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Have Fun With the Problem

Have Fun With the Problem

Geoff Amidei's picture
Geoff Amidei
September 9th, 2011

As with most practitioners of the art and science of applied collaboration, we owe philosophical, intellectual, and methodological homage to many sources. One such source is MG Taylor Corporation, and one of their specific contributions to the canon came in the early 1980’s when they introduced a list of 14 axioms they used in their practice. According to the American Heritage Science Dictionary, an axiom is “A principle that is accepted as true without proof.” The Taylors themselves said that their axioms “…must be accepted on faith…”

Well, they may now want to shorten their list by one. Their ninth “axiom”—If you can’t have fun with the problem, you will never solve it—may soon not need to be accepted merely on faith. It turns out it’s been (nearly) proven to be true.

As reported in the New York Times:

In a just completed study, researchers at Northwestern University found that people were more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused, having just seen a short comedy routine.

“What we think is happening,” said Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist who conducted the study with Karuna Subramaniam, a graduate student, “is that the humor, this positive mood, is lowering the brain’s threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections” to solve puzzles. …

In a series of recent studies, Dr. Beeman at Northwestern and John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel University, have imaged people’s brains as they prepare to tackle a puzzle but before they’ve seen it. Those whose brains show a particular signature of preparatory activity, one that is strongly correlated with positive moods, turn out to be more likely to solve the puzzles with sudden insight than with trial and error (the clues can be solved either way).

The punch line is that a good joke can move the brain toward just this kind of state. In their humor study, Dr. Beeman and Dr. Subramaniam had college students solve word-association puzzles after watching a short video of a stand-up routine by Robin Williams. The students solved more of the puzzles over all, and significantly more by sudden insight, compared with when they’d seen a scary or boring video beforehand.

This diffuse brain state is not only an intellectual one, open to looser connections between words and concepts. In a study published last year, researchers at the University of Toronto found that the visual areas in people in positive moods picked up more background detail, even when they were instructed to block out distracting information during a computer task.

The findings fit with dozens of experiments linking positive moods to better creative problem-solving. “The implication is that positive mood engages this broad, diffuse attentional state that is both perceptual and visual,” said Dr. Anderson. “You’re not only thinking more broadly, you’re literally seeing more. The two systems are working in parallel.” (read full article)

So, fellow practitioners, no matter how thorny the problem you’re trying to solve, how complex the system you’re trying to tame, make room for some laughs. You’ll get better results.

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