The Neuroscience of Complex Problem Solving

3 Strategies for Tapping the Power of Your Non-conscious


What happens in our brains when we solve problems?  First, consider that there are different types of problem solving.  There is linear problem solving, which includes problems that have one solution and are usually better solved analytically.  Examples of linear problems include things like math problems and balancing a checking account.  Complex problems however, have more than one solution and solved better with a different kind of thinking.  Complex problems require non-conscious thinking.  These types of problems are sometimes referred to as insight problems.  They are nonlinear vs. linear and are different in that they don’t have obvious solutions or sequential steps to follow.  These types of problems require creativity - the ability to combine information in a whole new way.  Surprisingly, to many leaders we work with rational conscious thinking is not the best way to solve these types of problems.



insightComplex problems need creative solutions that come to us in the form of insights.  What exactly is an insight?  When we have an insight, as described by Mark Jung-Beeman at Northwestern University, what is not obvious becomes obvious to us.  These are also referred to as 'A-Ha' moments.  They involve non-conscious processing and are at the heart of innovation at the individual, team and organizational level.  Insight comes to us suddenly and when we are not putting our focus on the problem.  This is why some of your biggest moments of A-ha have arrived in the middle of the night, in the shower, while cooking dinner, or when you were driving.  Being able to reinterpret information in a different way and pull together remotely linked ideas to create a novel solution is not something our conscious brain, or prefrontal cortex, is best used for.  It can actually hinder our ability to hear insights, those quiet signals our non-conscious brain sends to us when we make new connections that lead to big ideas.

To tap into the power of your non-conscious brain, try these three strategies:

  1. Decrease anxiety levels.  High levels of anxiety create a lot of noise in the brain and inhibit our ability to have and hear creative insights.  Insights are the result of a very small number of distantly associated brain cells talking to each other.  To compare, deciding what to eat for breakfast involves millions of brain cells having a conversation with each other.  An insight only involves a few thousands of neurons talking to each other.  This is why we have them when our brains are quiet and activity level is low.   To illustrate, imagine you are hosting a party and a guest knocks at your front door, the music is blasting and you are out on your back deck enjoying conversation with other guests.  You will probably not hear the person knocking at your front door because the noise level is too high to hear the knock.  To be able to hear it, you would need to turn down the music.  It is a similar situation in our brains in that when anxiety levels go up, so does the noise level, making it very challenging to hear quiet signals coming to us from our non-conscious in the form of creative ideas.  The key is to keep yourself and others around you in a positive mood where anxiety and noise levels are low.
  2. Break your mental set.  As noted by Jonathan Schooler, professor of psychology at the University of California in Santa Barbara, to overcome an impasse we have to experience a shift in perspective – a break in our mental set.  It is our natural tendency to project interpretations on to situations based on our past experiences.  Unfortunately, this hinders our ability to see a different perspective.  To illustrate this, let’s practice right now.What do you see in the image below? Take a few seconds to describe what it is.image
    Perhaps you see a rabbit?  Or maybe a duck?  Depending on what you initially saw, when you did see the other perspective, it probably came into your awareness quiet unexpectedly and you thought something like “yeah, I see it now.”  When you are able to see both the duck and the rabbit, you have the ability to shift between the two different ways to perceive the image.One of the biggest obstacles to breaking a mental set is analytic thinking, also known as rational thinking.To solve a problem with insight and creativity, we have to stop trying so hard.  Focusing on the problem and putting effort into finding the solution does not create the mental state conducive to having an insight.  Engaging in analysis with our rational brain constrains our ability to creatively solve an insight problem by further cementing a particular perspective or mental set.  This often disrupts the ability to see different perspectives.  Consider the discovery of the sticky note.  The glue that didn’t stick so well and seemed to have no value at all was considered a problem until someone broke their mental set and realized that a glue that didn’t stick that well could actually be a good thing.
  3. Try taking a step back.  Sometimes if we want to experience creative solutions, we have to step back so that we can see the bigger picture.  A metaphor to illustrate this is seeing the forest instead of focusing on the trees.  Studies show that people are more able to solve problems if they visualize or imagine themselves in the future solving their problem.   This promotes a form of stepping back which results in the production of creative ideas.  Studies also highlight that taking a step back from the problem leads to a more systemic global perspective, which helps with seeing the problem from a distance.stepback

In addition, research tells us that it is much easier to take a global perspective on a challenging situation when we are in a positive mood.  Negative moods are associated with a narrow focus, sometimes referred to as tunnel vision.  When faced with a complex problem, allow your brain to gain some distance from the problem and notice how many more creative ideas bubble up to the surface.

Implications for Leadership and Organizational Performance

The biggest problems facing leaders and organizations are complex (insight) problems that have multiple solutions.  Anxiety, perceptions, and conscious rational thinking aren’t so effective for creatively solving these types of problems.  For leaders, it may be extremely beneficial to consider ways to tap non-conscious resources as a strategy for increasing innovation and creativity within their organization.  This is what neuroLeaders do.  They practice flexibility in matching the mental state to the type of problem that needs to be solved.

If you are interested in learning more about becoming a "brain-based leader", click here!



Jung-Beeman, M., Collier, A. & Kounios, J. (2008).  How insight happens in the brain:
           Learning from the brain.  NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 20-25.

Schooler, J.  (December, 2010).  Insight: Getting to ‘aha.’  NeuroLeadership Summit.
           Lecture conducted from Boston, MA.