To Speed Up The Creative Process, Slow Down
By Sam McNerney | Feb 14, 20120 comments –>
What’s the key to creativity and problem solving? Relax.
It was Sunday in church, 1973, when Arthur Fry had his moment of insight. Fry, a member of the choir, was having trouble marking pages for the hymnals. Whenever he opened the book his makeshift bookmarks fell out or got caught in the seams. The problem was innocent enough, yet it persisted. What Fry really needed was an adhesive strong enough so his bookmarks stuck to the pages but weak enough so he wouldn???t damage the pages when he removed the bookmarks.
He recalled a seminar given by his colleague, Spencer Silver, a few years ago. Silver described a new adhesive he discovered during his talk and Fry had been wondering how it could be applied ever since. That???s when the answer came to him: why not use Silver???s adhesive for the bookmark?
He called his idea the Post-It note.
Fry, of course, isn???t the only person to experience a moment of insight. Henr?? Poincar?? is famous for thinking up Non-Euclidean geometry while boarding a bus. ???At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it…. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had the time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with the conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty.??? Einstein, moreover, is known to have thought up Special Relativity after glimpsing at Bern’s famous clock tower.
When we think about eureka moments Rodin???s The Thinker comes to mind, maybe Newton???s famous apple inspired insight (as the story goes). We associate insights with deep concentration and contemplation. But surprising new research is demonstrating another side to the story. This is what Fry???s story tells us, that breakthroughs occur when we are relaxed, when the mind is not focused but at ease. An insight obviously requires a lot hard work; it is often the peak of years of work. But on the way to discovery it???s important to let the mind wonder.
A recent experiment by Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks demonstrated this nicely. They recruited 428 undergrads that identified themselves as either night owls or morning larks. Next Wieth and Zacks asked them to attempt 6 problem-solving tasks; half the problems were insights-based while the other half was analytical-based and they were given four minutes to solve them.
Here???s where things got interesting. Half of the students were tested between 8:30am and 9:30am while the other half were tested between 4 and 5:30pm. The researchers found that the undergrads were better at solving the insight problems when they tested during their least optimal time of function. This means that owls did better in the morning while larks did better in the afternoon. The BPS Research Digest explains the details:
When larks were tested in the evening and owls were tested in the morning, they achieved an average success rate of 56, 22 and 49 per cent, for the three insight tasks, compared with success rates of 51, 16, and 31 per cent achieved by students tested at their preferred time of day. By contrast, performance on the analytic tasks was unaffected by time of day.
Their findings are counter-intuitive but consistent with other recent research. Mark Jung-Beeman is a psychologist from the University of Northwestern who studies what happens in the brains when it has a moment of insight. A few years ago he teamed with John Kounios to try to understand the neuroscience behind problem solving. To do this they used EEG and fMRI to measure subjects while they completed Compound Remote Associate Problems (C.R.A.P problems, as the joke goes). Here’ an example: What word fits with ???pine,??? crab,??? and ???sauce???? The correct answer is ???apple??? (pineapple, crabapple, and applesauce).
They found that participants went through several phases as they tackled the problems. First was the preparatory phase where the prefrontal cortex was hot with activity. Next was the search phase where many parts of the brain were active. After that subjects either gave up or solved the problems. Jung-Beeman and Kounis found that the successful ones showed a bust in gamma rhythm, which is generated when neurons bind to each other. They also found a spike of activity in the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG) moments before the insight. The aSTG is a fairly mysterious brain region but it is has been linked to the processing of metaphors. This makes some sense. C.R.A.P problems are, after all, about linking seemingly unrelated ideas.
What does this mean? One New Yorker article explains that, ???the insight process??? is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focused, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight.???
Research by Joy Bhattacharya of University London, Goldsmith confirmed this. Bhattacharya found that EEG data accurately predicted if a subject was going to solve a problem up to eight second in advance. What tipped the subjects off were alpha waves, which are electrical neural oscillations that appear when we are relaxed. They show up when you are about to fall asleep, when you???re getting out of bed, and when you???re taking a warm shower. “Sleeping on it” turns out to have some neurological merit.
The British Comedian John Cleese also confirms this research with an enlightening talk about his early day at Cambridge:
If I was trying to write a sketch at night and I got stuck??? I would go to bed. And when I woke up in the morning and made myself a cup of coffee and went back to my desk and looked at the problem not only was the solution to this problem immediately apparent to me, but I couldn???t even remember what the problem had been the previous night.
In a Red-Bull driven society it???s believed that intense focus, determination and willingness to never give up are vital, but Cleese and this informing research remind us that a clenched state of mind is sometimes counter-productive. Indeed, caffeine might be our best friend when it comes to solving problems, but certainly not always.
The important role relaxation plays in problem solving, insights, aha-moments and the so-called creative process is receiving a lot of attention. In a recent article on Time.com the science writer Annie Murphy Paul described the study by Wieth and Zacks and reminded readers that, ???by not giving yourself time to tune in to your meandering mind, you???re missing out on the surprising solutions it may offer.??? Similarly, ???when you have to be creative,??? says University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock on PsychologyToday.com, ???working at your non-optimal time of day is actually optimal.??? (There is even new research suggesting that being sleepy and drunk is good for creativity!)
To be sure, empirical results from the science of insights are confirming, not discovering, what many have known for centuries. The Austrian born physicist Fritjof Capra has a wonderful quote that captures this point. In his book The Tao Of Physics he explains the following:
Rational knowledge and rational activities certainly constitute the major part of scientific research, but are not all there is to it. The rational part of research would, in fact, be useless if it were not complemented by the intuition that gives scientists new insights and makes them creative. These insights tend to come suddenly and, characteristically, not when sitting at a desk working out the equations, but when relaxing, in the bath, during a walk in the woods, on the beach, etc. During these periods of relaxation after concentrated intellectual activity, the intuitive mind seems to take over and can produce the sudden clarifying insights which give so much joy and delight to scientific research.
So it was with Fry, who, on the fateful Sunday morning, was innocuously singing hymnals when he had his insight. He wasn???t thinking about Silver???s research; he probably wasn???t thinking about much at all. But that was the important part. It was the calming presences of his fellow choir members, the congregation and warming resonance of the hymns that allowed his neurons to relax and form brand new synapses. And with his new neural network he left church to change the world, one Post-It note at a time.
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There’s a great post at What Makes Them Click that explains research detailing the 4 types of creativity. Above is a matrix showing how they relate and descriptions are below:
· “Thomas Edison”
…In order for deliberate, cognitive creativity to occur, you need to already have a body of knowledge about one or more particular topics. When you are being deliberatively and cognitively creative you are putting together existing information in new and novel ways.
· “a-ha” moments
If you’ve ever had a personal crisis (relationship break-up, got fired, gone through a bankruptcy), and then had a flash of insight about yourself and what chain of bad decisions you might have made that contributed to the crisis, then you may have experienced deliberate, emotional creativity…
· Isaac Newton “Eureka” moments
Have you ever been working on a problem or idea that you can’t seem to solve… Then you go to lunch, and on your way back you get a flash of insight… This is an example of spontaneous and cognitive creativity…
…This is the kind of creativity that you think of when you think about great artists and musicians. Often these kind of spontaneous and emotional creative moments are quite powerful, such as an epiphany, or a religious experience. There is not specific knowledge necessary (it’s not cognitive) for this type of creativity, but there is often skill (writing, artistic, musical) needed to create something from the spontaneous and emotional creative idea.
The following commentary was authored by Uffe Elb??k, Danish Minister for Culture, and Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth.
“While it is impossible to deny the severity of the present crisis, it is also clear that Europe has many reasons for optimism and hope. What we are proposing – as European politicians and individuals with a passion for art and culture ??? is that we start looking at our cultural sector as a reservoir of hope, ideas and new economic growth that can lead us out of the crisis.
The crisis is first and foremost a crisis of confidence, not only among investors, politicians or voters, but a crisis among all of us. Even if at all levels political leaders and institutions are fighting for the right solutions, we, as a society, still need to rediscover the best in ourselves to move on. We need to find new ways to foster both human and economic growth. It is time we start paying closer attention to the mass of talent and innovation in our artistic communities and creative industries.
Art is not only a pleasurable icing on the cake ??? although it can certainly also be enriching in that way – but it is also a way of thinking and a practice of working innovatively with reality. The Europe of tomorrow is only going to be as successful and liveable as the ideas we have to make it grow. We all need to be better at what the artists are already good at ??? making more with less, finding fresh new perspectives and exciting new combinations. To give flesh and form to ideas that were before unthinkable.
All individuals and groups have a capacity for innovation and creating new ideas, but artists have made it their profession. Furthermore, while the crisis is economic and political – it certainly is not cultural. The cultural sector, both the fine arts and the creative industry, is in fact as vibrant and alive as ever, and the creative industry is one of the few growth industries in Europe at the moment.
More specifically, we address our message to three audiences:
Firstly, to ‘political Europe’, meaning politicians and the European citizens. Political obstructions must be removed to allow creative innovation to flourish and the European framework for creative industries must be further expanded. We need to create cities that will attract and stimulate the right people, both from Europe and abroad. We will all need to be courageous, take wise decisions and make bold priorities.
Secondly, we encourage artists, institutions and the creative industries to accept the responsibility that comes with the possibility of playing a major part in Europe???s future. We urge you to both realise and accept the role you will be able to play in a Europe looking for new ideas and new inspiration, and we encourage you to engage with the rest of society with your ability to see our reality from fresh, critical and creative perspectives. In return, we promise that we will invite you inside and listen carefully to what you have to say.
Finally, we address this to the next generation of artists and creative innovators. It is time to raise your heads and be proud of who you are. You are the future and you will be vital in showing all of us a hopeful light at the end of the present darkness.
What can the politicians do?
European cities are right now among the most creative and vibrant in the world. Cities like London, Milan, Paris, Madrid, Warsaw, Munich, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Berlin and Copenhagen are not only major metropolises, but also major creative centres with hundreds of thousands employed in the creative industries. These include not only innovators like the artists, filmmakers, actors, directors, sculptors, architects, designers, writers, musicians and composers we usually associate with the arts, but also the video game designers, fashion designers, producers, admen, ???mad men??? and the free thinkers of every industry out there. They not only add to the city???s economy, but also to the city???s life and culture.
Cities with a rich and diverse cultural life continue to attract creative and innovative talents who in turn contribute to the city???s economic well-being and overall liveability. This is true in big cities but more and more in a lot of European medium size and smaller cities.
Furthermore, not only the number, but also the concentration of creative workers continues to impress. In Copenhagen, a recent survey by the Danish think-tank FORA shows that the creative industry is the city???s most important, with about 70 000 employed either directly in creative job positions or in businesses like fashion retail that benefit from the innovations of the creative industry. In 2008, the creative industry contributed 12% towards growth in Denmark, eight times more than agriculture, gardening and forestry combined. Some 21% of Denmark???s new start-ups focused on the creative area. In the European Union the creative industry accounts for at least 3.3% of the economy ??? up to 4.5% based on measurement methods. Employment in the creative industry grows more rapidly than in other industries: 3.5% a year compared to a 1% in employment as a whole. In other industries, the companies with the highest ratio of creatively trained workers also have the highest output.
And the growth continues. Globally, creative industries are expanding as the cooperation between artistic skills and technology continues to create new advances in architecture, design, film, and so many other places where creativity, innovation and artistic intuition continues to play a larger and larger role. The United Nations now define the creative sector as one of the world???s most dynamic industries, and the sector had an average world-wide yearly growth of 14% during 2002-2008.
‘Creative Europe’ programme
The European Commission???s proposal for a new support programme – ???Creative Europe??? – precisely aims at supporting artists and professionals in the creative sectors across Europe. We encourage all politicians to work for initiatives that can get art out of its silos and make art, creation and cultural activity part of society at large. Artists and creativity could be even better integrated into our elementary schools, and they can become a dynamic part of the innovative process in the workplace. We need to get art off the walls and into the mind of the worker.
Furthermore, a vibrant cultural life creates liveable cities that in turn attract even more creative workers. Regions that are affected by de-population and the flight of young talent can find new vibrancy through culture. European cities have a gigantic potential through our rich historical heritage and our stimulating mix of diverse cultures and languages. By including culture on a much broader level in city planning, city design and business development we can create much more sustainable, liveable and attractive cities.
We also see a great potential for mobilising culture creatively in our foreign policy and development work. Using artists and creative workers as a part of strengthening the developing world???s cultural institutions and infrastructure could be one idea. Culture is at the heart of our strategic partnership with China; at the EU-China Summit this month (14-15 February) we marked a new stage in our cooperation with the launch of the ‘EU-China High-Level People-to-People Dialogue’. The EU has also stepped up its cultural partnership with Brazil. Art and culture are already a big part of Europe???s face to the world, and we know that our continent has unique strengths in this area.
The challenge will be to take ideas out of boardroom meetings and political debates and make them part of reality. We have to create real, lasting relationships between the artistic community, the creative industries and other sectors
like education, production and research. There is a lot to gain simply by stimulating new relationships, and this strategy can create immense growth without a need for big financial investments.
The change is first and foremost a question of mentality, communication and putting the right people together in the right place. We need to invest in culture, not by spending new money but by making the right priorities, facilitating the right partnerships and creating the right regulatory framework for creativity. This agenda has broad support across the political spectrum. For example, the President of the European Commission, Jos?? Manuel Barroso, has also expressed interest in putting more focus on the cultural field.
One of the tools to raise the level of the debate will the ???Team Culture 2012??? initiative by the Danish Minister for Culture, starting in Copenhagen on 27-28 February. Here, twelve European cultural notabilities will draft a manifesto describing what the role can be for culture and the arts in a time of crisis. The aim is to kick start a European debate on the subject and the manifesto will be the subject of a follow up conference bringing European decision makers to Brussels in June.
What can the artists do?
You ??? the artist – need to realise your own potential and take back your authority. Live up to the responsibility of your talent. Artists and the artistic institutions need to once again step into the arena as the central players in society???s own story about itself. You have a lot to offer and we have a lot to gain from you. We need to be better at listening to you and learning your language, but you also have to be a lot better to see our needs and reach out to us.
This is an invitation, not an order. We are not trying to coax you into sacrificing your artistic integrity on the altar of growth and enterprise. On the contrary we need you to do exactly what you are already doing ??? but to better reach out to the rest of society. Let us create new relationships. As artists, you are uniquely qualified to create meaning out of the apparently meaningless and to look at the chaos of the world and create a sense of perspective and hope. You really have something to contribute.
What can the next generation do?
To the students and the next generations of artists and creative innovators: Or, to the future: You???re it!
While we have to accept the crisis as it is, we have to see what it also can be: a great opportunity to realign our European community and reinvent ourselves in a new and better way. Testing times give us the opportunity to reassess our lives and our political structure, and to revisit our most basic values.
We have already seen how young artists played a major role in the Arab Spring of 2011. The next generation of artists of Europe has both a great responsibility and a major opportunity ??? accept it and be courageous! Don???t let fear, despair or naysayers hold you back. Don???t let the past kidnap the future. Or, in the words of Hillary Clinton: ‘Never waste a crisis – even if it is not a good one.'”