Hear that? A party in your brain’s basement, and insight lets loose there. Only, we’ve all but shut it down. Here’s how it looks in couples counseling: to forgive or not, to divorce or not, to keep on with IVF or not, to take a new job or not, to speak up or not. We think we need to hunker down and focus on the to-do-or-not-to-do problem. Keep talking (or arguing) about it.
Too bad, because like thumpin’ music and a good crowd, that basement party is where our best ideas and solutions hang out. Stay with me here; neuroscience backs this up.
Before meeting me, many couples have already done the “couples counseling” thing with someone else in the past. By contrast, they’re surprised that our sessions don’t ultra focus on the problems choking them. Yet, resolution still somehow finds its way in so they can breathe easily again.
This is because we are respecting how the brain really works. The basement party. Otherwise, the brain does not deliver insight, not when we constantly tighten our focus. Such insistence to immediately know what to do puts us into a “let’s talk and talk and talk about it” mode. That’s exhausting and unproductive.
What’s more, we tend to have little confidence about what we want to do or could do. Instead, we think about what we should do, and this is usually influenced too much by others.
This (lengthy) blogpost explains how to stop choking, so you can get to more aha moments. More resolution. More authentic direction. I’ve a hunch I could just cut to the part where I give you three how-to steps. But, I’m going to (mistakenly) stick with my more active brain and write too much. Otherwise, scroll down to the end of this post. I know you want to. I would.
THE BRAIN’S BASEMENT PARTY
In his cover article Aha! Spark the Insight that Changes Everything, Bruce Grierson writes, “The brain’s resting-circuitry employs the best, wisest, and most creative mechanics.” This is the basement party that I joke about. The party that we either ignore or shut down.
Yet, neuroscientists like Marcus Raichle of Washington University in St. Louis discovered that the party in the basement, which is an unconscious part of our brain and thought only to be “resting-circuity,” is in fact twenty times more powerful for delivering ideas and solutions than our active conscious brain.
Our active conscious brains are our executive office, the upper frontal cortex located literally above the eyes behind the forehead like a penthouse corner suite with a view of the world. We are conscious of this executive cortex suite, which means we know we are thinking and we recall what we are thinking about.
It’s why in couples counseling, many couples want to think and think and think; they feel like maybe they will get somewhere. But, they don’t. They get stuck. Fear, second-guessing, conformity, the external world, and all the should’s: these bog them down. The executives in their head throw the party out, namely, the hunches and gut feelings.
This is why we usually only have split second thoughts that escape us. Our most fitting, useful and creative notions sneak out of the basement party and into our executive suite of consciousness. Woohoo! But, kick! They are in an instant bounced out by our defense mechanisms of rationalizing, judging, and so on.
COGNITIVE INHIBITION & A HUNCH
At the University of California in Santa Barbara, neuroscientist Jonathan Schooler researches cognitive inhibition. Thinking about a problem too often and too methodically blocks off real authentic solutions that fit a person. “Hunches” can’t float into the consciousness with clarity. Instead, an idea or sense of direction goes poof! Damn, I just had it. But now it’s gone.
A hunch is a kind of pre-aha.
“A hunch is a kind of pre-aha,” says Mark Beeman, a leading neuroscientist and researcher of insight, whose work looks at free association and remote association at Northwestern University. A hunch is a physical signal of what to do next. A budding feeling that something is important here and I’d better pay attention to it. Only, in today’s world, we don’t pay it attention. We check our Facebook and email instead.
If we are lucky enough for the laid back, unconscious part(y) of our brain to make its way into the executives’ prefrontal cortex suite, we’ve got ourselves an Aha! moment.
Aha moments feel sudden and crystal clear. But, they’ve been partying in our basements for long whiles. So profound are these basement thoughts that, if they finally get the attention of our heads’ “rational” executives, the aha moments tend to positively sway our new life course without us much looking back. Research suggests people with profound aha moments are more authentic and content.
GO OUT & PLAY
So, to counter our modern tendencies of distraction and critical executive thought, we have to be savvier about sensing our hunches. Hunches are subtle physical cues. I feel it in my gut, as the saying goes. To recognize long forgotten hunches, I advise clients to quit trying so hard. Go out and play. Just play.
To wake up our senses, we have to get out of our comfort zones. This breaks the strangle-hold and monotony of our prefrontal “executive” cortex.
Some professionals are earning a living at exclusively teaching people how to play. (I know, right.) As someone who, as a child, received asylum in the U.S. from post-Chernobyl Ukraine, Tania Luna calls herself a surprisologist. In Brooklyn, she founded the company Surprise Industries, which specializes in delivering novelty to individuals and groups. Next month, her book co-written with LeeAnn Renninger, PhD, Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable & Engineer the Unexpected comes out. In brief, Luna and Renninger really get that cutting out from one’s predictable pattern, even in small ways, is essential for life, love, and learning.
My frontal cortex executive poo-poos that it’s as easy to play as Luna makes it seem. In an interview for Psychology Today magazine, she suggests we surprise our partners by shooting a nerf gun…Uh, my hubby is not going to like my reaction at a day’s end if he pulls a nerf gun on me. But, watching a new TV series that isn’t remotely interesting to either of us (at first); I can try that.
AHA! BIG HEADS ON STICKS
All this talk about play and surprise. Toss in the word spontaneity too, because the sex-guru Esther Perel is bringing this longtime factor back into a much deserved spotlight. We have to give up feeling in control, feeling secure.
And, what does this do for us, exactly? Besides feeling more alive. Yes, the executives in my corner office want to know.
Here’s the memo: Bodily awareness and emotion are more intertwined than we want to admit. These days, we are mostly just big heads on sticks. We’ve little curiosity about what lights us up, what makes the body sense more alertness. (You can read more about “forms of vitality” as best explained by Dr. Daniel Stern in my previous blog, Cake is Great Therapy. Sorta.)
Meanwhile, as confirmed in the 2013 study Human Brain Mapping, paying attention and articulating our bodily state invites the unconscious basement party up to the brain’s executive offices, at least long enough to become crystal clear. The executive frontal cortex will claim it was his/her idea but whatever.
This body-emotion wisdom is known as interoceptive awareness. Tori Rodriguez, an Atlanta-based writer for the Scientific Mind and a psychotherapist, first introduced me to this work. People with high interoceptive awareness (i.e, intricately sensing the slightest shifts of their heart rate, hunger levels, muscle tension) prove to be very intuitive. On the other hand, those with low interoceptive awareness can as much as suffer depersonalization disorders, eating disorders, depression, et cetera. Most of us live somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.
We sense something is lingering in the back of our minds or we feel it in our guts.
Still, our most enlivening, energy-charged “party plans” never get traction as active, clear thoughts. We veto most hunches and premature ideas. We stick to what is familiar, mistaking it as secure. We say things like, “The problem is…” as if we wouldn’t be up to the task of whatever surprise or spontaneity comes along.
HOW TO GET INTO YOUR OWN BRAIN’S PARTY
This part of the blog will seem flimsy, if you did skip the bulk of above. And, that’s okay. The take-away is that our over-active brains are holding us back. We have to allow ourselves to veg out, so that an even more powerful (albeit unconscious) part of the brain can generate ideas and direction. When we least think we are being productive, we actually are the most productive. Insight comes from the basement party. So, to get into your own brain’s basement party, you have to:
- Lower your resistance to strange concepts and unfamiliar material
- Detect your routine pattern of thinking
- Recognize your defense mechanisms
- Set aside your more active thoughts and defenses
- Tune into your muscle tension, jitters, giggles, sighs, headaches, broad grins, grimaces, wide eyes or whatever your body does as you entertain something new or forgotten
Practical approaches to achieve the above necessities are:
- Go out and play
- Sign up for something you wanted to do as a kid
- Read new topics, look in new places, listen to new music
- Read more, look more, listen more
- Write down a timid hunch, so it won’t altogether escape you forever
- Step away from the iPhone so that you can hear yourself & your body
- Dare to act on an itsy bitsy hunch or impulse like opening up to a spouse or stranger (Sure, this might be the same person for some.)
- Connect with a relaxed therapist who’s trained in asking the curious questions (See my recent rant on this.)