The creative processing your brain won’t tell you about

We’ve known for some time that our senses detect an inordinate amount of signals. More than we’re ever aware of.

Now new research is showing exactly how much of the things we don’t realize we’re sensing are being interpreted by our subconscious. And the findings shed light not only into how the brain works in unison with our sight, but also how things we don’t consciously see impact our creativity.

The research stems from the University of Arizona, where doctorate candidate Jay Sanguinetti demonstrates that our brains see things that we don’t. The brain then gives meaning to objects just outside of our natural vision without consciously registering that we’ve “seen” something.

When you’re in a museum, walking through a bookstore, sitting in a cafe or at school, you’re not aware of exactly how much you’re actually seeing, hearing, feeling, and smelling. But, as the study shows, your brain is more than aware.

Almost every detail of your atmosphere is taken into your brain through your senses. Then, before you become aware of the details, your brain decides whether or not the information is: 1) recognizable, and 2) vital to your well-being or not. If the information is vital it moves up the neurological chain into your conscious, if the information isn’t vital it gets filtered into a lower level of consciousness, memory, or is more-or-less thrown away.

And really, most of the information we receive in our senses isn’t all that important. So the brain may be consuming the data, but it doesn’t present it to your higher sense of consciousness and therefore you aren’t made aware of it. There’s no conscious reason to be made aware of the sound a fan makes in another room, or the words on an advertisement on the side of the road. So those things get filtered out automatically.

Other things, however, like a stick on the side of the road that might be a snake, or a book cover at the bookstore that might resemble something an idea you had before for a work of art, those things are recognized and made known to your – your consciousness – as necessary.

Even if we’re not aware of it, nearly everything around is constantly being absorbed, and that’s vital for creativity.

How does this all impact creativity?

The more we surround ourselves with stimulating information, the more mental resources we have to pull from when we find ourselves stuck on a problem or while brainstorming.

This is the science and reasoning behind Steve Job’s famous quote: “Creativity is just connecting things.”

Our brain’s ability to subconsciously recognize symbols and shapes without us having to consciously acknowledge them means that we can walk through a bookstore or sit in a cafe and absorb incredible amounts of information with ease.

That information then could later be recollected in a sort of blurry, hard-to-scientifically-define memory-dig. Which is when you suddenly come up with a solution to a problem or an idea for a project in a moment of “Aha!” without readily being able to think of exactly how you came up with the idea.

The information for those types of eureka moments is already in your brain, you simply may not have been aware of it.

Of course, there’s a lot of additional science we still don’t know about (like exactly how our brains are sorting, storing, and recollecting information without us actively commanding it to do so).

But take it for what it’s worth now that we have science on our side. Going into an environment or a situation where you’ll have plenty of stimulation to absorb will undoubtedly affect your creativity later on. It’s like going to a museum to generate ideas for paintings, or listening to writers talk at a cafe in order to come up with a book idea for yourself.

Trust your brain’s ability to absorb information as needed, just make it your job to ensure you’re putting yourself into situations where lots of valuable information can be consumed.

You can (and should) read more on the new research here: Perceived as Shapeless yet Processed for Semantics.

Photo by Patrick McArdle/UANews for the official University of Arizona article on the study.