Why are Creative Solutions Sparked by Positive Emotions? – A Hypothesis

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Heart Rhythms - SquareCreative thinking is a bit like playing with Legos. Our brain reaches out and pulls in disparate pieces and creates relationships that form something new. These pieces aren’t usually in our conscious mind, but rather are pulled from different parts of our memory, our subconscious mind, and even our intuition. They come together and enter our conscious mind, as an assembled work of art, in a flash of insight.

How do the unrelated pieces come together? The disparate pieces residing in our memory, subconscious, intuition, and consciousness have to be synchronized so they can communicate and connect. Like legos that have a common pattern enabling them to connect, the various areas of the brain must synchronize in order to be connected. Otherwise, the elements of our grand solution will remain separate, languishing individually in the way that Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs can’t be combined with Legos. Our heart plays the pivotal role in harmonizing the pieces.

As the most powerful and consistent generator of rhythmic activity in the body, and possessing an extensive communication system with the brain, the heart is unique in its ability to synchronize the parts of the brain. We have direct evidence that the heart naturally imposes rhythmic patterns onto various areas of the brain, including the tractus solitaries, parabrachial complex, periacqueductal grey, thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, cerebral cortex and prefrontal cortex. When the heart rhythmic patterns are strong enough, the areas of the brain get in sync.

We have plenty of empirical evidence that positive emotions facilitate creative problem solving, but how does positive emotion facilitate brain synchronization?  Emotions directly determine our heart rhythmic patterns, or electromagnetic fields. When emotions are positive and aroused, our heart rhythmic pattern becomes coherent and ordered like a sine wave. The heart rhythmic pattern of a person feeling appreciation is shown on the bottom graph. Negative emotions, such as frustration, create an erratic, or incoherent, pattern with little variability between each wave. The heart rhythmic pattern of a person feeling frustration can be seen on the top graph. These rhythmic patterns emitted by the heart are radiated to the brain.

The coherent, or positive emotional, pattern is a much more effective synchronizing signal for the brain. The coherent pattern has significant variability between each wave, with distinctive highs and lows. Just like big waves in the ocean have a bigger influence in moving more water into a swelling pattern, as compared to a small wave, the deeper wave pattern of coherence has a more profound influence on the brain and is more effective in getting the parts in sync. Con­versely, when the heart’s rhythmic pattern has little variability because of negative emotions, it’s not a very effective signal and there is less potential for getting the areas of the brain in sync. Thus, the electromagnetic field generated by the heart in the coherence mode is much more effective at re-patterning the areas of the brain so ideas originating from different areas can connect, like pieces of lego.

I’ve been on a quest to find out why positive emotion facilitates creative problem solving, but could only find pieces. Each of the pieces is from credible sources, including a BBC documentary, HearthMath research, and an article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, but my brain (in a state of coherence, of course!) had to assemble them together. It’s a working hypothesis, open to be shaped by new research.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of emotions in teams, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
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  1. eric bot  June 3, 2013

    Jackie, I am no expert but may have an suggestion about the direction(s) in which to look.

    As known people function within their own personal emotional bandwidth,which differs for everyone, this bandwidth allows for positive, negative and some seldom neutral emotions.

    This bandwidth may be narrow or wide, depending on the life experience but foremost on how someone is habituated to deal with positive/negative stress or stretching of this bandwidth.( let’s call it fitness)

    Regular exercising voluntarily exposed to stimuli or not life over time can make you develop a wide bandwidth as we all know people with a narrow bandwidth ( or minds as we tend to call them) who stress easily and lead a boring life as we perceive this to be.

    Now, it is my belief that when people experience positive emotions some are more likely to explore (wonder) what else there is in life. this can be spontaneous or not, but usually would require some guidance by the logic (ratio) without it taking over the process itself.
    Also important would be that from an educational upbringing people are taught ( mentally programmed/imprinted) how to problem-solve, this is imprinted at an early age and all through education, some times even continuously. This is killing creativity, freedom to think and leaves little room to experiment.
    Yet some people that can let go of such imprinting as well as people that lack formal education can and do come up with very creative solutions.
    So to me the combination of the two elements allow you to perceive new elements, viewpoints (points of view) perceptions and sensations which otherwise would have been suppressed by day to day.

    Under pressure most people tend to close off and revert to more instinctive emotions, yet also there under pressure (or stress) when in the lower part of their emotional bandwidth people that keep their cool ( I.e. sanity, or common sense together) can also come up with very creative solutions.

    Point being that when forced or circumstances allow you to think out of your box anytime you reach the edge of your bandwidth, voluntarily or not there are those that choose to engage their mind and not flee.
    To me it is about the perceived freedom of mind coupled with self-knowledge and derived self-confidence.
    There is of course more to it, but maybe this can help,

    To quote Buddha I feel it is the journey which is most important, not the goal.
    Such sources/sayings are also a great source of creativity if you come to think of them.

    Have fun.

  2. Pamela Brooks  June 16, 2013

    I loved the connection, I teach small groups at ASU and this will be a great read for them. Did it come from the brook Primal Teams?

  3. Kevin Balmer  June 16, 2013

    Great read. Thanks, Jackie!

  4. Louis Grenier  June 16, 2013

    I enjoyed reading this article. Creativity and positive emotions: Indeed, very much so.

    However, the need to solve problems often arises from the barrier it presents to find the solution. The challenge/obstacle motivates but can be hard as well…

    Perhaps a new PhD field of study integrating two existing domains: psychology and innovation management?

  5. Allison Hawthorne  June 23, 2013

    I teach adult learners, for a large Behavioral Health Corp. Thus article will, I believe, enhance their understanding of where Trauma & Problem-Solving ability meet. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Peter Demarest  June 23, 2013

    One place to look for answers may be in the links between positive feeling emotions, the neurochemicals involved and how these same neurochemicals can dramatically increase brain activity and interconnection across numerous areas of the brain. In very simplistic terms, it’s like the opposite of an amygdala hijack. Met with a threat, the brain releases neurochemicals that shut down vast areas of the brain (including those associated with creativity and memory) to prepare the body for battle (increased heart rate, breathing, etc.). These are usually our least creative states. However, faced with opportunity to create good, the brain does the exact opposite. This process is central the our work in neuro-axiology and to helping people make very deliberate shifts in their thinking, literally in a heartbeat. David Rock’s and others have reference many studies along these lines as well.

  7. Dana V. Rose  July 9, 2013

    Can anyone point me to typical heart rate graphs during sleep and interpretation? I routinely chart my oximeter heart rate, motion detection, and CPAP variable breathing. This gives me quick feedback on quality of sleep and what may be affecting the sleep. The variable heart rate, variable breathing, and to some extent montion seem to be fairly reliable indicators of REM sleep. But there are other, more subtle patterns I would like help understanding.

  8. Ben D. Wallace  July 13, 2013

    This is because input generated by the heart’s rhythmic activity is actually one of the main factors that affect our breathing rate and patterns. When the heart’s rhythm shifts into coherence as a result of a positive emotional shift, our breathing rhythm automatically synchronizes with the heart, thereby reinforcing and stabilizing the shift to system-wide coherence.


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