creativity

Experience weird and boost creativity

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In our day to day routine we get used to the way things normally work.  That includes processes like the way we approach making dinner, the route we take to work or get ready for bed, and it includes the way things work, the function of pedals in a car or the keyboard on a computer.  These normalities are brilliant for efficiency and in some cases give us the mental space to be able cogitate and form new ideas (see Why is the shower great for creativity).  But, throwing out our expectations is another way to boost the creative muse.

One of the standard tests in creativity research is the Alternative Uses Task – which basically counts and rates for unusualness the number of alternative uses you can come up with for a particular object, like ‘a brick’.  Well it turns out that experiencing some of those unusual, weird, uses may well put you in a frame of mind needed in the first place to come up with those alternatives!  Unusual experiences can enhance creativity, or more formally, increase cognitive flexibility.

Dr Simone Ritter and colleagues conducted a number of experiments to come to this conclusion, my favourite being given instructions to make a chocolate chip sandwich.  But it’s not the sandwich filling that’s unusual, the chocolate chip sandwich being a popular breakfast choice in the Netherlands where Dr Ritter lives.  It was simply that after buttering the bread the chocolate chips should be tipped onto a plate, and the buttered bread applied to chips, rather than the usual sprinkling of the chips on to the buttered bread.  This simple violation of the norm increased cognitive flexibility.

I think its important to realise that our capacity for creativity isn’t fixed – despite the fact we often describe people as creative or otherwise.  It’s certainly true that some people are more creative ‘by default’ but we can all boost our creative muscle… and one way to do that may be as simple as bypassing our normal routine. Would typing on our keyboard using a pencil stuck to our head with blu-tack weird you out enough to boost creativity?  Well, if not, it would at least lighten the day of whoever observes you doing it.

Be remarkable and do something weird,
Mark

Why is the shower great for creative ideas?

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We’ve all been there, while in the shower the answer to that sticky problem, an idea that seems inspired, or even the perfect response to an earlier comment – just appears.  Why is that?

It’s not just the shower, it might be when we’re dropping off the sleep, while out walking, doing the washing up, and a big one for me, while out riding a bike – I often return desperate for a piece of paper to scribble down my thoughts before they disappear.

There’s a lot of work in social science on creativity, but I think one particular starting point is interesting here.  I’ll summarise it as control thwarts creativity.  When we are mentally taking charge of a track of thinking, the very act of taking charge is counter to the disparate linking of ideas that often occurs during creative insight.

Have you every seen sheep herding when a farmer and dog are trying to coax sheep into a pen – between them they funnel all the sheep in the same direction, through a gate, catching any dashes for freedom and bringing them back in line.  In our heads, the sheep are our thoughts and farmer and dog are played by our pre-frontal cortex, the bit of our brain just behind our forehead, often described as our executive control system.  It’s fundamental to our ability to think, to understand ourselves and to be human.  The kind of control it can provide is great when you need to get something done, it’s productive time, stopping yourself going off at tangents until you’ve managed to achieve your goal.

But it’s the sheep shooting off at tangents, running around the field seeking out new lush bits of grass that better mirrors creativity – a lack of control is the thing.  It’s been found that creative insight comes most easily when this part of our brain is relaxed.  Prof. Arne Dietrich, created the term transient hypofrontality to describe these moments – transient meaning temporary, hypo meaning reduced, frontality meaning pre-frontal cortex control.  Temporarily reduced control from the pre-frontal cortex.

Guess what are good ways to induce transient hypofrontality – yes, take a shower, go out for a walk, ride a bike, do the washing-up, get ready for bed… basically, things that occupy you, but don’t tax your brain.  So, this is why the advice to take a break when we’re struggling for insight is good, and why our best ideas often come when we’re enjoying a shower.

Be remarkable, take a shower,
Mark

ps. if you’d like to hear about Transient Hypofrontality from the Arne Dietrich himself, watch his fascinating TEDx talk.

The unglamorous side of creativity

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Creativity gets all the glamour, a seeming supreme being among talents.  And so it’s easy to forget the less glamorous side of creativity, the bit that means the creative juices get to deliver something that people will care about.

I like the definition of creativity that comes from social science of a successful activity producing something novel and useful.  This requires a combination of creative thinking and problem solving, but also that the problems are worth solving and that the solution actually gets delivered in a usable, that is, useful form.  There are no absolutes, but I tend to think that the second part of this duo is more challenging than it’s given credit for – it’s the difference between coming up with a clever idea and delivering a clever solution.

The delivery bit often requires much less glamorous skills, like hard work, persistence, and selling.  Yet, without the discipline that kept Terry Pratchett sitting at his desk writing the Discworld novels; the engineering required to create the unibody chassis of a MacBook; and the bravery of a comedian to stand-up, the world would be a duller place.

I know Peter Drucker said it (“Ideas are cheap and abundant; what is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action”), as I’m sure have many others.  But I think it’s worth a reminder…

Be remarkable, and deliver,
Mark

Is Genius next to Madness?

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I’ve always wondered if there is any truth that genius is next to madness.  So when I was reading an interview with Dean Keith Simonton the other day and he brought it up, I was naturally intrigued.

Simonton is one of the worlds most respected researchers into creativity in the historical record – that is, analysing historical data looking for specific, objective information.  In the interview he mentioned that among geniuses, creators tend to display higher rates of mental illness than leaders, and that depression and alcoholism are the most common illnesses.

Genius here appears to be described as ‘exceptional creativity, measured through productivity’. So, we’re talking about highly creative individuals who publish, or otherwise make public, information that can be analysed.  And you can split creative genius by discipline, for example leadership, scientific, artistic, athletic and so on.

As ever, when you look at the science the results are more complex than the simple summary statement, but I was intrigued to see that a summary statement was being made.  And goes something like this:

  • Among creative genius, creators who rely more on imagination display higher rates of mental illness than, say, leaders.  And, if you break down the kinds of creators, then artists tend to show higher rates than scientists.  Simonton summarises that “in general, the more constraints on the genius in the particular domain, the lower the rate of psychopathology.”

My interpretation looks like this…

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The more concrete the concept of the creative topic, the lower the incidence of psychopathology (mental illness); the more abstract the creative topic, the higher the incidence of psychopathology.  For example, leaders show less psychopathology than creators and among creators, a scientific creative genius in Physics is less likely to show issues than a creative genius in an art like poetry.

It’s worth noting that although there does appear to be link between creative genius and ‘madness’ – there is a higher percentage of psychopathology among creative geniuses than among us regular folks – it still means that most creative geniuses are mentally well, despite how headline worthy it might be to say otherwise.

Be remarkable, and stay well!
Mark