Creative Thought

In Tips, Trends on October 25, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Our level of creative success may be tied to what we can forget. As new models emerge our tendency is to layer them onto old models rather than jettison old things and start over. It’s much harder to face the the stark kernel of a new model. We wind up retrofitting our old models w new baubles instead of building sleek efficient new models.

A recent article in Newsweek highlighted one aspect of this problem. According to researchers interviewed for the article, students can learn creativity. At least, they can exercise the creative sequences in their brain. They do so by following this pattern:
  • Divergent thinking to learn and explore
  • Convergent thinking to select and synthesize
The first step involves identifying the problem, learning about its causes and aspects and then researching and brainstorming related topics, themes, ideas, solutions. Note that brainstorming isn’t creating a list of possible solutions from which to choose in the next phase. The best brainstorming chases a lot of rabbits, veers and detours and dives into minutia of situations only tangentially related to the problem. In fact, the most creative people tend to be those who can venture farthest afield from the issue at hand and still make it back home safely.


The second phase involves shifting through all of the data, knowledge and ideas generated by the first phase. Some will indeed be irrelevant. But some information that seemed unrelated on the surface may hold a key to enabling a new solution. Creative thinkers can take their far-flung fact-finding and combine or cut out its pieces to arrive at a new, original idea.


Newsweek describes the process this way.


When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn’t come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.

Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the “aha!” moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it’s come up with.

Now the brain must evaluate the idea it just generated. Is it worth pursuing? Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.


For me, the crucial part of this process is the turn-around. It’s an intuitive decision to say, “I’ve done enough research. Any more time invested in divergent thinking is not going to yield any better result.” And it always feels like there’s a backlash at the instant of turn-around. My mind is thinking outward, forward, divergently. When I turn around to head for home, I get the impression that the inertia of my ideas are continuing outward without me. I find myself scrambling to lasso them – write them down, take a picture, sketch something, leave a voice recording – anything to help herd my ideas toward the finish line.


Which creative trap are you most likely to fall into?
  • Sticking too close to home so that your solutions tend to be repackaged version of old methodologies?
  • Venturing far afield and never bringing your thoughts back together?

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