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Solving “The Most Difficult Problems” ……at the end of a chapter, at the end of a test, at the end of the SAT

Wednesday, March 23, 2016
 We all know the kind of questions I mean. At the end of the physics chapter they might be called the “challenge problems.” At the end of a history chapter they are called “questions for further thought.” And in references to the SAT test I have seen them referred to as “the last three most difficult questions.”

These kinds of questions cannot be studied for ahead of time. A memorized formula or set of facts, alone, will not provide the solution. It is creative thinking that will be required to formulate a solution. Yes, you will be using rules and laws and facts you have learned in the past, but you will be required to use them in novel, creative ways. And this will require a state of mind that is fluid and relaxed, one that many test takers may not have by the end of a difficult test.

To understand the relationship between creativity and the state of mind one needs to be in to allow creativity to flourish is something studied by Dr. Heather Berlin at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She explained her studies to Kurt Anderson of “Studio 360” in a recent broadcast. Dr. Berlin did an experiment with rappers. First, the rappers had their brains scanned using a functional MRI [fMRI] while they voiced the lyrics of a memorized rap song. Then, the rappers were shown an image and given an fMRI while they composed lyrics to a rap song about the image. The second task required that the rappers come up with creative lyrics that: made sense (1), stayed on beat (2), and rhymed (3).

The fMRI done of the brains of the rappers while the rappers were generating the spontaneous, creative lyrics showed a decrease in activity in an area of the brain called the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. This area is especially associated with a person’s “sense of self.” It is also associated with the “inner critic” and the “rules” that apply in society and thought. So it seems during the performance of creative tasks the area of the brain that controls the “self-critic” and the “sense of self” and the “rules” is quieter.

You have probably heard this state of mine talked about as “flow” or “being in the zone.” Besides being associated with creative tasks in the mental or artistic area, it is also often spoken of in sports performance. Sometimes during a creative process an individual says that ideas just came flowing through me or the ideas seemed to come from somewhere else. In writing, in particular, this openness and easy flow of ideas is often attributed to “my muses.”

In explaining this, Dr Berlin refers to a concept called “liberation without attention” where, because the sense of self and the inner critic are not attending to the process, the unconscious can step in and bring forth new ideas and connections. The unconscious is liberated to make connections the conscious mind cannot see due to the limits of the conscious mine which is less able to consider so many different ideas at the same time.

So how does this apply to the “the last three most difficult problems?” It is often when such problems are first presented that thoughts such as, “I have never seen this before,” or “I can’t do this kind of problem,” or ”We never studied this,” begin to form. And these are the kind of thoughts that pull you right out of the flow of creativity and back into the dialogue of the inner critic where you suffer a diminished sense of self.

Here is where you, the experienced test taker who has done diligent practice and preparation, can knowingly say to yourself, “No one has seen this kind of problem before. Let me just take a few minutes to understand the question and see if anything occurs to me. I think I did one similar to this in my last test.” This will keep your inner critic and the “rule inforcer” part of your brain quiet and give you the creative flow to possibly solve this kind of problem.

Jan Rooker,



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