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(Konstantin Grebnev/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Konstantin Grebnev/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Rotman Magazine

Stuck on a problem? Then take a break Add to ...

Dr. Schwartz is an internationally-recognized authority on one of the most prevalent and debilitating patterns in the brain – Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). He has developed a successful behaviour therapy at the UCLA School of Medicine for patients suffering from OCD, called the UCLA Four Steps. Here’s the thing: he doesn’t use drugs to treat patients. Instead, he teaches them to rewire their brain by changing how they think. As he described his four-step method to me, it seemed quite obvious that it could apply to anything we want to change.

Step 1: Relabel.

The first step is to relabel a given thought, feeling, or behaviour as something else. An unwanted thought could be relabelled ‘false message’ or ‘brain glitch.’ This amounts to training yourself to clearly recognize and identify what is real and what isn’t, refusing to be tricked by your own thoughts. You step back and say, “This is just my brain sending me a false message.” For someone with OCD, instead of saying, “I have to check the stove,” they would start saying, “I am having a compulsive urge to check the stove.”

Step 2: Reattribute.

The second step answers the question, “Why do these thoughts keep coming back?” The answer is that the brain is misfiring, stuck in gear, creating mental noise, and sending false messages. In other words, if you understand why you’re getting those old thoughts, eventually you’ll be able to say, “Oh, that’s just a brain glitch.” That raises the natural next question: What can you do about it?

Step 3: Refocus.

The third step is where the toughest work is, because it involves the actual changing of behaviour. Having recognized the problem for what it is and why it’s occurring, you now have to replace the old behaviour with new things to do. This is where the change in brain chemistry occurs, because you are creating new patterns, new mindsets. By refusing to be misled by the old messages, by understanding they aren’t what they tell you they are, your mind is now in charge of your brain.

Step 4: Revalue.

With a consistent way to replace the old behaviour with the new, you begin to see old patterns as simple distractions. You devalue them as being completely worthless. Eventually the old thoughts begin to fade in intensity, the brain works better, and the automatic transmission in the brain begins to start working properly.

“Two very positive things happen,” says Dr. Schwartz. “The first is that you’re happier, because you have control over your behavioural response to your thoughts and feelings. The second is that by doing that, you change the faulty brain chemistry.” Dr. Schwartz confirmed that his methods could be used to create change in any area of business, work or life.

Taking a Break.

In his recent best-selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer refers to the need to take breaks when grappling with difficult problems, writing that, “While it is commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to relentlessly focus, this clenched state of mind comes with a hidden cost: it inhibits the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs. We suppress the very type of brain activity that should be encouraged.”

New research is shedding light on the idea that to be more productive and creative, we need to make break-taking a regular business practice.

At the University of Luebeck in Germany, neuroendocrinologist Ullrich Wagner has demonstrated that the ultimate break – sleep – actually promotes the likelihood of sudden creative insights. In one experiment, he gave volunteers some Mensa-style number sequences to solve, along with two logical rules to use in manipulating them to find the pattern. But there was a single, simpler, ‘hidden’ rule that they might discover as they worked through the sequences. The subjects were allowed to practice several times with the given rules, and were then told to take a break. Some took naps, some didn’t.

Upon returning to the experiment to continue doing more problems, those who had taken a nap found the hidden rule much more often than those who hadn’t. Wagner believes that information is consolidated by a process taking place in the hippocampus – the part of the brain that bundles and repackages memories and fragments of information from other areas and sends them to the frontal cortex to be synthesized into higher-level thought – during sleep, enabling the brain to clear itself and, in effect, reset, all the while forming new connections and associations. It is this process that is the foundation for creativity. The result is new insight and the aha! feeling of the so-called Eureka moment.

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