Right-Brained or Hare-Brained?

10/25/2011 06:54 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2013

"Think outside the box," over the years has become somewhat of a cliché itself, an ironical twist for an over-used phrase originally designed to encourage creative thinking among problem solvers in all fields. And yet the need for creative thinking is extremely relevant today as we find ourselves stymied by ideological-driven responses to new and ever-changing problems in our world.

"Thinking outside the box" is far easier said than done. Why is it so difficult to achieve innovative breakthroughs in thinking? I'm not a neuroscientist, but I'll hazard a guess based on my intensive research over the past three years. From what I've learned, the answer lies in the way the brain processes, sorts and ultimately responds to questions. Neuroscientists tell us that as we age our thoughts and patterns become more ingrained. It's as if we are taking the same path through the garden over and over. We get to know the path very well, and it becomes familiar to us. As long as the problems we face are familiar, so are our approaches to solving these problems. We are in our intellectual "comfort zones."

When we are asked to deviate from the paths ingrained in our minds, it may seem like an interesting notion, albeit a bit daunting. The next thought that might occur is, "OK -- how do I go about thinking differently?" Here's where the going gets tough. We try to think differently, but typically end up with little to show for our efforts. How come?

Back to my scientific research. Since our thought processes are holistic and ingrained, we tend to arrive at familiar responses to most problem-solving questions. Our brains act like survival mechanisms; consequently, we learn what we need to do to keep us alive and evolving as a species. If we heard a loud noise in the past associated with a near-death experience, we tend to adjust our response the next time we hear a similar noise.

Absent that experience, we are more likely to respond to a loud noise by staring, covering our ears, or looking around to see where the noise came from. Ever notice how difficult it is to break out of our patterns and behaviors? Popcorn at the movies? Driving to work a specific way? Sitting in the same pews in church or the same chairs in a conference room?

When we're asked to think differently, we're being asked to take a path through the proverbial garden we've never taken before. It's a bit uncomfortable, for we're no longer in familiar territory. If asked to deviate too far from our comfort zone, we may even experience a mild panic.

How, then, do we break out of our intransigent ways of thinking? Research demonstrates that we can indeed learn to think differently. Another path was discovered by the scientific community some 50 years ago. Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Roger Sperry discovered the independence of consciousness between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. His pioneering work led to breakthrough, best-selling books applying the implications of his research both to learning how to draw (Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards) and learning how to resolve psychological traumas (Recovery of Your Inner Child, by Lucia Capacchione, Ph.D.).

In both books, the authors describe the technique of using the non-dominant hand as the pathway to specifically activate the right hemisphere of the brain. Why the right hemisphere? Scientifically identified as the source of creativity, insight and intuitiveness, the right hemisphere is a valued destination. Neuroscientists have made amazing discoveries in this area of research by studying those with brain injuries, split brains due to severed corpus callosums, and brain scans of individuals performing creative functions.

How exactly can we activate the right hemisphere? The simple act of using our non-dominant hand combined with suspending the conventional thought process allows synapses to fire in a manner that taps directly into the right hemisphere. Sound bizarre? It can be a bit unnerving, but as a former CEO, I've used this technique for the past 12 years as a way to think more creatively. I've also observed hundreds of others do so while conducting research for my forthcoming book, The Thought Evolution: Unlocking Right Brain Creativity.

Uncanny as this process may sound, it works. The result is a prescription for literally thinking differently. Using this technique forces us to move from our familiar holistic thought process into one initiated in a different manner. The process of using the non-dominant hand, considering a question and allowing an answer to flow forth from that hand without consciously thinking about it, is truly an amazing experience. It sounds impossible until you've experienced it for yourself. Then, the results seem more probable and less bizarre.

"Aha, I get it!" That's what I typically hear when individuals experience the process and validate the answer they received in response to a considered question. It's almost like magic. Next time you're asked to "think creatively" or "think differently," don't despair. There really is a different way to think.