Neuroscience of innovation

Neural pathways are like highways in our brains. The more a thinking pattern is triggered the bigger the highway becomes and the more autonomous it becomes. So, in essence, neurons that fire together wire together. The brain left to its own devices routinely takes “perceptual shortcuts” to save time and energy. Years of experience in an industry, profession, or job establishes fixed ways of thinking, and your brain will be inclined to use the shortest route to save time and energy, and as a result, habitual thinking occurs.

We are biologically programmed to feel uncomfortable—and therefore resist—when confronted with change. It’s in our survival instincts. But this is not to say we cannot overcome this programming and create new circuitry —we can wire our brain’s capacity to generate breakthrough thinking and insight.

When people are asked questions that provoke new thinking and insight, the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters that act much like adrenaline, which is remarkably different from the placid brain response that occurs when being told what to do.


To understand your brain’s innovation processing ability, let’s take a deeper look at how the brain processes information. There are 4 steps that the brain follows to process information:





Let’s start with the first stage which is the Stimuli. Our brains are constantly scanning the world around us and taking in the various stimuli.

The hippocampus encodes the information and compares the stimuli against other information you have in your brain and decides reflexively what should be passed on to our short-term memory.

This is where divergent or innovative thinking comes in:

Divergent encoding takes place when we are required to utilize new ways of thinking. Remember, your brain’s default setting is in energy-saving mode, so it will always choose the path of least resistance (aka the known way of thinking). You must, therefore, explore the situation from various perspectives until a new insight is made. This often results in feeling confused, irritated, or uncomfortable for a while. But if you stick with it, you will be able to deploy divergent encoding also known as innovative thinking. When this happens, a new neural pathway is formed in the brain to make new connections.

There are a variety of very basic tools available within the Agile Framework that helps you to build this capability. Design Thinking is a great example of these tools.

Storage: This is when the brain decides if information should go into your memory. Did you know that our brains have massive storage capacity, over one million gigabytes to be exact?

Recall: The last step in the information processing cycle is when information is recalled when triggered. Interestingly, our brains do not have a memory storage issue, but rather, a recall issue. Our innovative ideas are often only activated when a trigger or connection can recall it. That is why it is so important to use trigger-heavy activities such as brainstorming sessions, collaborative discussions, diverse learning, and brain maps.


Fear of Failure – innovation enemy number 1.

Another barrier to innovation is the fear of failure. When it comes to innovation and life in general, failure is an inevitable part of the journey. Unfortunately, many of our brains have been taught to fear the inevitable failure. When we experience fear the brain responds with a stress response, again reducing our ability to perform or think creatively. It makes sense why the fear of failure is rated as one of the biggest barriers to innovation. How we accept failure as a reality and reframe it as an opportunity to learn and do it better the next time is an essential ingredient of innovation. A lot of organizations have a culture where failure is met with harsh criticism and punishment. The key to innovation is to make it safe to experiment and fail, but to ensure that the failures produce learning without costing the business too much.

From a neurological point of view, we need our employees to function with their most effective and intelligent parts of the brain: their prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is much better at problem-solving, critical thinking, and emotional regulation. But when people have a fearful emotion about experimentation, they are forced to function from their overriding primitive brain, reducing their innovative ability dramatically.

The threat of being embarrassed, judged, or shamed in front of peers, for example, makes people anxious and easily triggers the fight or flight response at the cost of the goal of developing an innovative culture.

To get the most out of people, they need that psychological safety to keep functioning from their best parts of their brain. The conscious, intelligent, rational, analytical, and strategic function of the Pre-Frontal Cortex.

Innovation and fear of failure are arch enemies. Creating a culture where failure is accepted and reframed as an opportunity to learn lies at the heart of an Innovative Culture.

Thomas Edison once said: I have not failed; I have just found 10 000 ways that will not work.

Stress and Innovation – not to be mixed

Now that you understand how the brain processes information. Let’s take a look at the impact of stress on innovation. Chronic stress degrades a long list of capabilities concerning creativity and innovation. It’s harder to think outside of the box, nimbleness and dexterity take a hit. Even our response to sudden change is more difficult to manage. When we’re under stress our brains channel most of its finite resources to address the stress that we are dealing with, leaving very little capacity for the likes of innovative thinking.

At Yellow Seed we have developed an Innovation Blueprint that helps companies to successfully navigate all the elements that make up an innovative organization. Our Innovation Program has helped many companies to adapt to the new world of work.

Book an appointment or send us a mail if you want to learn more on how we can help you to run an innovation program at your company.

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