The Brain and Why Innovation Happens Differently for Everyone

The Brain and Why Innovation Happens Differently for EveryoneWe’ve all had that moment of insight and clarity…the idea just hits you. A-ha! Without knowing why or how, you’ve tapped into something primal, visceral and perfectly suited to the problem you’re trying to solve. The idea is there!

Although we’ve all had this spark of insight, for some it just comes naturally. You know this person (and maybe it’s you)—they’re conceptual, big-picture, connect-the-dots type thinkers who come up with innovative thoughts seemingly without even trying.

As it turns out, this is true. They really are not even trying.

According to the Wall Street Journal researchers at Goldsmith College (London) and the Medical College of Vienna in a 2008 study on Insightful Problem Solving, there are distinct, measureable processes in the brain that lead from a moment of impasse to a moment of insight and solution. There was a pattern of high frequency neural activity in the right frontal cortex that identified in advance who would solve a puzzle through insight and who would not. And brain activity happened up to 8 seconds before the subject was able to come up with the answer!

This is amazing on numerous levels…

1. Not everyone was able to generate this kind of insight

2. The brain was performing activities that preceded awareness or even committed efforts for problem-solving

Additional research confirms this finding and even pinpoints it to a right brain skill set. Over the course of five years, researchers at Drexel and Northwestern Universities studied test-takers performing word problems. Some subjects methodically worked through the problem to get to the answer, while others just simply got it.

Again…it goes back to the brain – those who solved the problems in an “A-ha!” way showed distinctive flashes of gamma waves in the right hemisphere of the brain just before the insight hit. There were no such waves on the subjects that didn’t solve the problems this way.

This kind of unconscious problem solving makes it easy to characterize some people as innovative…after all, its tied to their unique brains and they solve problems unlike other people. And it’s true…these people are innovative, but it doesn’t mean they have a stranglehold on innovation.

It wasn’t just the insight-driven thinkers who solved the problems—there were those who exhibited a more left-brained approach…methodically working through possibilities and analyzing choices.

The beauty of this research is the pure connection that it makes to our brains. Innovation, insight, creativity…they’re all tied to clear brain processes that are happening differently for different people.

But in each case, the results are what is key—the problems are getting solved and the ideas are coming to fruition…but they are happening distinctively.

This brings us to the obvious step of implementation, and this is where organizations and leaders can get a one-up on the competition. When you can provide a degree of self-awareness (using an assessment or via 360s or interviews), you can start to hone in on the way your people think. Look for the way people solve problems and put them in situations where these ideas can flourish.

I’ll bet you’ll find that the ways you conduct brainstorming sessions will be different (or if they’re not, they should be!). The way you frame a problem to your people can be altered based on who’s working on it:

  • For your “A-ha”, conceptual right-brainers – Provide a big-picture overview of the problem, but don’t cloud with the details; provide a comfortable space to work and think; don’t worry about a specific and tight timeline; give them numerous things to work and think about.
  • For your analytical, structural left-brainers – Give the overview, but also provide in-depth explanations and details; ask them to find logical conclusions and ideas supported by data; let them work on their own if need be; provide a framework on how and when you’d like to see solutions.

The spark of insight is in some of us…innovation is within all of us.

image credit: usdavis

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Mark E MillerMark E. Miller is the Director of Marketing for Emergenetics International – an organizational development consulting company dedicated to expanding the capabilities of the one thing most valuable to every one of our clients – their people. Follow us on Twitter.

Mark E Miller




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No Comments

  1. Terence Quek on December 12, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    I think it’s so true that innovation is in all of us, and that everyone innovates (or think about innovation) differently because we really have different thinking styles. If only more organisations and people recognise that different people prefer to think differently, and not stereotype or be overly biased towards one type of thinking or innovation only. Only then can the organisation or individual tap on the best of everyone’s potential and come up with truly innovative solutions.

  2. Joshua Teo on December 13, 2011 at 8:46 am

    Good article Mark and I echo your thoughts on the brain and innovation and the A-Ha moments!

  3. Kate Tripalin on December 19, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    Great article Mark! Very interesting research and the findings make a lot of sense. In the workplace I’ve witnessed what you’ve described with regard to Conceptual thinkers solving problems differently than those who are more Analytical and/or Structural thinkers. I always enjoy your articles…looking forward to your next one!

  4. Diane Lujan on January 10, 2012 at 9:48 am

    Very insightful article, Mark! I was intrigued to learn about the pattern of neural activity in the brain around problem solving.

  5. Diane Lujan on January 10, 2012 at 9:50 am

    Very insightful article, Mark! I was appreciated the tips on framing a problem with right and left brainers.

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