How to Un­leash Your BRAIN POWER

You can’t will your­self to a break­through in­sight. But by fol­low­ing a hunch, you can ab­so­lutely im­prove your odds

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - BY BRUCE GRI­ER­SON FROM PSY­CHOL­OGY TO­DAY

SI­MON LOVELL WAS 31 and a pro­fes­sional con man. He spun the gam­bling tricks he’d learned from his grand­fa­ther into a lu­cra­tive busi­ness fleec­ing strangers. With­out hes­i­ta­tion or re­morse, he left his ‘marks’ bro­ken in ho­tels all over the world. Noth­ing sug­gested that this day in 1988 would be any dif­fer­ent.

Lovell was in Europe when he spot­ted his next vic­tim in a bar, plied him with drinks and drew him into a ‘cross’ – a clas­sic con in which the vic­tim is made to be­lieve he or she is part of a fool­proof, get-rich scheme. The con went per­fectly. “I took him for an ex­tremely large amount of money,” says Lovell.

Af­ter he was done, Lovell hus­tled the drunk man out of the ho­tel room where the fleec­ing had oc­curred, in­tend­ing to leave him in the hall­way for se­cu­rity to deal with. But then some­thing un­ex­pected hap­pened. The mark went to pieces. “I’d never seen a man break down that badly, ever,” re­calls Lovell. “He was just slid­ing down the wall, weep­ing and wail­ing.”

What fol lowed was a mo­ment Lovell would look back on as the hinge point of his life. “It was as if a light sud­denly went on. I thought, This. Is. Re­ally. Bad. For the first time, I ac­tu­ally felt sorry for some­one.”

Lovell’s next move was hard for even him to be­lieve. He re­turned the guy’s money and de­clared him­self done with the swindler’s life. “There was an ab­so­lute epiphany that I just couldn’t do it any­more,” he says. The next day, he felt dif­fer­ent. Lighter. “I had be­come a real hu­man be­ing again.” He never ran an­other con. In the decades that fol­lowed, Lovell turned his gift for smooth pat­ter and sleight of hand into a suc­cess­ful one-man show that ran for eight years off- Broad­way. Af­ter he suf­fered a stroke, good wishes and cash ­do­na­tions for his care poured in from friends and fel­low ma­gi­cians. In his pro­fes­sional world and be­yond it, Lovell had be­come re­spected, even loved. His re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion was com­plete. That mo­ment in the ho­tel had been Lovell’s wake-up call. But what is a wake-up call – or an epiphany or an aha! mo­ment? What could pos­si­bly ex­plain an event so un­ex­pected, force­ful and trans­for­ma­tive that it cleaves a life into two parts: be­fore and af­ter?

What could ex­plain an event so trans­for­ma­tive that it cleaves a life into be­fore and af­ter?

MOST OF THE TIME, ideas de­velop from the steady per­co­la­tion and eval­u­a­tion of thoughts and feel­ings. But every so of­ten, if you’re lucky, a block­buster no­tion breaks through in a flash of in­sight that’s as un­ex­pected as it is blaz­ingly clear. These rev­e­la­tions can be deeply per­sonal, even ex­is­ten­tial, prompt­ing the re­al­i­sa­tion that you should quit your job, move to an­other city, mend a bro­ken

re­la­tion­ship or, as Lovell did, re­di­rect your moral com­pass. They can also be cre­ative, gen­er­at­ing a bril­liant start-up idea, the per­fect plot point of a novel or the an­swer to an en­gi­neer­ing quandary. In all cases, you ap­pre­hend some­thing that you were blind to be­fore.

In his book The Va­ri­eties of Re­li­gious Ex­pe­ri­ence, the early-20th-cen­tury psy­chol­o­gist Wil­liam James de­scribed such mo­ments of clar­ity as ‘ snap res­o­lu­tions’ of the ‘di­vided self’. It’s as if a whole life­time’s worth of growth is com­pressed into a sin­gle in­stant as dense as a col­lapsed star.

That’s how it felt to Leroy Schulz. Driv­ing home from a wed­ding in Canada late one night, Schulz glimpsed a ghostly form surging from the high­way me­dian to­wards his head­lights. He didn’t have time to brake. He barely had time to turn his face away from the fly­ing glass as the moose’s head hit the wind­shield.

“Had I been a half-sec­ond slower, the whole mass of it would have come into the car,” says Schulz. “I have no doubt I’d have been de­cap­i­tated.”

Sev­eral mo­torists who wit­nessed the accident ap­proached the wreck in shock. “I can’t be­lieve you’re alive,” one gasped. There was no life-chang­ing epiphany at that pre­cise mo­ment or in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math. But Schulz’s near-fa­tal ex­pe­ri­ence seeded some­thing. What fol­lowed weeks later “was one of those panoramic mo­ments when you get your bear­ings and de­cide whether you’re on the right path or not,” he says.

Schulz thought, What ad­vice would the 90-year-old me give me right now? He was a tech­nol­ogy con­sul­tant who dab­bled in pho­tog­ra­phy. “I said to my­self that if I don’t take the path of be­ing a full-time pho­tog­ra­pher, I will re­gret it,” he re­calls.

So he went for it. His back­ground in­ter­est el­bowed its way to the front, and he be­came a suc­cess­ful por­trait and com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­pher.

“I’ve of­ten won­dered, if I hadn’t hit the moose, would I be a full-time pho­tog­ra­pher right now?” he re­flects. “I don’t think so.” Schulz be­lieves that the col­li­sion changed his bio­chem­istry, un­lock­ing some­thing in his brain that prompted his shift in per­spec­tive.

WIL­LIAM MILLER, a psy­chol­ogy and psy­chi­a­try pro­fes­sor, in­ter­viewed peo­ple who had ex­pe­ri­enced sud­den real isat ions that led to l i fe trans­for­ma­tions for his co-­au­thored book Quan­tum Change. Most of the trig­gers were not so dra­matic, he re­ported. Peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enced mo­ments of sud­den re­al­i­sa­tions and life trans­for­ma­tions while walk­ing to a night­club, clean­ing a toi­let, watch­ing TV, ly­ing in bed and pre­par­ing to shower.

They re­ported a strik­ing sim­i­lar­ity, how­ever, in how the mo­ments felt: more like a mes­sage re­vealed to

them from out­side than some­thing their own minds had gen­er­ated. It felt for­eign, mys­ti­cal even. Which may ex­plain why so many his­tor­i­cal ­ac­counts of rev­e­la­tions have been in­ter­preted as com­mu­ni­ca­tions from the divine. In more re­cent years, stud­ies of the neu­ro­science of in­sight have be­gun to give us clues to what they re­ally are.

In 2003, Dr Mark Bee­man, a cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tist, pre­sented peo­ple with a se­ries of brain­teasers. The test he used, called the ‘re­mote as­so­ciates test’, is de­signed to pro­duce leaps of thought. It asks sub­jects to pro­vide the miss­ing link among three seem­ingly un­re­lated words – say, pine, sauce and tree. (Peo­ple some­times ex­claim “Aha!” when the word ap­ple pops to mind.)

The sub­jects were also wired to ma­chines that cap­tured their brains’ elec­tri­cal ac­tiv­ity. “Two sec­onds be­fore the con­scious in­sight, we see this burst of ac­tiv­ity over the back of the brain,” says Dr Bee­man. The brain, he thinks, “is block­ing vis­ual in­put, which helps al­low weaker in­for­ma­tion to com­pete for at­ten­tion.” When a thought en­tered the sub­jects’ con­scious­ness – ­aha! – the neo­cor­tex, the part of the brain as­so­ci­ated with sight and hear­ing, lit up like a Christ­mas tree. The con­scious brain takes credit, one could say, for the heavy lift­ing done be­hind the scenes.

The brain in ‘idle’ – it turns out – can be far more ac­tive than the brain fo­cused on com­plet­ing a task. This was the 2001 dis­cov­ery of Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity neu­ro­sci­en­tist ­Dr ­Mar­cus Raichle, who, in ob­serv­ing the rest­ing brain, saw that there was es­sen­tially a party go­ing on in the dark. The de­fault mode net­work, as Dr Raichle came to call it, is crack­ling with ac­tiv­ity, burn­ing per­haps 20 times the meta­bolic ­re­sources of the con­scious brain. So the brain’s rest­ing-state cir­cuitry – which is turned on, para­dox­i­cally, when you stop fo­cus­ing on a prob­lem and just veg out – is very likely the best place to park a prob­lem, for it em­ploys the best, wis­est and most cre­ative (though not nec­es­sar­ily ­fastest- work­ing) me­chan­ics.

UN­FOR­TU­NATELY the un­fo­cused brain, while a great tool where gen­uine so­lu­tions lurk, is frus­trat­ingly be­yond our con­trol. If you’re strug­gling with a thorny prob­lem, is it pos­si­ble to jump cog­ni­tive tracks to that place? In­stead of spend­ing time in­cu­bat­ing a so­lu­tion, could you con­sciously keep doggedly try­ing things in­stead?

This de­lib­er­ate mode of at­tack is the one we typ­i­cally try first. There are many small con­tra­dic­tions hid­den in any big prob­lem: when you iden­tify them and fol­low a set of rules to re­solve them, as a com­puter pro­gram might, that gives you a crit­i­cal leg up. If A dead-ends, then move on to B. But truly novel so­lu­tions are hardly ever dis­cov­ered that pur­pose­fully.

If a searched-for so­lu­tion is out­side our fa­mil­iar ex­pe­ri­ence – which is shaped by be­liefs, cul­ture and bi­ases – the con­scious mind will likely never find it. A de­lib­er­ate ap­proach can search the whole box but not out­side it.

In­deed, re­search sug­gests that think­ing about a prob­lem too me­thod­i­cally is of­ten an im­ped­i­ment to solv­ing it be­cause we ac­tu­ally block po­ten­tial so­lu­tions from float­ing into con­scious­ness, a phe­nom­e­non known as cog­ni­tive in­hi­bi­tion.

As Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia neu­ro­sci­en­tist Dr Jonathan Schooler dis­cov­ered, if you ask peo­ple to ar­tic­u­late an idea they’re just hatch­ing, the idea – zoop! – van­ishes.

“It’s a bit like try­ing to look at a dim star,” says Dr Bee­man. “You have to turn your head and spy it out of the cor­ner of your eye; if you look at it di­rectly, it dis­ap­pears.” In lab ex­per­i­ments, sub­jects who are given a brain­teaser and sleep on the prob­lem or oth­er­wise back away from it are usu­ally more likely to solve it than if they just keep pound­ing away.

But here’s the other side: in­cu­bat­ing a co­nun­drum isn’t enough on its own. A puz­zle will never be solv­able if you don’t have all the pieces. The ­mo­ment when the an­cient Greek scholar ­Archimedes is said to have ut­tered the orig­i­nal “Eu­reka!” (“I have found it!” in Greek) came only af­ter many weeks of cog­i­tat­ing. He had been charged with prov­ing that a crown pre­sented to the king was not solid gold, as the gold­smith claimed. But the so­lu­tion eluded him un­til he stepped into the bath­tub and his body weight caused some wa­ter to spill over the sides.

In that mo­ment, he had his method for prov­ing that the crown was fake: a way of mea­sur­ing the vol­ume of an ob­ject based on its buoy­ancy. That method be­came the Archimedes prin­ci­ple. It ex­plains how ships float and sub­marines dive and is still used to­day to cal­cu­late the vol­ume of ­ir­reg­u­lar ob­jects.

“You ac­cu­mu­late all this ex­pe­ri­ence and back­ground,” says ­Dr Raichle, “and then all of a sud­den, there’s an as­so­ciat ion that your brain has rather clev­erly pulled off.”

He isn’t speak­ing just the­o­ret­i­cally; it hap­pened to him. In 2001, he was walk­ing from his of­fice to a nearby con­fer­ence room to meet with col­leagues af­ter their pa­per had been re­jected for pub­li­ca­tion.

Think­ing about a prob­lem too me­thod­i­cally is of­ten an im­ped­i­ment to solv­ing it

Sud­denly, he cracked the nut. He knew how to ex­plain how the rest­ing brain could be ac­tive with­out hav­ing been de­lib­er­ately ac­ti­vated. He had, you might say, an aha! about ahas.

“Ten years’ worth of work on ­ac­ti­va­tion was sud­denly rel­e­vant to solv­ing the de­fault mode prob­lem,” says Dr Raichle. The leap would amount to the big­gest break­through of his ca­reer – his pa­per on the de­fault mode has been cited more than 8500 times. It’s an af­fir­ma­tion of Louis Pas­teur’s fa­mous line: “Chance favours the pre­pared mind.”

There is one more thing that is im­por­tant to keep in mind (so to speak) as you ap­proach the task of cul­ti­vat­ing an aha!: tim­ing is crit­i­cal. If we stay in the de­lib­er­ate mode too long, we can drive the so­lu­tion away. But if we back off a prob­lem too soon, be­fore we have all the puz­zle pieces, we pre­vent the so­lu­tion from co­a­lesc­ing. The key may be know­ing when to zoom in tight on a prob­lem and when to pull back so that we don’t crush the ten­der shoot of an in­sight just as it’s emerg­ing.

“I think that part of the for­mula is the ten­sion be­tween the two modes, this back-and-forth be­tween be­ing very fo­cused and not,” says Dr Bee­man. Draw­ing back from the prob­lem puts us in a po­si­tion to boost the un­der­ly­ing sig­nal of the hunch that’s qui­etly de­vel­op­ing so that it pen­e­trates the con­scious mind. You might call this train­ing our in­tu­ition.

KNOWN AS a so­matic marker, a hunch is ‘a phys­i­o­log­i­cal clue to what to do next’, as neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gist Dr Antonio Da­ma­sio puts it. We ig­nore gut in­stinct at our peril, for it’s the prod­uct of evo­lu­tion­ary hard wiring. Like bud­ding thoughts, bud­ding feel­ings are eval­u­ated based on their bi­o­log­i­cal sig­nif icance. Only the fittest are se­lected to reach con­scious­ness. Strong emo­tions cre­ate loud sig­nals. They tell the brain, There’s some­thing im­por­tant here – you’d bet­ter put some horses on this.

A hunch, then, is a kind of preaha!. If in­tu­ition is in­deed a train­able fac­ulty, then it would seem to in­volve sharp­en­ing our emo­tional sen­si­tiv­ity. Get good at the care and feed­ing of hunches, and we might prime our­selves for in­sight.

This may be what prompted one woman’s epiphany when she stum­bled upon a Face­book photo of a cou­ple she barely knew. Some­thing about the way the happy duo looked, the way they just fit­ted to­gether, hit her like a gut punch and put her own mar­riage into per­spec­tive. The woman, who prefers to re­main anony­mous, called a friend and blurted, “I think I mar­ried the wrong per­son.”

She had al­ways prided her­self on her ra­tio­nal­ity; in­deed, she had func­tioned “al­most like the pro­ducer in my own mar­riage”, pen­cil poised to tick off ev­ery­thing that needed to be done: get set­tled, get preg­nant, build a life. “But

some­thing about the photo trig­gered what I think of as the right brain,” she says. “It was like, Oh. My. God.”

At the time, the woman was tak­ing classes in a par­tic­u­larly in­tense form of emo­tion-based act­ing, and as a ­r­esult, she cracked open a lot of ­bot­tledup feel­ings. From the mo­ment she started ap­ply­ing those lessons on the stage. “I felt a door just open wide,” she says. “It was the door – there’s no other way to put it – to truth.”

Over the fol­low­ing months, her ­ra­tio­nal mind ac­cepted the in­sight that had hit her in a flash. She com­mit­ted her­self to liv­ing more au­then­ti­cally. That did lead to a di­vorce. As it turned out, she – like ­con man Si­mon Lovell and count­less oth­ers who have ­ex­pe­ri­enced aha! mo­ments – changed her life for­ever.

In­deed, when Pro­fes­sor Miller’s co-au­thor, Janet C’de Baca, fol­lowed up with the peo­ple they’d stud­ied a decade later, not a sin­gle one had re­turned to the pre- epiphany life. “The mo­ment it hap­pened, they knew they had gone through a oneway door – there was no go­ing back,” says Miller. Per­haps that’s be­cause there is of­ten a moral di­men­sion to sto­ries of quan­tum change. In short, peo­ple’s val­ues changed.

Miller likes to re­count a case study of a fiercely ad­dicted smoker who pulled up to a pub­lic li­brary one day to pick up his kids. He rum­maged in the glove com­part­ment and looked un­der the seats for his cig­a­rettes but couldn’t find them. It was start­ing to rain. The kids would be out in a sec­ond. But there was a shop not far away. He could zip over there and be back in a few min­utes. It wasn’t rain­ing hard. The kids wouldn’t get too wet.

Then some­thing shifted in this man. He thought, Dear heaven, I am the kind of fa­ther who would let his kids stand in the rain while he chased a drug. “And that was it,” says Miller. “He never smoked again.”

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