07/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: How Unplugging and Recharging Helps Us Problem Solve

When you are stuck between a rock and a place, feeling as though you're "damned if you do and damned if you don't," the most extreme frustration can set in. No matter how you look at things, there is no clear answer. You love your spouse because you've been together for a long time -- but you can't stand what your sex life has become. You hate your job and want to leave -- but you don't have any "rainy day" funds to help you out so you can't afford to do this. You've tried everything that you can, wracked your brains with lists and conversations with close friends, but nothing has helped. What do you do when you are stuck in this way, waiting for the solution that never comes?

Herbert Benson, mind-body researcher says there are four steps to solving a problem when under stress (Benson 2005): (1) Push yourself to your more productive stress level by grappling intently with a problem; (2) Just as you feel yourself flagging, disengage entirely by doing something completely unrelated; (3) As the brain quiets down, activity paradoxically increases in areas associated with attention, space-time concepts, and decision making, leading to a sudden, creative insight-the breakout; (4) achievement of a new normal state. Stages two and three are the unplugging and re-charging stages of this process and emphasize why problem solving is not always optimal when we keep ourselves charged. Sometimes, unplugging is refreshing to the brain.

I hear this so often in many contexts. A student will have been struggling for hours with a math problem, then goes for a walk when he or she is too frustrated, and bam! -- the solution "comes to them." Unplugging can help the brain become unstuck-it is a little like rebooting the computer of your brain. It allows time for the brain to become unstuck when you have too many things online.

The brain itself is a series of electrical circuits. Sometimes the system becomes overloaded and there is a short-circuit. Unplugging helps start the process of turning on only the relevant processes. When we search for solutions, we look for different options. Each option is a certain electric circuit turned on. The problem is, when we discard an option, the circuit is not completely turned off. That is why we have to unplug and recharge.

Unplugging and re-charging when you're stuck between and rock and a hard place also allows the brain to re-organize the information you have held online. When you "think" about options, you call them up. The brain makes associations between these options. Sometimes these associations lead to creative solutions, but for the brain to act on these solutions, it needs a break from all the other noise that is going on. Unplugging turns the noise off, and re-charging recruits the most creative solution. Novel associations need time to "set" in the brain, a little like Jell-O. Shaking the bowl continuously does not allow the Jell-O to set. The unplugging does.

What evidence do we have that the brain does in fact act this way? A recent study found that the brain's resting state brain-waves (on EEG) determines the level of neural computations that are made (Kounios, Fleck et al. 2008). This break can be rejuvenating. It is like taking a break between mental sets of reps. The break allows the brain to recalibrate.

Thus, unplugging and re-charging may be critical to finding solutions when you are caught between a rock and a hard place for the following reasons:

1. It gives the brain a rest.
2. It gives the brain time to make associations.
3. It rejuvenates attention and decision-making areas in the brain.
4. It acknowledges the short circuit and allows the brain to crate a new normal state and recalibrate.
5. It decreases brain noise.

So the next time you are between a rock and hard place, remember this: unplugging and re-charging can revitalize your brain in just the ways you want it to.

Benson, H. (2005). "Are you working too hard? A conversation with mind/body researcher Herbert Benson." Harv Bus Rev 83(11): 53-8, 165.
Kounios, J., J. I. Fleck, et al. (2008). "The origins of insight in resting-state brain activity." Neuropsychologia 46(1): 281-91.

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