A snapshot of what drives creativity

There really is no ideal pattern to creative thinking. No perfect pill you can swallow to stimulate all of the necessary processes that make creative insights occur. No task or exercise you can perform to spark an idea in your mind.

There are, however, certain scientifically shown things we can do to increase the likelihood of having creative thoughts.

When I first began studying the topic of creative thinking, more than eight years ago, I went into the task with the mentality that I would be able to discover some pattern of thinking that could guarantee creativity every single time.

I wanted to believe there could be a way to consistently spark creative insights.

But anecdotal evidence from thousands of years of human history (and more recent times), paired with the scientific information we know about our brains, indicates that there is no such perfect pattern, no easy-to-swallow pill; at least, not yet.

There’s just too much noise in the mind–tens of billions of neurons interacting with one another on microscopic levels at speeds faster than conscious comprehension– and there are too many factors at play in any one problem, to be able to create an ideal route to creative thinking whenever we want it most.

Of course we can (and should) try to optimize our patterns of thinking, our environments, and our behaviors, to increase the likelihood of stumbling on a creative insight when possible. This, I believe, is the closest knowledge we’ll get to unlocking creativity. At least for the foreseeable future.

This is the heart of why I write on this blog: to help us better understand the unique attributes of cognitive and biological functions as a connection of an individual creative capacity.

The more we understand about what does and does not seem to correlate with creative thinking, the more we can optimize our experiences and our surroundings to align with the potential for creativity.

So let’s take a moment to quickly look at what we know.

In “The cognitive, emotional and neural correlates of creativity” researchers Matthijs Baas, Carsten DeDreu, and Bernard Arjan Nijstad nicely explain everything we know to-date about what causes creativity:

“Research has shown that creative outcomes are a function of multiple cognitive processes, including divergent and flexible thinking, the use of flat and broad (as opposed to steep and narrow) associative hierarchies, convergent and persistent thinking, and incubation-driven processes.”

The researchers then go on to reference and summarize a swath of research spanning the past 53 years. They make a strong argument: we don’t know everything about how creativity works, but we know enough to make a case that some things help and some things hinder.

First they highlight divergent and flexible thinking.

This is our ability to think more freely and loosely, as opposed to rigid and fixed. One recent validation in the area of flexible thinking is the importance of an incubation period: time spent awayfrom work or conscious effort in order to let the subconscious mind develop and strengthen neural pathways.

Activities like meditation, getting ample rest, a morning shower immediately after waking up, and regular walks, have all been shown to be the perfect states for idea incubation.

As I’ve written previously on the subject:

“There are more than 100 billion neurons in your brain. Each of those neurons has between 1,000 and 10,000 connections to other neurons, creating an organic network of more than 1 quadrillion synapses in a soft little mass sitting between your ears….In theory, those neurons are processing 200 billion or more bits of information every second.”

In order to reap the most benefit from the billions of neural systems in your brain, you have to get out of their way.

It’s also wise to practice divergent thinking with the intent of seeing just how divergent you can go. You can do this by mind mapping, free writing, or by asking really good, Investigative questions.

In addition to divergent and flexible thinking, convergent and persistent thinking also play a part in creativity.

Convergent thinking is the ability to see where ideas are similar, consciously and with effort. This type of thinking can be tricky, arguably the best way to do it is to work with a group of like-minded individuals in an effort to solve a problem or simply have a really free-flowing conversations.

Persistent thinking, on the other hand, is something you can only do alone.

In my years of research on creative thinking, persistence is one of the truly underlining and vital aspects of creative success. Staying with a problem or idea long enough to allow divergent and convergent thinking to take their course–naturally and often through varying phases of incubation–is difficult. Many of us give up on an idea or accept an immediate solution long before the idea (or ideas) have had time to simmer in the mind.

In my article, Which attributes really matter for creative success? I explain:

“Grit…is what allows creative geniuses to keep pressing on through failures and bad ideas in order to uncover truly valuable concepts….This is especially true for creativity, which regularly entails the act of encountering false positives or discouraging results. For example: Thomas Edison and his team of inventors tested some thousand or more variations of filament for their lightbulb before ending up with the unique carbon version.”

Being able to persist through an idea–even after it seemingly has reached its peak or thoroughly been resolved–regularly leads to newer and better ideas.

Lastly on the topic of things we know that influence our creativity, emotions, energy, and motivations.

Ample research has shown that emotions and motivation play a key role in our ability to not only think creatively, but to think energetically at all.

Undoubtedly the best emotions for creativity are polarized ones: high levels of happiness or deep lows of anger or despair.

In their research, Matthijs Baas, Carsten DeDreu, and Bernard Arjan Nijstad call these line-end points of emotion “appetitive cues.” They match them to emotionally compelling situations in life, like falling in love.

The reason these emotional, appetitive cues fuel creativity is because they are often associated with high levels of energy. The endorphins of love and the adrenaline of fear or excitement.

Naturally this leads us to the importance of physical and cognitive energy in creative thinking.

Without enough energy to pursue divergent pathways of thinking, our brains are inclined to do “what works– and restrict our thoughts into following the existing neural pathways that are large and in-charge.

In the end, what we as a civilization know about creativity today is enough for people like you and I to optimize our lives and environments to encourage it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

“To have more creative ideas we need to evaluate not the color of the room or the size of our notebook, but instead whether or not we got a full night of sleep, what motivation we’re dealing with, our level of interest and curiosity, our ability to tinker and experiment, and whether or not we have the resources to not only fuel ideas, but to work with them as they arrive.”

Photo by Steve Jurvetson.