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Barbara Oakley: How too much focus can limit your creativity

 Have you ever had the experience of giving up on a problem and coming back to it some time later to find its solution suddenly obvious? According to Barbara Oakley, author of Mindshift, this phenomenon is the product of a collaboration between two distinct, separate neural networks in your brain. In her Big Think+ video, “Breaking Through Learning Obstacles: Activate Your Neural Networks,” she explains how you can use them together to solve difficult problems.

Focus versus diffuse neural networks

Oakley refers to the two circuits as:

  • the focus neural network — This is the neural network you employ when you’re concentrating on a problem you’re deliberately trying to solve.
  • the diffuse neural network — This is a neural network that can continue to work on a problem in the background as you’re consciously thinking about other things. “You relax, you go off for a walk, you take a shower,” as Oakley says. It’s a creative mode you’re not even aware of, but the results it produces are very real.

Genius (silently) at work

In her book Simple Dreams, singer Linda Ronstadt recalls a mystifying experience she had recording with Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Mystifying, that is, until you consider the manner in which focus vs. diffuse neural networks operate together:

“Brian was making up the harmonies as he went along, but sometimes, when he was having difficulty figuring out a complicated section, he would say that he needed to work for a time at the piano. However, when he sat down at the piano, he never played any part of [the song we were working on], but instead would play a boogie-woogie song, very loud in a different key. After a few minutes of this he would go back to the microphone and sing the parts perfectly without a trace of hesitation.”

The tricky part of diffuse mode

It’s easy, says Oakley, to get into focus mode: You just think about something. You can also meditate your way there using a mantra you repeat over and over to yourself in your mind. This form of meditation is also a good way to strengthen your focus mode network.
Switching your brain to diffuse mode is another thing altogether. It depends on mental relaxation, a state that’s sometimes hard to reach, especially on purpose. “As soon as you start thinking that I’m not going to think about anything in particular,” notes Oakley, “you’re thinking about something in particular.” Oakley recommends two ways to get into diffuse mode (other than Wilson’s boogie-woogie).
The most immediate way is to take a break. Exercise can be particularly effective as long as it gets your mind off the problem you’re trying to solve.
Another way is mindfulness meditation. (Pick your form of meditation carefully to be sure you’re targeting the neural network you’re interested in activating or developing.) While it may get you to diffuse mode right away, mindfulness practice is also a worthwhile long-term method for strengthening your diffuse neural network circuitry.

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