How to Solve an Impossible Problem
Tap into your hidden brain network that’s designed to solve the unsolvable
My patient, an 11-year-old boy, was complaining of arm pain. At first, I thought it was from doing too many pushups with poor form. But something wasn’t adding up, so I sent for blood work.
In the meantime, I kept ruminating. I knew that somewhere in the avalanche of details in this patient’s case was the key to making the diagnosis. I just had to find it. But I was hitting a wall, my schedule was packed, and I had no time to focus on the problem at hand.
When your first effort to solve it fails, you might think the path to success is just to work harder. You might try strategies like breaking down the issue analytically, doing research, or running a brainstorming meeting. If you can’t see the answer, you keep looking at the problem.
All these problem-solving techniques use the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the home of our executive-function network. That’s where we plan, focus, and stay task-oriented. But when we continue working directly on a difficult problem, we’re using only one brain network. We miss out on the problem-solving power of the rest of our brain.
As a doctor, I frequently face diagnostic dilemmas under pressure. When I can’t figure out the diagnosis, sometimes I just stop trying and go see another patient. Later, the answer comes unexpectedly. Turns out, there’s a scientific reason why that happens: the default mode network, the locus of daydreams and the origin of surprising solutions.
Your other problem-solving brain network
The default mode network (DMN) was first discovered in 2001, when a team at the Washington University School of Medicine noticed that certain parts of the brain were more active while people were resting. They thought this must represent a sort of “default” setting for the brain (hence the name). Ongoing research has revealed that the DMN is a busy place where we daydream, imagine possibilities, and ruminate…