., an expert on leadership and ethics, argues that today’s tumultuous business environment is exactly the right time to mimic both the way the 16th U.S. President and your own brain tend to tackle formidable challenges. It’s time to convene diverse teams and for truly courageous leaders to admit “I don’t know it all,” and “I need your help,” Detert says.
Social science research repeatedly shows that diverse teams whose members engage in constructive dissent outperform teams of likeminded or self-censoring people, according to Detert. Still, it can feel very uncomfortable opening yourself to the messiness of multiple viewpoints and the short run can be challenging as you pursue continuous improvements.
He suggests several questions you can ask yourself to determine if you have the potential to receive and utilize diverse input and potentially lead a team of challengers, if not a full-fledged team of rivals. They are:
When, recently, did you actually change your mind and subsequent behavior about something important as a result of dissent from those with less formal power or status than you? Too often, Detert says, leaders pride themselves on listening to diverse viewpoints, but then in reality continue with their own plans anyway. “You have to actually admit when someone else’s ideas are better, and then adopt them,” he says. “And then you have to publicly share that so-and-so helped you see things differently and that you’re grateful for that.”
What’s your view of loyalty? Rather than being focused on organizational mission or strategic objectives, Detert argues that many leaders instead value personal loyalty above all else. He suggests checking yourself on this by asking yourself whether it’s easier for someone to join your team as “a consistent truth teller” or “an agreeable yes man or woman.”
Are you trying to get things right or be right? While there can be significant pressure to look as if you have every answer and always know the next right step, Detert argues that the world has become too complex for that sort of top-down approach. What’s required of leaders instead is the personal courage and confidence to prioritize learning and be able to withstand the vulnerability of inviting public debate. The ultimate point, Detert says is “. . . making course corrections that are driven by others’ better information, ideas, or even judgment in a given situation.”
Looking to your own brain for inspiration, consider introducing more genuine back and forth into your leadership style where you start with truly diverse input, a commitment to ongoing adjustments and a willingness to scrap a previous idea and go with a new, stronger one.

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