Thoughts On Problem-Solving, Creativity and Polar Bears

Let’s try it for yourself. Pause and try not to think of a polar bear for the next 3 minutes.

The name of Daniel Wegner might not be familiar to you, but some of his life work might be. Dr Wegner was a psychologist and professor at Harvard University and one of his most memorable contributions is the iconic process theory – also known as the polar bear phenomenon.

What’s that about?

As its name suggests, it is about a disturbing trick our mind is playing on us.

Let’s try it for yourself. Pause and try not to think of a polar bear for the next 3 minutes.

That’s it, stay still, perhaps sit and do not think of a polar bear for the next minutes or so.

Any success?

Science says “probably not”.

That’s the irony of our mental control and thought suppression. If you voluntarily focus your attention, your mental capabilities to push back a thought, it backfires. You simply make the thought more vivid in your mind.

See what happens when you go to bed, trying to find your sleep, but you are still in your thoughts. 

You had a bad day at work, maybe you had a communication issue with a colleague and you are not sure of what she meant. Maybe you are worried about a future customer meeting to come.

You have all these thoughts in your mind, looping. Then you go to bed and you say to yourself: “alright, now, stop thinking about this – it’s time to sleep”.

Stop thinking about the polar bear.

And guess what? You couldn’t close an eye for the whole night.

You kept looking at the ceiling, turning on in your bed while ruminating.

And the worst part of this, Dr Wegner found that if you are already stressed, the effect of the ironic process is stronger, namely the thoughts become more intrusive, increasing your anxiety. A downward spiral.

And how can we stop it?

Well, as counterintuitive as it might be, we have to welcome these stressful thoughts. And the first step is to observe them. They are our thoughts, but our thoughts aren’t (all of) us. We have to draw a line, a clear demarcation.

Then, we put a name on them – asking what do I feel in this instant? Don’t go into the reasons for your thinking. Refrain from looking at any causation link. Just label your thoughts and the emotions they create within you.

Scientists found that our ability to put words on thoughts and emotions (called Affect Labelling) is an essential step to figure out how to best regulate them.

So, one of the steps to tame our relentless flow of thoughts is not to suppress them but to acknowledge them, so we can better manage them.   

My finding and sharing of the month

During one of my research interviews on “overthinking”, I was told, “I can think my way out of overthinking”. 

At first, it was puzzling to me. I was telling myself: “if your brain is already overheating due to an excess of thoughts, how can adding more thoughts be of any benefit?”

So I asked for more explanations.

“Well, if I think for long enough, I will eventually come up with a solution. That’s how creativity works.”

I loved it. It opened a new area of reflection for my book. I loved it so much that I decided to share it with you (that’s an exclusive extract!).

It comes from two notions: convergent and divergent thinking.

  • The first one is used to single out a solution to a problem. We used data, analytics, a defined methodology to come up with the best decision possible. We look for order.
  • The other is used to open up the spectrum of possibilities. We explore, we brainstorm, we give birth to multiple ideas. It’s a chaotic process by its very nature.

Creative problem-solving would then use both sequentially to come up with a solution. First, diverging, then converging. 

The thing is that when we are overthinking, we are not diverging anymore. We are ruminating the same thoughts again and again. There are no new inputs. So thinking more about the same ideas or constructs won’t generate creativity. 

Quite the contrary. Overthinking kills creativity and, down the line, problem-solving.

And I believe creativity can be a solution to overthinking. I don’t have yet all the pieces to articulate this (don’t worry, you will certainly have them at a later stage in my book) but my search led me to a beautiful TED Talk from Janet Echelman, a renowned artist.

I think it illustrates nicely how divergent and convergent thinking marries together, to produce creative problem-solving.

You can watch this TED Talk here.

I hope you enjoyed reading this newsletter as much as I do like writing it. 

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Picture of Lison Mage

Lison Mage

I help clever individuals and teams conquer overthinking and perform at their full potential. Together, we can go from a place of uncertainty and being paralyzed by doubt to gaining clarity on your current situation, where you want to go, and how to get you there!


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