University of Calgary

A-Ha!

Submitted by alumni on Fri, 05/30/2014 - 15:05.

A-Ha!

Brainstorming ideas is less about what’s inherently in your brain and more about how, and where, you choose to practise it.
Story by Jennifer Allford | Photos by James May | Illustrations by Byron Eggenschwiler

We used to think that, if you could do math in your head — say, 342 X 87 — you were born “left-brained,” meaning you tended to be more sequential, logical and analytical. If, on the other hand, you were “right-brained,” you were more creative and random and probably not very good at math (the answer, for the record, is 29,754).

It was a popular way of thinking for decades, but the whole notion of different “cognitive styles” is fading out of fashion. “There is less belief that that’s an accurate way of describing people,” says Penny Pexman, a psychology professor and member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary. “There are small differences in how we think, but they’re not nearly as big as we’ve been painting them to be.”

In fact, we have more commonalities than differences. Whether you’re discovering neural stem cells or directing a play, when we come up with a good idea, the neurons firing in our brains look pretty much the same. “There is a neural signature, a particular set of areas that tend to be active when the light bulb goes on over your head,” says Pexman.

We have the same physiology — the same sections of our brains turn on and light up in our a-ha! moments — but we draw on different information as we brainstorm ideas. “The knowledge bases that are being drawn on involve different regions of the brain,” says Pexman. “But [it’s] the bringing it together and the recognition — that ‘Oh my gosh, I think I have a solution’ — that looks the same in everybody.”

How best to get to that moment is the stuff of thousands of business and pop-psychology books, and over the next few pages we offer you our own peek into how a few different people, and faculties, harness their brainwaves to create a magical incubator.

Many encourage “freewheeling” associations where employees, or students, defer judgment in a positive, uncritical space — not unlike many work environments that encourage brainstorming sessions. However, a group-think approach to creative problem-solving is no longer the only school of thought. Room for debate, criticism and time to think alone is perhaps even more valuable.

As you meet our thinkers, consider that any one of us can always acquire knowledge and build new neural networks — the highways in our brain that we use to think. “Anytime you challenge yourself and you take on a skill that’s difficult for you and you improve at it,” says Pexman, “you’re changing your brain.”

That means anyone can do math in their head.