The Exploring Versus the Exploiting BrainIn a new study published in Psychological Science, neuroscientists Moshe Bar, director of the Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University and a professor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, concluded that the less our minds our loaded the more capacity we have for creative thought.

This seems logical, of course, but Dr. Bar wanted to delve into why this is true. He looked at the ongoing tension that is in our brains between exploration and exploitation. When our brains are in exploration mode, he says, we are curious and looking to learn new things. Conversely, when in exploitation mode, we grasp for what we already know, relying on comfort and predictability.

In a New York Times opinion piece, Dr. Bar suggests that we need a healthy balance to survive: too much exploring and our brains get us into dangerous situations; too much relying on the familiar and we don’t evolve. What factors, he wanted to know, contribute to putting us into exploration versus exploitation mode? Generally, it’s the capacity our brains have for original and creative thinking. If our brains are cluttered with myriad tasks, worries, and other stray thoughts, we cannot reach our full mental capacity and explore.

In a series of tests, participants were asked to perform free-association tasks while the level of simultaneous load was manipulated in various ways. The findings suggest “innovative thinking, not routine ideation, is our default cognitive mode when our minds are clear.” In other words, we want to explore much of the time, but sometimes we just don’t have the bandwidth to do so.

“When our minds are clear” is the key phrase. There are all kinds of reasons are minds get cluttered, and Dr. Bar suggests that we find a way to clear our minds regularly so that we can put our brains in a position to explore and think creatively.

While Dr. Bar’s findings are relatively recent, the idea of the exploring versus the exploiting mind is not a new one. A study published last June in Strategic Management Journal looked at the consequences of a team’s strategic decision making process in the workplace. They found that emotions and previous team performance, among other factors, affected whether to explore new ideas or exploit familiar territory for new projects.

The explore or exploit dilemma can also manifest in how we calculate risk versus reward, as discussed in this Scientific American article.

So, are you an explorer or an exploiter? Chances are, you’re a little of both. And that’s a good thing.