A recent study from Northwestern University researcher Mark Beeman extends his work on creativity and inspiration. We all know those moments when we’ve been struggling with a problem for a while, and then suddenly we see the answer. An article in the New York Times gives an example: what do “trip,” “house,” and “goal” have in common? Think about if for a moment. It isn’t the kind of problem that you can sit down and work through, like a math question. Even if you start going through possibilities in your mind, you may eventually have a moment when you see the answer (they all can come after “field”).
Beeman shows that people can do this kind of puzzle better when they are in a relaxed frame of mind, such as after seeing a comedy video. Beeman speculates that at such a time, your mind is more able to make the kind of new connections that help to solve this kind of problem.
This has implications for understanding the neurochemistry of puzzle solving. Why do we enjoy puzzles, games, and problems? One possible answer is that working them stimulates the release of the brain chemical dopamine in the parts of your brain that are associated with pleasure (interestingly, drugs of abuse also stimulate the release of dopamine). Working and especially solving puzzles may be inherently rewarding because of dopamine release, explaining why so many of us can spend so much time on them.
Dopamine is key in understanding cognitive abilities such as working memory and psychomotor speed, as it is critically important to both of them. One theory of the cognitive changes that occur with increasing age implicates lower levels of dopamine in the brain, so anything that helps keep that chemical system active is probably important.
Beeman’s work suggests that getting to the solution may also involve other brain systems, or at least a change in the status of brain systems that focus attention. Instead of tightly focused attention on the problem, being able to disconnect from it in a limited way may facilitate the problem’s solution.
The bottom line: Developing the ability to let go and relax when solving a problem may be an important part of getting to the solution. Deadly serious practice of cognitive tasks may promote your brain’s fitness, but getting to the answer of some problem may be facilitated by relaxing.