Metacognition and the anterior superior temporal gyrus
Manfred Mareck joins Jonah Lehrer for a spot of mental gymnastics as the neuroscience writer attempts to help researchers train their brains to aid the insight discovery process.
After lunch it was food for thought – another keynote address by writer and ‘new thinker’ Jonah Lehrer, who talked about the science of creativity and how we make decisions. He focused specifically on how humans arrive at moments of insight – epiphanies if you will; thoughts and ideas that seemingly come out of nowhere but where we instinctively know that we arrived at the right solution once the idea reaches our conscious awareness.
Neuroscience and brain scans have helped to locate the part of the brain where true insights occur – it’s the anterior superior temporal gyrus if you must know – where otherwise remote and unconnected associations are brought together and linked. We may think that paying more attention to the problem we are trying to solve will help. Instead, said Lehrer we should try and relax, even think of completely different topics. MRI scans show alpha waves as the dominant patterns of brain activity, indicating that a relaxed state of mind and positive mood are important preconditions to generating true insights or ‘a-ha’ moments. Maybe that’s why creative agencies or dotcom companies always seem to have dart boards or ping pong tables in their social areas.
By contrast, much of our problem solving is based on analytical thinking that occurs in our working memory, or frontal cortex, which is why we are aware of the progress (or lack of progress) that we are making.
One way to adjust mental strategies is to practise metacognition: thinking about thinking to solve insight problems. Solutions to these kinds of problems can be found either by an individual or in group brainstorming sessions. When the latter is used it is best to bring together specialists from various disciplines that are only marginally involved with the problem at hand, because when experts are asked to think within their own discipline they are often locked into a pre-conceived intellectual box.
After the mental gymnastics I retreated to a session where three young researchers (Annelies Verhaeghe, InSites Consulting, Belgium; Ganael Bascoul, ESCP Europe, France; and Cristina Paez, Consultor Apoyo, Ecuador) presented their individual projects (on sustainability and issues concerned with ageing). What struck me was not only their professionalism, but their enthusiasm, a genuine identification with their task and real pride in their work. I hope they all go far in their chosen careers.
Sticking with the theme of sustainability was Adam Werbach of Saatchi & Saatchi. His research shows that people consider social and economic issues to be just as important as environmental concerns in the drive for sustainability. Brazilian, Mexican, Chinese, or Indian consumers seem to be more hopeful and think more about sustainability than their counterparts in the developed work, especially in the UK and the USA. But overall few people feel they have enough information to make decisions about sustainability and product labels are found by many to be confusing or untrustworthy.
Companies that ignore consumer sentiment or outright lie to consumers (as some do) do so at their peril as customers feel betrayed by the brand they thought they could trust. Companies need to set themselves aspirational ‘North Star’ goals that create hope for consumers.
There certainly was plenty of talk about ethics, responsibility and sustainability today – it remains to be seen how much of this will eventually lead to real action.