The aha moment. Something sparking. Flash of inspiration in the face of a problem. Coming as if from nowhere. How do these moments of creativity happen? It is creative insight formed in the grey matter between our ears, that fires our imaginations into technicolour.
Survival and evolution of humanity fundamentally depends on innovative imagination. Our ability to think in novel and useful ways, is one of the defining features of human species. Creativity has been essential. Every leap forward has been as a result of insight- flying to the moon, curing disease, inventing the iPhone, outmanoeuvring the hairy mammoth. Creativity’s root is the spontaneity and problem-solving that defines everyday life.
Previously, studies on creativity have been done through psychology and observation from the outside. Now, we are told in the BBC Horizon programme on Creativity, with the tools of neuroscience we are able to see what is happening on the inside when creativity occurs and inspiration strikes. The programme uses experiments to assess how problem solving occurs, by looking at where and when the brain fires up. It seems we are thinking differently when we have a creative moment. In a flash of insight, the left lobe (approx just above the ear) doesn’t really react but area above the ear in the right hemisphere, does. They are actually wired slightly differently too. The left brain (logical) has short wires for pulling in information from nearby, the right brain’s (creative) wires branch out more broadly, gathering sources of information by reaching out and connecting to distant, unrelated ideas. It is here that novel concepts and solutions get made.
However, just before the spike of awareness occurs in our mind, there is a burst of activity at the back of the head on the right side as it momentarily shuts down part of your visual cortex, like closing your eyes to block off any distractions; just enough to allow the new idea to bubble up as insight. When someone asks us a difficult question, we’ll often look away, or down, anything but at the distracting face in front of us. We look inwards and our brain works out the answer. So if we want to have more creative sparks, we need to shut off our mind from the outside world on a regular basis. Fashion Designer Isaac Mizrahi in his 2008 TED talk speaks of insomnia being a great asset to his creativity. He lies awake thinking about his designs. Often he walks at night, perambulating through ideas. He walks a lot in the day too, following interesting people for inspiration, stopping them to take a picture of their shoes or a cut in their jacket. He searches for mistakes, tricks of the eye, accidents or convergence of images. He’s inspired by movies- the way the light makes the colours bounce. His mind wanders across the screen and his own design images start to form.
Insight is only part of creativity. Divergent thinking also plays a big part. One of the ways scientists test for creative divergence is to score people on the most creative different uses they can think of, for a simple object. Eg a brick as a building block, or a paper weight, or a work of art in the Tate Modern. This measurement is different from the traditional IQ test which tests for intelligence. There is overlap between intelligence and creativity but they are different from each other. In the brain the neural pathways thin out in the creative areas of the brain, long winding roads, allowing for new thinking to emerge. In the same way, when we go from driving on Birmingham’s busy spaghetti junction and head for the hills, we feel ourselves relax, our minds slow down, and space clears in our heads for creative thinking to gestate. Intelligence is about speed, the quickest route from a to b. Creativity is slow and meandering.
Tests performed by scientists on the Horizon programme, show that performing an intellectually demanding task diminishes creative agility but also that doing absolutely nothing also lowers our ability to make creative connections. The ideal state is formed by doing something mundane, that occupies us on a basic level but gives room for the creative mind to wander, pause, question, fire up, and bring solutions, associations and new ideas to the surface. Fishing, washing up, ironing, doodling, polishing the car, digging the garden, flipping burgers, bean counting, taking a shower. So if you are struggling with a problem, get up and walk away from it. Go do something monotonous and physical, get out of the way of your head, and your brain will do the work for you. You have permission to goof off. Get bored, switch off your devices. Creativity is a shy creature and tends only comes out of its shell when there are few distractions. The comedian John Cleese describes this approach as making ‘a tortoise enclosure for your mind’. If you allow your thoughts to drift on the morning commute or while folding laundry instead of listening to a podcast, you might well come up with more creative solutions.
Everyone has creativity hardwired into their brains at some level. Maybe we aren’t jazz musicians but we all have to improvise and innovate our way through our days. Our lives come unscripted, we are thrown curve balls all the time and we respond in the best way we can. You burn the pizza, you have to scour the fridge to come up with an alternate meal. You fail your exams, you have to rethink your future. You miss the last bus home you have to figure out which way to walk. You forgot to do your homework, you come up with a story for your teacher. We are generating new ideas, responses, bounce-backs all the time. It requires making leaps, taking risks, jumping in on the back on our gut instinct. It means switching off our Front Cranial Gatekeeper that’s firing all guns in the front areas of our brains (pre-frontal cortex)- the conscious self-monitoring area that makes us human not animal. Without this area restricting your flow you are much more likely to be able to tell your controlling, uptight boss to get lost when he has micro-managed your creative project into a logical brick wall. Doodlers, cartoonists, illustrators and rappers run rings around the Front Cranial Gatekeeper, which is why upstanding citizens think they are eccentric oddballs. But encourage our pre-frontal cortex to take an extended vacation and our creative drivers lose their inhibitions and are left to fish for subconscious inspirations as they swim up into consciousness.
So if you want to get more creative, think more strategically, skateboard on the half-pipe of innovation and improvisation, or just have a more interesting insights, you must learn to disrupt your mental fixedness. This is where your view of the world, your attitude, your perceptions, your approach, your beliefs, and responses have become stuck down a one way street. By breaking these habits, it gives you more chance to make new associations between concepts, new connections and ideas. People struggle to like green vegetables. Then someone comes up with the idea of sticking them all in a whizzer with algae and hey presto, all of California and some risk-taking areas of the UK are buying Nutri-bullets and drinking green vegetables for breakfast. To reassure those who prefer bacon, you don’t have to switch to green smoothies, you can disrupt any routine to get your creativity hike. Be more flexible and you will think more creatively. Isaac Mizrahi lurches from being slightly bored often to being spurred on to try new things; purposefully and regularly putting himself in the way of discomfort. He sings in a Cabaret Act and when he hears recordings of himself he is mortified at his audacity to release his voice to an audience. But it stirs him up, gets his creative synapses sparking.
Neuroscience proves that we are all fundamentally creative and that we are in control of becoming even more so. Creativity is stimulated by boredom, by mundane tasks, or by trying different and new experiences. Just performing an activity that isn’t normal to you, boosts your creativity levels by 15%. Our lives benefit from having insight into our problems and being able to thinking our way out of a fix, but moreover, by boosting our creativity, our experiences become richer, colourful and more vibrant.
Empty out a part of your day to let your mind drift
practice thinking of different ways to do the same thing
improvise more by ditching your routine
put yourself in front of new and unexpected experiences, often
try doing something that scares you every day
Alternate your problem-solving work with mundane physical activities.
Get help enhancing your life with a creative approach by working with Creative Coach Lou Hamilton. Find out more by emailing Lou@createlab.co.uk
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