“Trust the Pie!” Or, How to Get Your Tired Brain to Best Solve Problems

Do you ever have times when you need to trust the pie to help you solve problems? If you’re wondering what I might have had to drink for lunch, bear with me. In the movie, “Men In Black III” starring Will Smith and Josh Brolin, you might remember the scene where Brolin’s Agent K and Smith’s Agent J have seemingly hit a complete dead end in their investigation. Agent J is completely frustrated and beside himself with anger. K calmly suggests going to a nearby diner to get a piece of pie and J sarcastically fumes about stopping the investigation so they can go “eat a piece of [bleeping] pie!

Source: IMdb.com

After sitting for a few minutes eating pie, K gets J talking about anything other than their problem. Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, J makes a mental breakthrough about the case. Brolin smiles at him and says, “I told you to trust the pie!” Problem solved!

All of us have experienced what our two Men in Black agents did in the movie. We focus on a problem or try to remember something. Our mental wheels spin in the mud and we get nowhere trying to solve problems. We step away–think about something else, go to sleep, take a walk, make supper, or eat a piece of pie. Suddenly, we have the answer! It’s the “a-ha” moment. If you’re like me, you love that feeling, but wondered why it took so long to think of a solution. How does this happen?

Susan Weinschenk, PhD, gives the physiological explanation in an article for Psychology Today. “The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is in the front of your head. The main role of the PFC is to concentrate on the task at hand. But, it also goes searching for existing information you have stored in memory. Then combines it with other existing information you have stored. It is this searching and combining of the PFC that allows you to solve problems and come up with new and novel ideas.

Here’s the rub—if you keep your PFC too focused on the “task at hand” then it can’t go searching for interesting combinations of information you have stored in memory. When you take a break (the walk, the dinner, the sleep) then your PFC is freed up to go searching and combining. So if you need to solve a problem or want a new idea, let your PFC know what you want to solve and then take a step away and take a break!”

Art Markman, PhD and psychology professor at the University of Texas, further explains the memory recall problem: “Your memory is competitive. When you start thinking about a problem, certain ideas jump to the forefront. They leap to mind both because they are related to the description of the problem, and because they successfully tamp down (or inhibit) competing memories. Once memory has been inhibited, it has a hard time reaching your awareness. Even if the information from that memory might be crucial for solving a problem.

“When you walk away from a problem and think about something else, your memory resets. The ideas that dominated your thinking recede from your thoughts. The inhibited memories gradually become accessible. If your thoughts return to the problem after a pause, those other memories now have a chance to influence your thinking.”

The “a-ha” moment, also known by psychologists as the incubation period, is real. Allow for and make the most of this pause phenomena by taking a break. There is value in that pause. And besides, pie is wooooonderful.

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