Neuroscience explains innovative thinking

You can become just like Archimedes when he discovered how to measure the volume of an irregular object.

It happened because a king asked Archimedes to find out whether his new crown was pure gold or whether the goldsmith was a cheapskate who had added other less valuable metals, such as silver. Archimedes noticed that water was displaced when his body sunk into the bath and the volume of water displaced equalled the volume of his body immersed in the water. His eureka moment happened when he realised different metals had different density and displaced different volumes. He then realised he could measure the density of the crown and compare it to a bar of pure gold. He asked himself: "Would a pure gold crown displace and weigh more than one with silver mixed into it?" It did, and he was right. Eureka!

Through brain research we are now able to describe the eureka effect and where exactly it occurs in the brain. If you ever have been to London, you might know that taxi drivers have an uncanny skill they call "the knowledge", which ensures they know how to find any place in the city's messy web of lanes and roads. Neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire from the University College London studied "the knowledge effect". She noticed that the brains of taxi drivers became bigger in the hippocampus and that this part was much larger in London cab drivers than in other people. Clinical studies have linked it to memory and awareness.

Solve Problems
So, can I just learn a lot about a topic and then have a eureka moment? Well, yes and no. Yes, you will know a lot by learning and memorising the details of a topic, but no, you will not  have a eureka moment unless you have a problem that needs to be solved. The answer suddenly seems to arrive when you least expect it. Perhaps you have noticed that it sometimes happens while you are falling asleep,, or during exercise, or while you are doing something pleasant and repetitive such as knitting, running or cooking.

It might feel like they do, but eureka moments do not pop up out of the blue. They come as a result of quiet contemplation on problems you find deeply curious. You need to have a "sexy" problem that you really, really want to solve. If you have this desperate curiosity, you will first do the homework and build up your hippocampal muscle and then let your prefrontal cortex unconsciously do the heavy lifting and join the dots while you sit under a tree like Newton, or take a bath like Archimedes, ensuring you innovatively cause a state of bilateral activation in the prefrontal cortex.

Do this
Do all the homework on a topic that interests you. This builds your hippocampus like a mental muscleman, ensuring you have all the knowledge and know your topic inside out.

Find a cool problem that you would like to solve.

Get stressed – even spend a few sleepless nights analysing. Getting a bit stressed by not knowing the answer engages the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This will make you feel the neurotransmission of stress in your body and brain, but in a good way; it is called useful stress.

Be careful not to get too stressed because it will cause allostatic loading and shut down the prefrontal cortex, which means you will not be able to think straight or innovate.

If you get the balance right between knowledge, useful stress and the hunger to solve a problem, you will get "in the zone" and apply the part of your brain called the claustrum. It is a thin, irregular sheet of neurons that is attached to the underside of the neocortex in the centre of the brain and is now considered a seventh layer of the cortex in the insular region. In a paper written by the late neuroscientist Francis Crick, he and his colleagues discussed that the claustrum could pertain to consciousness, and many researchers have agreed.  

When you learn to train your brain to find eureka moments, you will first need to have enough data in your hippocampus. Enough irritation of your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and your prefrontal cortex will then unconsciously join the dots, causing an innovative idea to pop up out of your claustrum into your prefrontal cortex. However, this process does require a certain kind of neurological fitness.

Dr Justin Kennedy is the head of programmes in personal excellence at the University of the Free State's business school

Why an Innovation Summit?

The main purpose of the SA Innovation Summit is to create a platform to teach, learn and develop new models for thinking about innovation and create sustainable functional networks across the multi-helix.

The principles that drive every summit are: collaboration, enabling innovation, a WOW factor, value beyond expectation and deep and connected learning.

The summit has grown from an initial 100 people participating in 2008 to just over 300 people participating in 2011 and a target of 500 participants in 2012.

The audience comes from all industries in the private sector, government, academia and entrepreneurs.

They are mostly senior decision makers, innovation managers, innovation and creativity experts and consultants, business owners (small to large) and academics interested in the field of innovation and entrepreneurship.

As a media partner, the Mail & Guardian has chosen to print a selection of opinion pieces from some of this year's speakers, to whet our readers' appetite for innovation.

The 5th SA Innovation Summit will take place August 29 and 30 2012 in Johannesburg. Forum at The Campus, 1st Floor, Wanderers Building, The Campus Office Park, 57 Sloane Street, Bryanston

Pre-Summit Workshops take place on August 28 2012. Registration details and a full programme are available at

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