• drlesliehughes

The Best Brain Hack When You're Blocked

Let's talk about free association as a tool to help unlock ideas! It’s a great hack for problem-solving and developing creative solutions because all you do is rely on your powerful subconscious mind.


Our brains determine what information comes to the surface, and sometimes frustratingly, WHEN that information surfaces. Every second our subconscious is observing, learning, and storing information like a computer. And, because we would all suffer tremendously if we were consciously thinking ALL THE THINGS at once, our brains devise systems of filtering and filing information subconsciously. Sometimes the systems miss the mark and we don’t have awareness of necessary data points that would be really useful in a given situation.


But, how do we find the information we need when we are blocked?


We run the search program. Free association lets us ask our brains to pull specific information related to a problem we’re working on. And actually...we already do it all the time.


Our conscious mind signals to our subconscious mind the unique information we need to use most often. Take your average work day for example. Our brains learn what information we need to do our jobs day in and day out. We train our minds to notice the most important information over time. That’s how we develop conscious knowledge and skills.


Free Association in 6 Steps:

1. Space
Get into your thinking space. I mean physically. I do my best thinking while standing or pacing in calm, private, scenic spaces with moody music playing. Listen, I have no idea why 90’s alternative music helps my brain get inspired; it just does. I go with it. Quit judging me and get specific for yourself! How do you think best?
2. Question
Write down a “why” or “how” question related to your problem. Examples: Why is the marketing for this amazing product not reaching the target audience as I imagined? How can I improve the performance of that (pain-in-the-ass) team member who won’t do his work?
You want to ask your brain “why” or “how” questions like these because they trigger your brain into finding an answer. You are telling your “computer” what program to run to help you. So, your computer will begin searching for the answers. This time, it may pull information that you might not have considered the first time around.
3. Document
Once you’ve got your question, repeat it to yourself a few times and write down the first things that surface into your conscious mind. You are beginning to observe your brain in action pushing subconscious information to the forefront. Cool, right?
4. Ponder
Then, do it again and again. Keep going for 10-15 minutes. The words might be related but they definitely don’t need to be. Don’t place judgement on the thoughts or try to overanalyze them. Keep writing down key words, thoughts, images, feelings, memories, etc.
5. Witness
Diligently observe your thoughts. Be conscious if you are thinking about negative aspects too much. Maybe you need to just let your imagination run a little wild. Again, don’t try to control the direction or flow. Every now and then, remind yourself you are thinking about the original question.
6. Relate
When you think you are finished, review the list, see if you can combine any ideas, and ask how they relate to the original question. Try to see the relationship between the problem you are thinking about and the list. Maybe there is something you need to reexamine or learn more about. Or maybe… just maybe... you’ll have one of those awesome "Ah ha!" moments where you find the missing link.

If the solution or idea doesn’t immediately jump out, it doesn’t mean the exercise hasn’t worked. Your "computer" might just take a hot minute to retrieve what you need. Reinforcing a semantic relationship between the words from the list helps your computer continue to run the search in the background! So you do other things, like live your life for example. Like I said before, the subconscious also controls WHEN the ideas come. Your brain will continue looking for answers. So it might just come to you later in the shower.


Psst this is why meditation & journaling are so helpful for people. It’s brain science!

Pssssstt listen to Brainstorm: Using Science to Spark Maximum Creativity if you are interested in learning more about the science behind creative thinking and problem-solving.