Posts Tagged ‘incubation’

Misconceptions About Memory

August 2, 2019

This is the third post in a new series of posts on Healthy Memory. One common misconception is that memory is a complete recording of our experience. Only certain information is stored. Mnemonic techniques (on which there is an entire category of posts) and effective study techniques are ways of increasing the likelihood of information being remembered. But other information remains, some of which one might like to forget.

Memories can change over time at the subconscious level. Remember the analogy of the corporate headquarters. This information is held on the lower floors and we are unlikely to be aware of these changes. Moreover, memories tend to be cleaned up over time in an effort to make them more coherent. HM frequently has the experience of encountering new information which reminds him of previous information or studies, some of which he might have personally conducted. His typical finding is that the conclusions of the study are remembered correctly, but the evidence, although supportive, is not as strong as he remembered.

It is also important to remember that most failures to recall are due to information being available in memory, but inaccessible at the time of recall. If you try hard to recall the information, but still fail, it is likely that at some time in the future, the next day for example, the information will suddenly pop into consciousness.

The corporate building metaphor for memory provides a helpful means of thinking about memory failures. The failure of your conscious efforts to recall this information indicates to the cognitive staff on the lower floors that this information is important to you and needs to be recalled. So at a subconscious level retrieval continues. It is likely that these subconscious efforts to recall are healthy because they strengthen previous memory connections that had been weakened through nonuse.

So, what should be done when a senior moment is experienced? Not only seniors experience senior moments. All humans have them. It’s just less likely to have them the younger we are. So when you cannot recall something you want to remember, persist in trying to recall. Try to retrieve for a reasonable amount of time. This signals from the executive suite (remember we are talking about the corporate metaphor for memory presented in the previous post of this series) for the cognitive staff on the lower floors to continue to look for this information. The search will continue at a subconscious level. At an unexpected time, the result is likely to pop into consciousness.

There are many stories about scientists and mathematicians who worked for long periods of time, sometimes many years, on a problem, but failed to solve it. Then, unexpectedly, the answer suddenly appears in their conscious mind. There is a name for this phenomenon and that name is incubation. It is the result of large amount of subconscious processing conducted after the conscious mind decided to rest from the problem.
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The Creative Brain

February 26, 2019

The title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” The chapter begins,
“‘Right brain good, left brain bad.’ That belief about creativity and the right and left hemispheres of the brain dates back to the Seventies, and reflects a very outdated bit of neuromythology. The new understanding about left and right hemispheres is more specific to the topography of the brain: when it comes to left versus right, do you mean left front, left middle, left rear?”

The right hemisphere has more neural connections both within itself and through the brain. It has strong connections to emotional centers like the amygdala and to subcortical regions throughout the lower parts of the brain. The left side has far fewer connections with itself and beyond to the rest of the brain. The left hemisphere is made of neatly stacked vertical columns, which allow the clear differentiation of separate mental functions, but less integration of those functions. The right hemisphere is more of a mix structurally.

Brain studies on creativity reveal what goes on that “Aha!” moment, when we get a sudden insight. When EEG brain waves are measured during a creative moment, it turns out there is a very high gamma activity that spikes 300 milliseconds before the answer comes to us. This gamma activity indicates the acting together of neurons, as far-found brain cells connect in a new neural network as when a new association emerges. Immediately after that gamma spike, the new idea enters consciousness.

This heightened activity focuses on the temporal area, a center on the side of the right neocortex. This is the same brain area that interprets metaphor and gets jokes. This high gamma spike signals that the brain has a new insight. At that moment, right hemisphere cells are using these longer branches and connections to other parts of the brain. They’ve collected more information and put it together in a novel organization.

In spite of what you might have read or heard, there are two primary modes of creative thinking. The first is to concentrate intently on the goal or problem. The next stage is to let go. During this stage you are relaxing and letting your non conscious brain do its creative thing. This stage is characterized by a high alpha rhythm, which signals mental relaxation, a state of openness, or daydreaming and drifting, where we’re more receptive to new ideas. This sets the stage for novel connections that occur during the gamma spike. Of course, after that “aha moment” you need to return to concentration to evaluate the creative idea and asses how adequately it addresses the problem.

In all but rare cases, this is an iterative process. And this iterative process can occur over the course of years. There are documented cases of mathematicians trying to solve a problem. The problem appears to be intractable, because the “aha” moment never seems to come. But, sometimes it eventually appears seemingly from nowhere.
The name of this process is incubation, because you are not consciously trying to solve the problem. However, your non conscious mind has been working on this problem, perhaps even when you thought you were sleeping.

Goleman concludes the chapter with a final state, implementation. Here’s where a good idea will sink or swim. He remembers talking to the director of a huge research lab. He had about 4,000 scientists and engineers working for him. He told Goleman,”We have a rule about a creative insight: if somebody offers a novel idea, instead of the next person who speaks shooting it down—which happens all to often in organizational life—the next person who speaks must be an angel’s advocate someone who says, ‘that’s a good idea and here’s why.” Goleman writes, “Creative ideas are like a fragile bud—they’ve got to be nurtured so that they can blossom.”

Different creative people use different processes, so there is no optimal way of being creative. Each creative person creates her own creative process, which might even vary from problem to problem.