Your chaotic brain

Your chaotic brain - image for article by Greg Alder

Have you heard the phrase, “She has a mind like a steel trap”? If not, it’s a compliment. It describes someone with the ability to grasp complex ideas quickly.

There are two ways to grasp complex and unfamiliar ideas quickly. The first is to simplify them. Remember the quote attributed to Einstein? “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”

The second way is to connect the new ideas to something familiar. This is popular with marketing people. I just Googled “the Rolls Royce of”. Google offered up “the Rolls Royce of beef”, “the Rolls Royce of lip plumper” and “the Rolls Royce of lawnmowers”. Perhaps you have purchased one of these fine products.

There are two things wrong (apart from the very idea of a Rolls Royce lip plumper) with these techniques.

Einstein believed in making the complex simple. But he is also credited with saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. There’s a point where simplification loses critical facts that make a new idea remarkable.

The second problem is that the connected idea we use to make sense of the new might be familiar, but it comes loaded with preconceptions. To one person, Rolls Royce might be the epitome of quality. To another, it’s representative of excess. Calling your new product “the Rolls Royce of” is as likely to turn off customers as turn them on.

Ever do one of those associational thinking tests where the tester mentions a word and you must say the first word that comes into your mind? You know there were times when you censored yourself from uttering the first inappropriate word and chose a second less contentious one.

Well, guess what. When you did that test, there were a host of other words that your subconscious mind thought of – but these were never sent up the line to your conscious brain.

Those tests can only record what your conscious mind thinks of – and only those things that you allow yourself to say. It can’t record the many other associated ideas deep in your subconscious.

Ideas come about when a known idea connects to another unrelated idea. We think these connections are a single event, like a pinball hitting a bumper. Unbeknown to our conscious mind, our subconscious one makes lots of connections. But only one of them makes it through to your conscious mind. We shout, “Eureka!” and we stop further thought. We have our big idea.

What we don’t know is how many other brilliant ideas there might be in our subconscious.

For many years psychologists thought that ideas came in a linear fashion, one after the other.

Nowadays, we know that this isn’t the case. An idea is a ping pong ball dropped into a room of a hundred billion mousetraps. It starts a series of simultaneous reactions. It bumps from one idea to another. Each of these ideas bumps into others. And they bump into others.

Our brain’s 100 billion neurons are capable of making at least 100 trillion connections. These connections overlap. There’s an awful lot of connecting happening concurrently. Almost all of it is hidden from our conscious minds.

When we’re asked to come up with ideas, when we need them urgently to solve a business problem, we put our conscious mind to work. It does its best to come up with a potent original idea. It struggles.

If we have the luxury of time (we rarely do), we might sleep on our problem. Often, we’ll wake with the solution. During the night, our subconscious has been making connections. It sends one up to our conscious mind.

One thing we have all learnt about ideas (if we’ve been in a brain storming session, for example) is that not all of them are great. We need a lot of them to find the gem.

Well, what if it were possible to consciously force ourselves to make hundreds of random connections, the kind to which our conscious mind is normally denied access?

It is simple. (Einstein would approve of this.) We can learn to fake random connections. We can accelerate the process. We can trigger idea generation at any time.

Creative thinking techniques simply force our conscious brains into behaving like our subconscious. We start with a problem, our known fact, our first mouse trap. We use a creative thinking tool to create a second unconnected idea and then force connections between them. In 60 minutes, a team of six people can easily generate a hundred original ideas. From experience, I can tell you that on average ten of these will be brilliant – game changes, for your business and your life. Another 20 or so have the potential to be brilliant – with a little massaging.

Now, when was the last time you and your team generated 30 great to brilliant ideas in an hour?

We think that the ability to come up with brilliant ideas is reserved for a select few. It isn’t.

The very best ideas are simple. How often have you learnt of a brilliantly successful new idea and thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?” You can. You can train your brain to use these simple techniques to solve complex problems. Your solutions are easy to communicate with others because the inspiration was simple.

Combine a circuit board with something unrelated, a door mat, for example, and you might come up with the idea of a flexible circuit board. Or a door mat that turns on house lights when stepped on. Or a circuit board that repels dirt. Or one woven from jute or another natural material.

Our brains are complex. Too complex to grasp quickly. Connections and thoughts happen chaotically and subconsciously. Our brains make thousands of connections simultaneously – and that’s something we also struggle to grasp.

Out of these ridiculously complex organs come beautifully simple ideas.

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