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  • Kirsi Aalto

Recharging Our Minds – Balancing Our Rational Thinking and Creative Insights by Learning to Focus

Not all information is necessarily power and sometimes we may need to take a break, tap into our intuition, and recharge.

Rational Thinking Intuition Psychology at work


“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift; the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”


- Albert Einstein



Albert Einstein’s above statement may in fact be more fitting in today’s society than ever before. There is a battle of information outlets trying to win over our attention whilst we are frantically trying to make sense of the information we are presented with. When we process information rationally, we are driven by logic and focused in the here and now, producing continuous brain chatter. In order to keep our focus, our brains need to weed out any distractions that come in our way, which can be seen as being the faithful servant controlling any primitive impulses and insights. Notably, due to the excessively high volume of data we process on a day to day basis, it is important however not to become too rigid in our thinking – to learn to stretch our focus.


What we may think is our intuition, a hunch based on our past knowledge and experience, guiding us, can be in fact a cognitive error.

When hard at analytical work, our rational brains are motivated to process information by attuning to the finer, practical details. However, this takes a lot of brainpower. In order to preserve our energy when we are overwhelmed with data and experience high levels of stress, we are more prone to making snap decisions and flawed judgements. To help us deal with gaps in our knowledge, we are relying on our unconscious brain to fill in the blanks, which can be prone to subjective, biased, and distorted thinking patterns. Therefore, what we may think is our intuition, a hunch based on our past knowledge and experience, guiding us, can be in fact a cognitive error. Furthermore, as the line between our intuitions and cognitive errors can be rather blurred, we need to challenge the way we process information, both conscious or unconscious.


THE UNCONSCIOUS SOURCE OF CREATIVE INSIGHT


However, it is not all bad news as our intuition holds incredible potential. As well as being a catalyst to a lot of our biases and snap judgements, our intuitive minds are heuristics driven and can tap into our past experiences, evoking creative, sometimes nonverbal, insight. In other words, tapping into our intuition enables us to think more holistically, connecting the dots, to find novel solutions.


Notably, even though this creative insight and innovation is something most employers look for in today's competitive market, we tend to live in a rational world. Utilising our intuitive mind is often neglected because it is seen as a distraction to our rational thoughts, in other words, waste of our practical brainpower.


A BATTLE OR A COLLABORATION?


As mentioned above, our brains are at a constant go and the flow of serendipitous and novel thoughts and insights is – often deliberately – avoided. This is because we keep being told that the ultimate key to success is to focus – focusing your mind, focusing your thoughts and keeping your eye on the target. However, it can be equally important to learn to shift your focus from your immediate reality to the bigger picture, as well as from external stimuli inward.


One of the scientific reasons behind the rational brain taking over our thoughts is the fact that it not only rationalises, but also justifies whereas the intuitive brain responds to any negative consequences or feedback more subjectively. So, in order to protect ourselves, we attempt to rationalise and justify our behaviour.


In order to protect ourselves, we attempt to rationalise and justify our behaviour.

When we are over-utilising our rational brain, intensely focused on the facts, we are less likely to simultaneously remain curious and creative. Although remaining focused can of course bring us success, this focus can also be counter-productive in many ways. For example, our focus can start shaping into a narrow-minded approach, a rigid ‘tunnel vision’, and in result we are losing awareness of what is happening around us. The question is, how can we find this balance for our thoughts and ideas, fluctuating somewhere between a state of unimaginativeness and a scatterbrain?


CREATIVE AWARENESS IN THE ERA OF GREAT WORRY


In his book Focus, internationally renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman describes the concept of open awareness as a form of attentiveness and a source of creativity, characterised by being utterly receptive of whatever floats into one’s mind. This allows our minds to be open to imagination and open to surprise. However, achieving the state of open awareness is not necessarily a simple or speedy process. When you think about it, for many of us it can be a somewhat uncommon experience in our modern society to be in complete solitude, in the company of nobody else but ourselves. This is to not only be alone in our thoughts but also digitally away from everyone else – no smartphones, no emails, no alerts or messages. This is the type of solitude and awareness that can truly allow our minds to wander.


Interestingly, the global pandemic of 2020 perhaps allowed for more time in solitude and one might argue that this has given humans more time to just sit with their thoughts and creative insights. On the other hand, the pandemic has also greatly increased our fear and anxiety, factors which are widely known to suppress our creative thought processes and insights, so instead we are powering on on autopilot.


THE POWER OF DAYDREAM


Neurological studies suggest that half of our thoughts are in fact daydreams – drifting thoughts that switch from personal problems to unresolved dilemmas. Although it appears as we are procrastinating, this is often when novel connections are made and creative insight happens. All of us can relate to a time when the problem we should have been focusing our thoughts on can seem too intimidating or challenging to consciously process or think about, and then, out of the blue, we experience an ‘a-ha’ moment in the midst of our wondering thoughts. Our minds have unconsciously, or unthinkingly, done the thinking for us.


RFEFLECT & RECHARGE


In addition to generating new ideas, Goleman suggests that other benefits for this mind-wandering are self-reflection and the navigation of social situations. Whilst self-reflection increases our awareness of ourselves, the reflection of social situations increases our awareness of others and strengthens our interpersonal skills. However, perhaps crucially, an additional benefit of letting your mind wander is simply giving the brain a restoring break. Our brain can be like an overworked muscle; if we stay intensely focused for too long it gets tired as we are pushing to the point of cognitive exhaustion. But taking a break can help regain focus and make you more productive.


Taking a break can help regain focus and make you more productive.

We all need time and space to reflect and letting our thoughts run free and the mind wander is important for attention restoration. For an effective restoration that will truly revive your brainpower, we should avoid the kind of activity that puts a demand on our attention. Such activities as meditation or walking through a park or a forest, or generally being part of the nature can trigger intuitive attention in our brain and thus giving the rational, higher level brain circuits a break, which effects in overall improvement in one’s cognition.


In conclusion, we must remember that not all information is necessarily power and sometimes we may need to take a break. Whilst being alert to our unconscious biases, there are times when we will need to go beyond the facts and tap into our unconscious; letting the open awareness of our imagination take over the excessive flow of information in order to recharge, and to reach our ‘a-ha’ –moment.