“My students tend to solve things right away,” says Elizabeth Hayakawa, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Or as He Sees It: How to Find Creativity, Enlightenment, and Spiritual Balance at Work.
In the last fifteen years, her research has suggested that the way students solve problems—and their mindsets about how to solve problems—can change depending on their background and mindset. She calls this relationship “social empathy,” a habit she says people acquire simply by living in other people’s worlds, and so that what they’re thinking at home isn’t the same as what they’re doing at work.
“In the classroom, people’s brains are hard-wired for good ideas,” she says. “We really think that good ideas are the product of good thinking.”
Numerous studies have shown that problem solving is something humans do a lot naturally, yet find hard to train. In other words, humans engage in the same brain processes when they solve a problem that they do when they are watching someone else solve a problem.
This possibility inspired Hayakawa to do a quantitative study of this relationship between people’s cognitive processes and the ways they solve problems in different contexts. She did this by conducting two experiments. In the first one, she had about 700 volunteers complete a series of tasks in a lab setting—everywhere from simulated classrooms to traditional lecture halls to a botanical garden—where they were presented with a task that required working well with others in a team.
One set of tasks required participants to solve a complicated set of problems in English and then on video; the other task required participants to solve a complex set of problems in Italian and on video.
Hayakawa discovered that the people whose brains were more open to positive thinking used their intellects to do the simple task of figuring out how the video could best be interpreted. Another group used the same creative process to figure out what was presented in English, and the third used the creative process to figure out what was presented in Italian, with the results suggesting that those who used this creative process were better able to cooperate well in other people’s experiences.
In the second experiment, Hayakawa had another 500 volunteers complete problems based on a math skill, and in some cases was able to encourage the use of alternative thinking to solve the problems, that is, using one’s own creative processes. She also analyzed participants’ mindsets after completing the puzzles.
She found that people whose mindsets are more about boosting creativity learned the new skills faster, and then used them with greater frequency—the opposite behavior than those whose mindsets are more about helping others solve problems, which let their abilities to work together to solve problems languish.
In her study, Hayakawa found that people’s mindsets had a profound impact on their ability to learn a new brain process. Someone who had developed a certain mindset at home has a tendency to adopt that mindset while he or she is doing the experiments. People with a negative mind set on a certain subject might not learn a new brain process—suggesting that learning a new brain process is easier for people with a particular mindset.
“By quickly and accurately conveying information, we learn new patterns of brain activity,” she says.