How Does Your Brain Work?

I’m a prolific writer. My editor, Kate, and I once counted up all the words I’d written over a 2-year period, including books, blogs and articles. The estimate: 750,000. Thems a lot of words.

One reason I write quickly is that I understand how my brain works. I have for years. Back when I was churning words as a corporate consultant (they get paid by the pound, y’know), I figured out that my brain needed time to noodle. So I’d do some research and then I’d sit and play video games. Nothing that made me think. Just the stuff – like bejeweled blitz, seven or solitaire – that distracted my front-brain so it couldn’t pass judgement on what my writer-brain was coming up with.

To this day I still work this way. I’ll set myself a goal for what I want to get done, then I’ll play games. Sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes two or three. Eventually my brain says, “K, that’s enough,” I open up a word document and the story pours out. It’s a little bit like magic for me.

Now comes research from the University of California, Santa Barbara (wish I were there!) that suggests tackling a problem head on may not be the best way.  Researches asked three groups to tackle problems requiring creative solutions. First each group had to engage in an activity. The first group engaged in a concentration-heavy task. The second did repetitive tasks that let their minds wonder. The third had a short rest that required no metal activity. Turns out those people who did the repetitive task performed best on a standard creativity test called the Unusual Uses Task.

The study done in the META Lab, which focuses on Memory, Emotion, Thought and Awareness, showed that the increased performance came after the subjects were presented with the problem for a second time. So the brain had to know what the problem was, then be distracted to work through it, to come up with the most creative solutions.

The researchers, led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler, believe that this “relatively rare” state created by the repetitive task after the presentation of a problem may give several different brain networks the opportunity to interact, enhancing creative thinking.

The next time you have a problem to which you need a creative solution, try my trick: think about the problem for a while, and set a goal for what you want to achieve. Then go do something repetitive to distract your brain. Then sit down and come up with a plan. Let me know how it works for you.


Karen Grandbois is the winner of the Two Pears in a Pod wallet. Karen, drop me an email with your snail mail addy and I’ll pop it in the mail.

Thank you all for your fabulous Lessons Learned. I’ll be sharing them with everyone starting next Tuesday. Tune in, you might learn a lesson or two.


Gail Vaz-Oxlade

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19 Responses to “How Does Your Brain Work?”

  1. For me it doesn’t always happen that quickly. Sometimes it takes a day or 2 of leaving the idea to percolate, and focusing on other things, or doing some mundane tasks or chores. Suddenly the path or solution becomes clear.
    Like you, I know this is how my brain works, so I don’t fret if I don’t have a solution to a problem right away. I know it will appear, most of the time.

  2. This is very apparent in children with different learning abilities. They need “processing time”. I’ve always said, “then I fit right in, because, so do I”!

  3. I have discovered this as well in my work and while it is useful in all aspects of life it wasn’t until I started my career that I really realize how important it is to do this, for me anyway, so I will work more efficiently. At work I am assigned projects and i find that I work best when I start with making a list of the first small steps I need to do, then leave it and go on to something else for a bit. When I come back to it I make much better progress then I do if I just dive in right away. It takes a bit more time up front but in the long run I end up getting my projects done more quickly and am less likely to feel like I’m hitting the wall at some point.

  4. I’ve always found that I come up with answers to problems (or stories to write) when I exercise and let my mind wander. The only disadvantage is if I’m in the middle of a swim I can’t jump out and jot my ideas down. Probably why I switched to running.

  5. I also play games on facebook like Bejeweled Blitz and Solitaire Blitz. Not only does it give me a time frame to play, but thinking quickly in a game like that sort of alerts my brain and somehow gets me to coming up with other creative ideas that are so different from the game. My husband kinda thinks I’m fooling around but I really need to do this rather than something mind-numbing like watching TV. I’ll play for about 10 minutes tops and go about my day.

  6. This is how I wrote papers in university. I would do all the research a week ahead and then continue with my week and the night before the paper is due sit down and write the whole thing at once. My brain wrote it while I continued with my week. The important this is knowing what works for you.

  7. Fascinating! I’ve never really thought about how my brain works and productivity levels, so I’ve learned something new today! It’s something I’ll be thinking about even more over the next couple of days – optimizing my brain fuction! Something repetitive, eh…?

  8. I find when I write sermons that I let my ideas simmer in my head for a while and then they seem to come together later. Many times the ideas will come in the middle of the night or when I am walking.

  9. @Elizabeth When you’re doing physical activities, swimming or running, keep a mini digital recorder with you. (or use your phone’s recording features) Then you can say your idea and you have a record of it later.

    My ideas come when I try to turn my brain off. I think I need the distraction to process it. But when I take away all stimulation (like having a soak) and finally relax, that’s when the ideas start to pour out.

  10. Years ago after spending the previous few days studying like crazy for my final real estate exam, I all of a sudden looked up at my husband and told him I had absolutely blanked on what I had studied. He told me to clean the fridge.(which is funny, because that was his pride and joy job) Well, feeling completely pertified about the upcoming exam, I took his advice and spent the next hour cleaning the fridge to within an inch of its life. Then I sat down, looked back at my books and it all became clear. I aced the exam but never cleaned the fridge again. :-)

    I have used this method with my kids since they started coming home with homework. They have to set the timer and study hard for 45 minutes, then set the timer again and play hard for 15 minutes. Keep going back and forth till the homework is done. It seems to get done much faster and they are happier campers to be with.

  11. When I can’t remember something – a word, a name, a detail – I will do something distracting like count backwards by 4’s, list the planets, try to name as many countries as I can. It helps the brain relax so it lightens up on the work.

    Cleaning is perhaps the most relaxing thing I can do to clear my head, too.

  12. Just caught 10 mins of Dr. Oz. Apparently, juggling for 15 mins a day, actually GROWS your brain. You have to do it everyday though, as if you don’t for 3 months your brain shrinks back to where it was. It will also keep your brain “young”. Whodua thunk it??

  13. This is so brilliant. I was always like “E” in school. People always told me I was a procrastinator, that they didn’t understand how I got such great marks because they spent weeks studying for exams or writing essays. I always stored information in the back of my mind and it all came together the night before the essay was due. I wasn’t lazy, it’s just how I worked.

    I never thought of it that way though. I’m glad to be reading this because I am going into a field that is primarily writing- which I am good at and enjoy- but often have writer’s block. More often than normal, or so I thought. I will certainly try this technique!!! Thanks Gail.

  14. avatar Marilynne Says:
    February 2, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    And I thought I was just a proctastinator! I have always found that if I am stumped with a crossword puzzle if I set it aside for a while – or the next day – the answer just pops into my head. Now that I am retired career applications aren’t an issue but it helps with my volunteering projects.

  15. I thought I was the only one! Often, when trying to figure something out or waiting for creative inspiration to hit, I sit and play video games. Bejeweled is a favorite too … and Solitaire. I use them as a way to take the focus off of what I am trying to figure out, and allow my brain time to just “chill” and mull over what I am trying to find a solution too. I’ve always found it very helpful for me, but I never guessed it was actually a useful thing to do. And here I thought I was just wasting time! Good to know it’s actually productive.

  16. I’m glad somebody wrote on this topic, I’m just the opposite of prolific. Istruggle to put a thousand words down, then agonize about editing timake it read right. I find that your right, I get some really good ideas for posts when my brain isn’t engaged. I use evernote to jot them down since it’s on every computer, phone and tablet I use.

  17. Finally a study I found useful! :) It is funny, I too like many of your commentors knew or at least suspected this given how they perform at work or when they were in school. I used to say it takes me a while to make up my mind, but when I do, I am set with my answer. Now that you have so eloquently explained it to us, I will be sure to utilize this a lot more often. I am sure I will be more productive now too!

  18. Very interesting. Should try this!

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