Giving Your Brain a Background Task

A few weeks ago Nate emailed me with a question. He had been going through a box of miscellaneous items left behind by the owner of the house he is renting. The stuff was a random bunch of things the owner had no use for. Going on the adage “One man’s junk is another mans treasure.” he was treasure hunting. One item was bugging him because, thinking he had seen it before, imagining that it might just be a very useful item, and unable to satisfy his curiosity, he emailed me with a quick photo

Mystery Object

of it taken with his phone. After looking at the photo, I too thought it looked familiar. He was hoping that it was a nifty woodworking tool, since he loves to collect them. I called him to discuss this mystery item but we could not come to a satisfying use for it so I said I would think about it and if I came up with any ideas I would let him know.

I went about my business. Several hours later, having not given it another conscious thought, I was walking into the house and just as my foot hit the front step, the thought popped into my head: Ping-Pong Net bracket.  I know! Disappointing! Not a nifty tool but I immediately called Nate to brag about my discovery. “That’s it!” was his reply.

This got me thinking about an article I had read years ago about the brain and the creative process. It postulated that our subconscious brain does background tasks as we are busy doing other things, much like a computer can be set up to perform tasks in the background using CPU power that is going to waste while it is waiting for us to give it another command. This was an “a ha” moment for me. I could give my brain tasks and then just relax, I thought. Wow, that is way easier than suffering over a problem and getting frustrated because I can’t seem to figure it out.

The article went on to give examples of how great discoveries in science came to people when they were not making a conscious thought on the subject, and we might be limiting our success if we somehow let our subconscious off the hook by telling it we give up or we don’t want the answer. For instance if we say or think: “I don’t know”, “I can’t remember” or “who cares” then no background search is initiated, but if we say “I will have to think about that.” or “I would like to know the answer to that.” then a background search is begun.

The facts with which we fill our brain are what will be searched, so we have to do all the fact gathering we can to improve the prospects for a fruitful background search. The article went on to say the fact-finding part of creativity is the analysis, or breaking apart the problem into parts. The last step, synthesis, or bringing together of all these facts into a new idea, is very often the background part .

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