This post is also available in Dutch.
Problem solving in the office can be challenging – small talk and other distractions do not always trigger creative solutions. However, there might be an alternative way to boost creative thinking from a spiritual practice called shamanism. To be specific, shamans can enter a trance state to gain insight for specific problem solving. The question is: how can one, without being a shaman, go into this specific state?
A recent study by Hove and colleagues (2016)  investigated what happens in the brain when experienced shamans entered a trance state while listening to rhythmic drumming. A trance state is a state of consciousness during which a person is not aware of the external environment. Hove’s team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique that allows us to see which brain regions are engaged when a certain task is performed.
The researchers discovered that during their trance, shamans are less aware of drum sounds and focus instead on the question that needs to be addressed. During this trance, the shamans showed activation in a particular network of brain regions. These regions were the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), and the insula. These regions are known to be involved in identifying relevant tasks and maintaining attention during the task itself .
Furthermore, in the field of cognitive neuroscience, brain areas that are well connected are considered to work together. In this study, researchers also found that the connections between these three regions were stronger during the trance state compared to outside the trance state (e.g., at rest), suggesting that these three brain regions facilitate shamans to be more attentive to the task at hand.
Can’t get there without … Music?
Working is easier if there are no distractions around, right? True. However, if you want to solve problems creatively, some extra information or stimulation may help. The tricky thing is this information should not be too complex or overly stimulating, otherwise it will draw your attention away from the task. The goal is to disengage your attention from external information (e.g. distractions like your phone, chatting colleagues in the hallway, the sounds of traffic passing by, etc.) and focus on information that is relevant for problem solving. As humans, we have the ability to do this, and it is known as perceptual decoupling.
In the aforementioned study by Hove and colleagues, monotonous and predictable drumming, at about 4 beats per second, likely helped to shut out external distractions and focus attention on the problem the shaman was trying to solve. Interestingly, researchers found that during the trance state the sounds from the drum did not reach the auditory cortex (an area of the brain known to process sound information) at the same speed as when one simply listens to music. This illustrates how perceptual decoupling can shut out irrelevant information and help sustain attention to focus on problem solving.
Shaman trance and other states of consciousness
Is the shamanic trance different from other states of consciousness such as meditation, hypnosis, or dreaming? The answer to this question remains to be seen. For now, we know that the PCC is involved in various states of consciousness. Nevertheless, simply showing that a brain region is engaged does not necessarily mean it does the same thing each time it is actively engaged. To better understand how any single brain region works, we need to take into account its connections with other brain regions to complete the picture.
You will be delighted to know though that creative problem solving and a state of trance both involve a common set of brain regions: PCC and dACC. This suggests that there are similarities between these two processes. So next time when you’re at work and need to focus, consider putting on some of your favorite rhythmic drumming and see if you can creatively address the task at hand, try to be like a shaman!
This blog was written by Lara Todorova. Translation by Renske.