So creative, it seems like magic: a step-by-step guide to unleashing your most innovative brainpower

The full article was first published on Better Humans – read it here

Our rational, conscious mind is a wonderful thing. But sometimes when we are looking for a solution, it can be a limited resource. I’m always looking for ways to work smarter, not harder.

What if I could come up with answers in my sleep? I discovered that it’s possible to do just that.

To the outsider, it can look as if someone were literally dreaming up solutions to situations. What’s really happening, though, is that a person who is skilled at this is first removing their overeager conscious mind temporarily from the equation, and then mobilizing the power of their subconscious minds through the power of a specific question.

It’s not half as complicated as that last sentence suggests. Questions are the key. I learned how to make this work for me, and I’ll show you how to do it, too.

How Does It Work?

To understand better how the mind works, we’re going to look at an analogy from science fiction: the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek—partly for its shape, and partly for the the way the different departments interact.

The “bridge” of the ship is the place where most of the action appears to happen—it’s the control center. Captain Kirk stands manfully on the bridge of the Enterprise, making decisions and giving orders—with an ego the size of a nearby planet.

Captain Kirk is, in fact, the perfect example of ‘ego’ from the point of view of psychology or personal development: he’s our self concept or the representation of the constructed self.

The Oxford dictionary defines ego asthe part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity.”

Despite what he gets up to in the series, Captain Kirk’s job is to ensure the success of his mission and the continual wellbeing of his crew and ship. It is up to him to receive and evaluate information, weigh options, and decide on the best course of action.

Our conscious brain work is like our own ‘Captain Kirk’, standing on the bridge of our mind, taking control and trying to make all the decisions. Any problems or situations to be reviewed come here first to the bridge, and our conscious mind is very good at making those decisions.

However, like Captain Kirk, our ego can be a little too full of its own importance and overeagerness to solve issues. It often doesn’t notice all the possible solutions, or make use of resources better suited to finding those solutions.

The bridge is only a small part of The Enterprise, however. Supporting everything happening on the bridge is engineering. The bridge and Captain Kirk may look like the center, but without engineering, no one’s going anywhere. Engineering is where the warp engines lay, and where all the data is stored from every mission and available databank.

The WILL to boldly go may be on the bridge of the ship, but the POWER to get there is in the engineering bay.

The engines and the supercomputers in engineering never stop, never sleep—unlike Captain Kirk. They receive instructions, then keep processing and working away until a solution is found.

In The Enterprise of our mind, the engineering bay is our subconscious mind. Always processing, it doesn’t sleep like the conscious mind.

The Problem-Solving Power of the Subconscious Mind

Max Maltz likens the subconscious mind to a supercomputer or autoserver mechanism in his work (and subsequent book), Psycho Cybernetics. Maltz originally published this back in 1960, but his methods and ideas are still prevalent, and relevant, today. You can see the influence of his work in that of thought leaders such as Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins, and Benjamin P. Hardy.

He explains that in the same way that a machine does not reason or judge, rather it just follows the task set it, so does the subconscious mind.

A really simple example of this is when you’re trying to remember someone’s name. It bugs us, doesn’t it? The simple question of “what is their name?” is sent back from the conscious to the subconscious mind, where our search engine works away until three hours later, while washing up, we think “Jane!”

The original situation has passed, but the subconscious “engineering” has been working away to find an answer while our conscious mind has been doing other things. Now while we’re doing something that doesn’t involve high levels of brain power, the message can get through, “Hey, you on the bridge: Jane!”

Another example of the play between conscious and subconscious is how they work together when we need to make a decision. For example, let’s say I want to buy new shoes.

As I go about my daily tasks, I now start noticing people’s shoes. The file is still open on ‘Which shoes do I buy?’ so my data collection devices (eyes and ears) send information back into the control center (conscious mind) which does a quick evaluation (horrible color/looks comfy).

Did I notice people’s shoes before? Not really.

Were people wearing shoes before that? Of course! I just didn’t have a “scan and search” order set for “shoes”.

Buying shoes is a simple example, but the same principle is in action if we want to change our job, find a course, meet a new partner, or discover a way to change an area of our lives. We can set an order to search and scan. The data comes in, and the amazingly powerful subconscious connects and compiles it, even when we are not consciously thinking about it.

How to Get It to Work for You

We know that asking the right questions are the key, and that we need to get the Captain Kirk of our ego to release its hold on the situation and take a break.

So now we can look at how to practically do that and set up our brains for finding creative solutions and success.

Questions are the key. A question is better than an opinion or affirmation for finding creative solutions. Positive affirmations can be very effective for changing the programing in our subconscious, but it doesn’t send the command to do anything: to search and connect.

I’ve been consistently working on this idea of setting my subconscious a question for nearly a year and I have noticed differences in my results. Here is what I’ve learned, through trial and error, and some corresponding research.

Ask quality questions

Good questions invite action and expansion. The subconscious loves making connections and having something to do, and it loves good questions.

Secondly, the focus of the question makes a difference. A big difference.

If I send the question ‘how can I feel less tired all the time?’ it’s a negative question. The focus is on feeling tired, so that’s what you are telling your computer to focus on. The resulting thoughts and feelings will reflect this focus. ‘Tired’ in, ‘tired’ out.

By rephrasing the question to: ‘How can I re-energize myself this week?’ the focus is positive, on energy and feeling energized, and the results will follow suite. By setting a specific time frame of this week or tomorrow, you are also setting nice manageable parameters for your subconscious to play with.

I found that it was worth spending a little time phrasing my questions so they were positive and specific. The five or ten minutes I spent weighing the question until it felt right and in line with what I wanted was worth it in results.

Get your ego to let go

When we hold on to our issues in our conscious mind, it can cause stress and frustration. It’s not surprising really: it needs options and space with which to consider decisions or have that insight.

Essentially, you need to take a break! It might sounds surprising to say that to find the solution, you should stop consciously working on it. Remember: Archimedes didn’t have his ‘Eureka’ moment until he had his bath.

Sherlock Holmes, although a fictional character, would play chess or the violin when wanting the answer to something that had him stumped. I wonder how many times Arthur Conan Doyle did something similar as he allowed his mind to percolate his stories and ideas?

Personally, I find taking a break allows me release the build up of pressure in my thoughts, meaning that the only headbanging that I do is to music.

Take a break to be more productive.

It is an effective short term solution. It gives ‘engineering’ time to sort through data and make connections, send the results back up to the bridge and … ‘Eureka!’

Nap to release the ego

Thomas Edison would regularly take a nap when faced with a problem. He is famous for taking a nap in his chair while holding two metal balls in his hands, which would drop and wake him if he fell into a deep sleep. The answer or insight would often be there upon waking.

Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla were also famous for their napping habits.

Did you know that famous British prime minister Winston Churchill had a bed in the Houses of Parliament, and was convinced that his regular siestas and power naps were part of the success of his governing?

I used to laugh at the idea of a power nap—they’re for grannies, right? But I found I was wrong and that sometimes a brief bit of downtime refreshes my energy levels, and allows my subconscious mind to shine. The subconscious doesn’t sleep, remember, so a brief bit of shut eye effectively releases my conscious mind’s hold on a subject so that ‘engineering’ can do what it does best.

Sleep, perchance to dream…

Napping is good, but what I find to be most effective is to ask a question at night, right before sleeping.

In bed, nice and relaxed, I like to review my day and send a question to my subconscious to play with while I recharge my batteries.

I’m literally working in my sleep.

One article on neural plasticity published in the ‘Frontiers in Neural Circuits’ journal explains that —

During sleep, new synaptic connections are formed, and old connections are ‘cleaned up’. This can allow you to see patterns where none existed before.”

Edison is said to never have gone to sleep without first setting his mind a question. Those patterns mentioned in the article are what give us the solutions and insights the next morning.

Write your pre-sleep question down

Writing the question down before sleep helps me twofold.

It helps me to think about, and carefully form, the best question to give me the best answer. It also reminds me in the morning what I’d asked.

Writing it down at night to review the next day keeps me on track.

This has become a part of my nightly routine—a sort of mental hygiene. In the same way that I brush my teeth at night as part of my dental health, I also review my three wins and set my question in my journal as part of my mental health.

Journal in the morning

The technique of setting your question at night before sleep works really well in conjunction with morning journaling.

I’m not talking about the ‘what I had for breakfast and my back aches’ type of journaling, but rather a form of writing where we move ourselves into a peak state of focus and set our most valuable priorities for our day, sculpting our future before it happens.

Some use the habit of ‘morning pages’, where they brain-dump, first thing in the morning, as they write without specifically filtering ideas. Nedd Herrmann in his work on brain waves confirmed that there is something special about capturing your mental state upon first waking:

“During this awakening cycle it is possible for individuals to stay in the theta state for an extended period of say, five to 15 minutes — which would allow them to have a free flow of ideas about yesterday’s events or to contemplate the activities of the forthcoming day. This time can be extremely productive and can be a period of very meaningful and creative mental activity.”

This creativity is vital. It allows us to think from a different perspective and see what we couldn’t see before.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that writing morning pages is just for, say, creative writers. It can be used by anyone wanting to access their full range of brain power.