The Key to Creativity – Ignore your problem in order to solve it

13th April 2013

The Key to Creativity – Ignore your problem in order to solve it

A great recent episode from Horizon on BBC Two, looked at ground breaking investigative work into what happens in the brain, when one has an Idea. In more technical parlance, it sought to discern the neural pathway that corresponds with creativity.

Here is the trailer – and you can find a link to the full programme here –

This was especially interesting to me, a trainer who assists organizations with Creative Thinking Techniques, as I am often more concerned with the ‘HOW’ of creativity (how to help the brain be more creative) rather than the ‘WHAT’ – what happens internally, when it is.

Horizon provided some interesting insights into why the left side of the brain is more focused on logic and language and the right side on spatial awareness and intuition.
The epicenter of insight and innovation in the brain is above the right ear and is called the Anterior Superior Temporal Gyrus.
The reason that this area, and the right side of the brain in particular is more creative, is all down to connections.

In this area of the brain above the right ear, the dendrites (types of neurones) branch more broadly than elsewhere. They are therefore able to source information from a larger part of the brain, than those situated on the left.

Also interesting, is the way that information gets into the brain, visually. Information from the right eye goes initially to the left side of the brain and information from the left eye goes to the right side. This means that a visual prompt that you see all/mostly with your left eye, is more likely to spark an insight or an idea.

This is all very interesting background information, but what we all care most about, is how we can be more creative – have better, actionable ideas on a regular basis.

The Importance of Newness –

In my training I talk about the Importance of Newness – disrupting one’s routine to get hold of new information and therefore maximise inputs going into the brain; which will in turn boost the quality of ideas that come out.

The importance of creating a plan to do this is especially important in this era of information overload – when we are being increasingly inundated by reams of (often useless) data.

Horizon has some interesting and varied perspectives on how we can acquire Newness.
These include journeys in a glider, making a sandwich in an unusual fashion and the wearing of high tech augmented reality headgear. The latter approach involves the use of visual technology that displays a familiar environment to the wearer, but breaks the rules on how physical objects are represented – thus forcing the brain to question the assumptions it normally makes about it’s surroundings.

The brain has often been called the world’s most advanced filing system. When we learn how to do a task – it remembers, so we can do the task again with the minimum amount of difficulty. If it perceives a similar task to one completed previously, then it uses information accrued from the previous experience, to complete the present challenge.
So for example – putting on a pair of socks in the morning. Once this task has been successfully accomplished (most likely in childhood) then the brain remembers how it is done. The brain remembers what a sock is for, which drawer it is kept in and which part of the body it fits on.
This all seems pretty obvious – but only because the brain is so good at filing information. If it wasn’t, we would have to re-learn tasks on a regular basis – What is a sock? Where are they kept? Why does it go on my foot etc..? We’d never leave the house…

However because the brain makes assumptions like this, it is hard to break or even momentarily change this mode of behaviour. In effect to make the brain act counter-intuitively or even illogically.

A key part of the Horizon piece looked at how different types of brain activity affect people’s ability to have ideas. In an experiment, three individuals were asked to undertake different activities, in between two attempts at solving the same problem.
One was asked to think intensively around another task, one to ponder on a trivial problem and one to think about nothing at all. The individual in the middle was able to generate wider and more varied ideas than the other two, when they returned to addressing the original problem.
The result from this experiment chimes with our previous understanding – that people best solve problems when they are not thinking about the problem at all.

Salvador Dali used to find that his best periods of creativity were to be found in the gap between sleeping and waking. To access this space, he would sleep with his chin supported by his arm resting on a table. As he dozed off, so he would lose balance and then wake-up. Not tremendously restful but in terms of seeking innovation – tremendously dynamic.
We could achieve the same divergent effect, by going for a jog or a long walk, taking a shower or listening to a piece of music.

What is interesting about the Horizon experiment is that certain types of divergent behavior are more effective in getting to ideas, than others. The point is that you can try too hard at being creative. In order to boost your innovation levels you have got to relax….just a little.

Importantly, creativity and intelligence are not isomorphic – that is, they are not the same, or even that closely related. Current research shows that the part of the brain (the front bit) that allows for successful focus and concentration is exactly the part of the brain that constrains lateral thinking. Those who tend to have less focus are conversely more able to think spatially and in a counter-intuitive fashion.

People in certain industries can often be snobbish about ‘other people’s’ ability to think creatively, and ironically this is especially true in the world of advertising and communications – where ‘creativity’ was traditionally held to be the sole domain of Art Directors and Copywriters in ad agencies.

The reality is that anyone can have great ideas and the digital space has precipitated a period of ‘creative democracy’. As well as being very welcome, this new order is much more effective than the old, esoteric approach.

Three elements are involved in getting to insightful, actionable ideas:

1) Enthusiasm – an interest in, and enthusiasm for, ideas and looking at things in new ways.
2) Acquiring a sense of Newness – an effective system for regularly acquiring new and fresh information (quality of information in = quality of ideas out).
3) Use of specific Creativity ‘Apps’ or tools that can be practically applied to a problem, in order to find solutions.

The Horizon piece tells us that you don’t have to be smart to be creative; and with the use of a few simple tools and the right mindset – we can all have better ideas and be more innovative.

Surely that is one tremendously motivating and liberating idea, all of itself.

Nick Hammond