Think Better (Through Biochemistry)

Have you ever felt that it would be useful if you could “amp up” your thinking and problem solving skills?  Who wouldn’t?   Would you like to be a more creative thinker?   I know I would.  What if you could do things by yourself that would help you on all accounts?

First a Science Lesson

I came across some interesting work in an article called Thinking Outside a Less Intact Box, by Swedish neuro-researchers Manzano, Cervenka, Karabanov, Farde, and Ullén.  (Warning: it is pretty heavy reading if you don’t have a chemistry degree.)

These people were looking into the link between dopamine (the chemical substance commonly associated with pleasure and some addictive behaviors) and creative thinking.  One crucial skill correlated with creativity is called divergent thinking.   In fact, this skill can be tested.   Such tests typically involve generating a multitude of novel and meaningful responses to open-ended questions.  For instance participants might be instructed to propose different uses for certain artifacts, such as a brick or a shoe, within a limited time.

Dopamine’s are neurotransmitters in the brain that promote information flow between different parts of it.  So in theory, the more information you have flowing between and within different parts of your brain, the more ideas you will be generating.   In fact, the Swedish study found high correlation between one’s divergent thinking ability and the flow of dopamine in the frontal lobe of the brain.

So how do we increase dopamine production?

It turns out that you can do quite a lot, including:

  • Improve your diet.  Eat bananas, and other antioxidant rich foods like blueberries and red beans.   Reduce saturated fat, sugar and alcohol consumption.
  • Exercise more. Studies show that even mild exercise (30 min) will stimulate natural dopamine production.
  • Get adequate sleep.  Sleep relaxes the mind, and therefore aids dopamine production.  For most of us, 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

OK, you should be doing these things already.   But among the most interesting ways to increase your dopamine’s, is to experience new things.

If you want to read this article, it is called Exposure to New Experiences Rewarding, from the University College of London.

This seems right, doesn’t it?  When our lives are filled with sameness every day, we get bored, even lethargic . . . like going through life on auto-pilot.  Our brains are not stimulated and we are not at our best in terms of our cognitive output.

When you think about most of the innovation tools and methods out there, they are mainly designed to “surprise” participants with a new situation or assignment they did not expect and then challenge them to look at things with a totally different perspective.    For example, you could ask a group of engineers to list all of the assumptions that they felt were behind the design criteria for a certain product.  Once they have listed their assumptions, try reversing them, asking “What if none of these constraints were true . . . how would that change your design criteria?”    In an environment where it is suddenly OK to think in a different way, people can become amazingly energized and creative.   One assumption they might have listed is the need for a specific low price.   Instead of thinking about how to drive costs down, what about making the ultimate high-priced, high-performance version of your product?   (Why do some companies, for example, think about motorcycles as a low-cost means of transportation (like Suzuki with its TU250X that sells for under $3,800) while others see a bike as the ultimate luxury good (like Harley Davidson whose Electra-Glide CVO motorcycle sells for more than $37,000)?

So challenging people with new ways of thinking can be an effective catalyst for creative thought. Here are some other strategies (guaranteed to stimulate dopamine production):

  • Get out of your office.  Meet offsite.  A new location, venue, or destination can help you clear cobwebs.   Combine your meeting with some activity that your people have never done.   (Personally, I prefer ones that have a learning purpose, like our Cincy Chef program that teaches team planning, problem solving and executions skills in a competitive time-constrained cooking challenge that we do in a specially designed kitchen design studio.)
  • Visit and talk with customers.  Be prepared to have you assumptions challenged, all you need to do is go out where customers are, ask them questions, and listen without getting defensive.  Conduct surveys, or have a focus-group.    Be on the lookout for the unexpected things that they dislike, find value in and where they find it disappointing to do business with you.
  • Visit other companies.  I have never visited another company (whether a supplier, customer, client or competitor) where I did not learn something valuable.   Everyone is good at some things that you are probably not.   At some level, many of us are trying to solve the same problems (like drive down cost, improve our customer experience, safeguard our information, develop successful new products, etc.)   Sometimes others will have thought of solutions you have NEVER considered.
  • Look outside your industry, or region.  In my business, we operated in Asia, Europe, and North America. When traveling throughout our markets, I was always struck by how differently customers in these regions saw our products, defined quality, sought features, or expected support differently.    Each difference (even subtle ones) you observe just might trigger ideas that could be applied elsewhere.  Also your “home team” is not likely to have a monopoly on all clever ideas.
  • Play (like you once did).  See also my article Play . . . Seriously?   Take a group of adults, give them pile of Lego blocks or Tinker Toys and then challenge them build something in a way that relates to a business problem they are facing.  Here again, in the right environment, the inhibitions will melt away, increasing dramatically the flow of ideas. Good facilitation helps.
  • Go to a conference.   I’m convinced there is a conference addressing almost every imaginable problem or issue you can imagine across the globe.  Do your homework by researching the conference, checking out the social media comments, and evaluate the speakers before you sign up, but pick some that are strategically important to you and your business, and go immerse yourself in a world filled with thought-provokers and thought-leaders.   You only need to meet one key person or hear one key new idea to make the event worth it.   Then come back home and talk with your colleagues about what you learned and how it might be adapted within your business.

You might feel that these ideas or activities take too much time, or cost too much.   You may feel “how can we afford it?”  I would ask you “How can you afford not?”

Other Source:

Here is an interesting TED talk on the chemical drivers behind creativity and how we interpret patterns.


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Filed under Innovation, Personal Leadership

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