A friend told me this today, and I didn’t get it at first. But then I understood and it dawned on me that he was right – when you’ve tried all the usual approaches to solve a problem and it seems without exit, then maybe it’s time for some lateral thinking.

What is lateral thinking and how can we benefit from it? Well it’s about creativity, out-of-the box ideas and novel solutions. Something highly valued in today’s world, where increasing uncertainty calls for proportionately increased amounts of lateral thinking. However, this concept is as elusive as it is seductive. The more we try to apply it, the more it escapes us.

Surely all of us have experienced in our lives the equivalent of a writer’s block . With the same frustration as the writer who chases that novel idea that seems never to come, we have moments when we feel trapped by our apparently unsolvable life problems. And since I’m no stranger to this state of mind, I’ve tried to get a glimpse into the science of it.

Neuroscience comes with some interesting explanations for this phenomenon. In his book, Iconoclast, neuroscientist Gregory Berns explores the ways in which our brain sabotages us when we try to find our way out of a difficult situation by using lateral, instead of vertical thinking.

The brain is an energy consuming machine, and a very efficient one too. Our neural networks are built in such a way as to minimize energy consumption for any cognitive task. This is why, after the initial period of learning some new skill, when the brain works hard to accumulate new information and neural activity is at its peak, we start finding it easier and easier to access the information – think of learning a new language and then practicing it extensively, or of learning how to drive. After enough repetition, we start going on auto-pilot – did you ever get home using a familiar route and not even know how you got there? Well, that’s your brain’s way to save energy – it already memorized the map of your route and accesses it even below your level of awareness, giving you space to think of other things while driving.

One might say this trick our brain can play is really useful – and it is, no doubt – actually it’s the reason why we’re able to multitask. However, it has a big downside too. It can blind us to new ways of doing things: coming back to the car example – were you ever in a situation where your usual route home was blocked for a few days while repair works were underway? (If you live in Bucharest you can’t say no to that question!) Well, did it happen that, even if you knew the route was blocked, you found yourself heading that way anyway before realizing you were driving in the wrong direction? If yes, then you’ve experienced the  less pleasant side of cognitive automation.

This same automation mechanism can make us miss details or perspectives that are obvious to others. From minor things, like missing obvious typos when you’re proofreading a text for the third time in a row to more important ones, like getting stuck in your own bad decision making pattern, when there might be a better way.

Now, we might find some intellectual comfort in understanding the problem, but that still doesn’t give us a solution. How can you speed things up when you’re looking for that one brilliant marketing idea that doesn’t come, or for that perfect way of presenting your project to top management, or for that “right” decision on what to do next with your career?

Berns comes up with some suggestions that research has revealed. I’ll mention just one – get out of context. That is, try doing something totally different. If you’re in front of the computer get up and walk around, get out of the building, grab a cup of coffee, go talk to a colleague in a different department. Give your brain a break from the problem that’s been preoccupying you. Sometimes even more radical changes are in order – like exposing yourself to a totally new context – take a trip, go see a museum you haven’t seen before, call an old friend you haven’t seen in ages, do something that requires your brain to make new connections.

And if you’re not able to physically remove yourself from the context, then try bringing someone new in, get a fresh perspective on your problem, preferably from someone whose thinking style is completely different from yours. Sometimes, it might take as little as “sleeping on it”  or talking with a friend in order to get that long awaited insight; some other times it might take a lot more. In any case, the more we ruminate the problem, the less likely we are to find an out -of -the-box solution.

This brings me back to my friend’s wise advice – take a step back from your mountain, whatever that mountain may be in your life, and try to see it in a new light. If you can’t move it, just climb it to cross over!

And if this topic sparkled your interest, please feel free to share your own tips and tricks for getting more insights. That’s surely something we could all use to have more of!