Does the USA need big ideas?

Intuition: How big ideas come about

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Creativity and innovation are in demand, both in start-ups and in large corporations. The scientist Asta Raami is concerned with how they can arise. She is involved in a research project for the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra - an organization founded by the government around 50 years ago to develop concepts for a sustainable, prosperous Finland.

The Sitra office is located in a building with large glass facades in the west of Helsinki. A sparse conference room, sparsely furnished with modern furniture in bright colors. Typical start-up flair. One morning in October, Raami gave a lecture to journalists over a smoothie and coffee on her research topic. The English word "intuition" is emblazoned on its first slide. A recognized method in everyday life: you can intuitively feel which food you will like or in which apartment you will feel comfortable - but how can intuition help at work? "It makes it possible to fall back on internalized experiences and background knowledge without analyzing, classifying and evaluating immediately," says Raami. The range of possible solutions is expanded by the fact that thinking is not immediately steered into the usual channels. "This is how radical, groundbreaking ideas come about," says Raami, who interviewed designers for her doctoral thesis at Aalto University in Helsinki. Intuition is crucial for their work.

Many inventors also rely on this method. Albert Einstein, for example, developed the special theory of relativity largely intuitively, according to his own information. "Intuition," he said, "is all that really matters." And Freud's student Carl Gustav Jung called those psychological functions that help humans acquire knowledge "intuition". The Austrian quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger is convinced that "the really new can only come through intuition."

Train your inner voice

Intuition not only brings good ideas, it is also fundamental to keep track of an increasingly complex world, says scientist Raami. In order to solve current political, social and economic problems, one should not just use common reason - the risk of getting lost in the amount of information and losing sight of what is really important is too great. The key to managing complexity lies in the unconscious. A lot of important information is routed there that people cannot process immediately in the course of everyday life. With the help of this knowledge, which is accessed in intuitive moments, new information can be better filtered.

At the moment, however, intuition has a legitimacy problem, says Raami - people like to denigrate conclusions based on meager facts as arbitrary. Decisions - in science as well as in business - should always be justifiable. And you can seldom justify intuition. Raami brings the example of a renowned surgeon who had to give up his chair at the university because he could not explain the method by which he treated patients - he simply knew what was right.

The brain has many areas that cannot be formally described - for example through language. But important information is stored in them. Raami therefore advocates teaching not only analytical thinking but also intuition at schools and universities. "In order to lead to good results, it has to be developed, practiced and used very consciously." In Finland, the topic is already set out in the national curriculum that schools use for teaching. The scientist is researching how relevant subjects can actually be integrated into teaching practice. But how can intuition be trained at all?

Let go instead of control

First of all, you need supportive teachers, bosses or colleagues, a fear-free environment, says Raami. Then work on yourself: Those who are self-confident are more likely to trust their own ideas, even if they cannot be rationally justified. Doubt, fear of failure and bigotry block creativity - sensitivity and openness encourage them, says the expert. It is also important to learn to differentiate intuition from personal prejudices and experiences, there are techniques for this.

In order to be able to use one's inner voice better, one also has to say goodbye to familiar patterns for generating ideas. "Intuition is not linear thinking. Sometimes ideas seem crazy or pointless at first glance," says Raami. Intuition does not lead directly to usable solutions.

It can also be trained to perceive intuitive signals better; meditation or mindfulness training could help. Monotonous, physical activities such as running or swimming also encourage spontaneous ideas.

If you want to be innovative, you have to get rid of the idea that everything can be planned and controlled, says the researcher - and brings an example from everyday life: If you can't find your key, you usually first think hard about where to find it has laid down. You look in your jacket pocket, in the desk drawer, possibly widen the search circle, and then start all over again and look again where you first looked. Often, however, you only find the key you are looking for when you switch to another task. "As soon as you let go, the answer is suddenly there." Not least because of this, good ideas often come to you in the bathtub, in bed or on the bus. (Lisa Breit from Helsinki, October 28, 2016)