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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 ...

This is a condensed version of an article that appeared in Rotman Magazine, published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

The Neuroscience of Change: How to Reset Your Brain

While it might sound counterintuitive, taking breaks is an essential component of optimal thinking.

In the late Spring of 1905, an utterly frustrated 26-year old Albert Einstein poured his heart out to his friend and fellow Swiss Patent Office worker, Michele Besso. Einstein revealed the puzzle he had been wrestling with for the last decade: either James Maxwell’s equation or Isaac Newton’s laws had to be wrong, but he couldn’t figure out which was the case. Both were pillars of modern Physics, but in his mind they were completely incompatible.

Einstein laid out the issue to Besso: the intricacies of Maxwell’s theory about light travelling at a constant speed contradicted Newton’s concept of absolute space and time. He talked for hours, until he once again surrendered to the problem – completely exhausted, both mentally and physically – whereupon he announced his defeat and intent to abandon the quest for a solution entirely.

Melancholy from his failure, Einstein pushed his thoughts to the back of his mind and headed home. Riding in a streetcar, he gazed out at the famous clock tower that dominated the city of Bern. Suppose, he pondered, this streetcar raced away from the clock tower at the speed of light. What would happen? He was suddenly struck with the realization that since light could not catch up to the streetcar, the clock would appear stopped, but his own clock – say, his pocketwatch – in the streetcar would beat normally.

“A storm broke loose in my mind,” he later recalled. “Suddenly, I understood where the key to the problem lay.”

Einstein’s sudden creative insight was not an exception.

Friedrich von Stradonitz discovered the round shape of the benzene ring after dreaming of a snake biting its tail; Philo Farnsworth was plowing a field as a teenager when the idea for projecting moving images line by line came to him as he gazed out over the even rows, prompting him to use his knowledge of electrons and vacuum tubes and invent the first electronic television; Richard Phillips Feynman was watching someone throw a plate in the air in Cornell University’s cafeteria when the wobbling plate with its red school medallion spinning around sparked the Nobel Prize-winning idea for quantum Electrodynamics; Kary Mullis, another Nobel winner, was driving along a California highway when the chemistry behind the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) came to him; Author J.K. Rowling was travelling on a train between Manchester and London in 1990, thinking about the plot of an adult storyline when the character of Harry Potter flashed in her mind and she was able to work out all the details of a children’s story without so much as a pen and paper; and Shell Oil engineer Jaap Van Ballegooijen’s idea for a snake oil drill came in 2005 as he was watching his son Max turn his bendy straw upside down to better sip around the sides and bottom of his malt glass.

These sudden insights have one thing in common: they all came at strange times and places, and they happened after an intense, prolonged struggle with a particular problem, followed by a break. It is the broken pattern that makes us sit up, take notice, and pay attention. In short, we think differently – and more resourcefully – when a break occurs.

There are two kinds of breaks: those you make, and those you take.

Making a Break

The mysteries of the mind are many and complex. Neuroscience, through the magic of technology, is just beginning to unravel some of them, including neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the mind’s ability to change the brain. Yes, you read that correctly: neuroplasticity radically reverses ages of scientific dogma which held that mental experiences result only from physical goings-on in the brain, and we can’t do much about it. But extensive studies confirm that our mental machinations do alter the physical structure of our brain matter. So, when you change your mind, you also change your brain.

I recently made a number of visits to Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a practicing neuropsychiatrist affiliated with UCLA, and author of several books, to learn more.

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