The breakthrough moment

Sept. 29, 2014
Solve dental mysteries with a creative thought process

Solve dental mysteries with a creative thought process


Think about this riddle: what happens once in a minute, twice in a moment, but never in a billion years? You know it is a riddle, so think differently. Now, put it out of your mind as you read the rest of the article and let your subconscious mind work on the problem.

For the past six months, Crafting Connections has been delving into the "discovery cycle," which consists of questioning, observing, networking, incubating, experimenting, and association. The discovery cycle offers you the ability to play the devil's advocate to established paradigms and find evidence that refutes your beliefs and hypotheses. The discovery cycle can enable you to make surprising connections across broad areas of knowledge, and using it can be compared to jazzlike improvisation. There is no one way to use it, but the different elements come together nicely within a guiding structure.

The ultimate goal of gaining skills in different modes of thinking is reaching the breakthrough or "aha" moment, the sudden realization that bubbles up from your unconscious mind to your conscious mind when you have arrived at a new idea or a solution to a challenge. Within the discovery cycle, this breakthrough is referred to as "association."

As a dental professional, you are often challenged to solve mysteries. Sometimes, getting to the root cause of a disease is challenging. For example, suppose a vibrant and health-conscious female patient with a restoration-free mouth arrives for her nine-month recare appointment and presents with six Class V caries. What is going on? You look at her medical history, but no change is indicated. In questioning her, you learn that she has just heard that her bloodwork is perfect. She takes no medications, and her regime is stable. You ask her to demonstrate her brushing techniques and determine that her frequency and technique are exemplary. Her home care cannot be improved, although you may want to recommend a fluoride daily rinse if you can't uncover the root cause of the caries.

What about her diet? Has she changed her eating habits? Is she now taking sugar in her coffee, eating more desserts, drinking sugared sodas, or eating candy? She says "no" to all of your questions, and both of you are baffled as to what may have caused the change in her oral health.

You proceed with the appointment and become distracted from thinking about this enigma while doing the periodontal screening exam. Suddenly, it pops into your mind that your patient told you that she is excited about a new position at work. Your inquiry reveals that, although she is excited about it, the position has been challenging and stressful over the past seven months, and it has caused her to suffer from heartburn. An insight hits you like a brick wall. Is she taking an antacid in a tablet form? In fact, she is, and she often wakes in the middle of the night to take one to relieve her discomfort. The sugary tablet is slowly dissolving at her gum line for hours every night, causing rampant decay.

You've just experienced association, whereby your subconscious mind was working on the problem after you had ceased to consciously think about it. The beauty of the subconscious mind is that it will continue to work on a problem for extended periods of time after you are no longer consciously thinking about the problem. The discovery cycle arms you by giving you the tools to feed both your conscious and unconscious mind with data that challenges old perceptions and seeds new ideas.

When you put more work into thinking about a problem, you set more thoughts and bits of information into random motion. Since the subconscious mind never rests, your thoughts keep colliding, combining, and recombining after you quit thinking about the subject. Eventually, these thoughts and bits of information become entangled and create a novel idea or a solution to a problem, which bubbles up into your consciousness when you least expect it.

The process allows you to realize connections that you would otherwise miss. Research supports the idea: when you allow your mind to wander, communication improves between the brain's default mode network (the part of the brain that is more active when you are at rest) and its executive areas (which are used in higher reasoning and decision-making functions). Today's technology enables researchers to measure the spike in brain gamma waves milliseconds before a "eureka!" moment occurs. Surprisingly, these insights happen in the same part of the brain that enables the understanding of metaphors and jokes. The spike in gamma waves that occurs during a moment of insight is pleasurable and joy inducing, just like a good joke. Evidently, creating is fun!

Walt Disney once described his role in his company as a creative catalyst. He put ideas together in a way that would spark creative insight throughout the company. This cross-pollination of ideas enabled him and his staff to connect wildly different ideas, objects, services, technologies, and disciplines to dish up new and unusual innovations. His dream of launching Disney College, a school to spawn creative cast members, was realized in 1981, 15 years after his death. The concept of the school illustrates how he wanted to empower his staff to be innovative thinkers - to be able to hit targets that no one else could see.

How can you be a creative catalyst in your office? When you practice the discovery cycle, you can generate ideas for advancing dentistry and learn how to troubleshoot a variety of problems. For example, you might determine the root cause of disease, motivate patients to buy into their dental health, mediate or resolve strife among the staff, lessen high costs, or encourage acceptance of new technology or systems.

To achieve insight and direction, take challenges through the discovery cycle. Results may not happen in a day, but stay on the course. If you are entrepreneurial, learning continually, practicing creativity daily, looking for opportunities and pursuing them, you will have a spark of insight. If you practice persistence and avoid leaping to premature closure, you will learn to overcome obstacles and solve problems creatively. If you embrace ambiguity as a means of enhancing associations, your "aha" moment will not only be valid but pleasurable.

So, have you had a "eureka!" moment about the introductory riddle yet? What does happen once in a minute, twice in a moment, but never in a billion years? Did the answer, "the letter 'm,'" bubble up from your subconscious mind? If so, you have experienced association.

Now, didn't that feel good?

DOROTHY GARLOUGH, RDH, MPA, is an innovation architect, facilitating strategy sessions and forums to orchestrate change in both the dental and corporate worlds. As an international speaker and writer, Dorothy trains others to broaden their skill-set to include creativity, collaborative innovation and forward thinking. She recognizes that engagement is the outcome when the mechanisms are put in place to drive new innovations. Connect with her at [email protected] .


1. Name the steps of the "discovery cycle."
2. What is association
3. What parts of the mind are involved in association
4. How does more information aid in the discovery cycle
5. How does making an association feel


1. Questioning, observing, networking, incubating, experimenting, and association
2. The colliding of information in new ways to arrive at a new idea or breakthrough
3. The conscious and the subconscious mind
4. Feeds creativity
5. Good

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