What is Creative Thinking: Neuroscientific Guide to Creativity

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Creativity is what makes something unique. Whether it is composing music or engineering a rocket, a creative solution is not only satisfying but most importantly can make a breakthrough, bring something novel and push things further.

Synonym for creativity is innovation. The ability to solve problems creatively to further progress in our world.

In this article, you will learn what is creative thinking, how you can learn to be more creative and how creativity is explained in neuroscience.

What is creativity?

Creativity is defined by two primary aspects: novelty and usefulness.

Research by Roger Beaty in 2018 revealed that creative thinking is measured by how efficiently our brain can connect different regions that usually work separately. Novel thinking is determined by the unique connections of brain regions that don't usually have links. Beaty and his team found that there are two main brain modes: default for brainstorming and daydreaming and the executive control mode that is responsible for focused work. The salience region reacts to the environment and switches between default and executive modes.

"Creative thinking relies on the ability to make remote associations and fruitfully combine unrelated concepts. Creativity theories posit that creative ideas arise from the retrieval of remote associations that are combined in a novel and appropriate way (Mednick, 1962). Hence, original associations and bi-associations (i.e., associations to one and two concepts, respectively) are considered elementary cognitive processes of creative cognition" - says Elements of creative thought: Investigating the cognitive and neural correlates of association and bi-association processes research. The study showed that original associations, as opposed to common ones, correlate with "divergent thinking ability, broad retrieval ability, openness, and creative behavior". Moreover, conscious intentions to find unique associations "can effectively tune response behavior towards creativity". This finding confirms that we can improve our creative thinking.

Associations can have a different depth. In my opinion, creative ideas have more sophisticated and intriguing associations. I remember that associations were one of the primary "creative" concepts taught at the university I studied. For instance, according to my tutors, if we design a house for a football player, then the association of the house with a ball is a creative idea. It is, in fact, boring and mediocre because it does not have the depth. It is a single top-level common association that anyone can think of. Therefore, a creative idea should be the result of original and unique associations. But how do we make these associations? Are they based on our knowledge? To understand, we have to discuss the thinking modes of the brain.

Steps to be more creative

  1. Focus on the problem and then let your creative thinking to connect different parts of your brain (knowledge) to reach an "Aha" moment.
  2. Work on your diffuse mode thinking to make connections (associations).
  3. Prototype quickly and test whether the idea fits the context and the goal.

Is creativity a talent?

According to Wikipedia "Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed."

Creativity is not tangible. Most people believe they do not have it because it is a talent that a few people get due to a special DNA sequence. However, is it true? Can't we learn how creativity works in the same way we can understand and practice human logic? Creativity mental models can help us understand the essence and the way our brain works to be creative.

A study by Kieran CR Fox and Roger Beaty shows that "creativity is not a special faculty possessed only by artists and inventors, but is instead the birthright of every brain". The research says that people's thoughts in general fall in a normal distribution.

Kieran CR Fox1 and Roger E Beaty - Novelty/Utility of Thoughts
Kieran CR Fox1 and Roger E Beaty - Novelty/Utility of Thoughts

However, the authors concluded that "A truly creative thought is simply one falling toward the far right of the distribution, novel and useful not merely to the individual, but society – or even the species as a whole. A truly creative individual is able to repeatedly generate such highly novel and useful thoughts: someone who has harnessed the default generative capacity of the mind for their own particular purposes—or alternatively, someone simply born with their distribution skewed toward the more novel and useful end of the cognitive spectrum." Put simply, you can be naturally skewed towards more creative thoughts but it comes with everyone with a certain level. If we happened to have less creative thoughts, we can work to direct them towards ideas and solutions.

Creative Thinking: Focused and Diffused

Focused and deep work is essential to any work. However, the magic happens when the two modes work together, one after another. When you are focused, your brain's attention is like a thin but strong ray of light pointed on a problem. Diffused attention, on the other hand, is scattered all over the area like sunlight through overcast clouds. It tries to make those necessary connections to produce creative output, a solution because it has farther reach to different regions in the brain. I like how Donald Draper described the idea flow and the two thinking modes in the Madmen series.

"Think about it deeply, then forget it, and an idea will jump up in your face."

You might have noticed this behavior before. When you take a shower or a walk, suddenly the problem you thought about before is illuminated with an idea. That is because the diffused thinking was busy working on the problem in the background. It is important to point out that both modes cannot work simultaneously. You have to give them space and energy.

To make the most of our diffuse thinking, we have to be conscious about it and let it do its work. First, do not torture yourself solving a problem with only focused thinking. Take rests, let your brain work it out in the background. Schedule your work or activity in periods of focused work and breaks.

If we want to let our diffused mode work we have to be open to new outcomes so that diffuse thinking can make unique connections. Usually, the most popular advice is to learn/watch/listen more to get inspired. The real inspiration is the same as what diffuse mode thinking does: inspiration connects your problem (part of the brain) to a different area (the source of inspiration).

I think creative ideas and solutions are simple. The unique part of the solution is not easily visible, but it's simple at its core. In most cases, you already have the knowledge to make the necessary connections, therefore switching attention and thinking diffusely can already lead to creative output.

Nevertheless, to maximize the output, you have to learn to be open to novel and direct your thoughts in the right direction.

Why kids seem to be more creative?

Learn how to be open

As we grow and get more experience we tend to quickly reject ideas that can have a big potential because we are biased due to past knowledge. It is easier for us to use a known solution with slight tweaks here and there than to risk trying out something unknown. Think about the moment in your life when you stopped being creative and became an "adult". I remember when I was a kid I used to go to preschool to draw and paint. When I look at the drawings I think of how creative I was. I was careless, I just let the drawing to unfold under my hand. Later, I guess, I met criticism, and perhaps since then, I had started to think whether my work would be appreciated or not. I took heavy constraints and put on myself.

If you remember the Novelty/Utility thoughts I mentioned earlier, then you might understand by now that our childhood traumas or events heavily influence the way we think now. Therefore, if we want to be open and flexible, we have to figure out what hinders us first. If we do so, we will free time and energy for our brain to think about solving problems and not about our fears or discomfort caused by past events.

To make the relevant connections, we have to learn to be open to new ideas. Children are a good example. They do not think whether it is right or wrong, they do not have constraints in the exploration, they are just open to the process and let their "creative" diffuse mode of thinking lead them. This is the creative model that directors and producers have at Pixar.

Andrew Stanton, a director who created Finding Nemo and WALL-E, compares making a movie to an archeological dig. As you progress, the dinosaur reveals to you. I find it quite interesting because it exposes several interesting aspects of the creation process. First, you have an idea, but you cannot be sure what is the outcome. You dig and find other pieces to assemble. Second, some pieces (read ideas) can be from another dinosaur, so you have to be careful and make sure that the piece fits your creation. Third, if you don't find enough pieces then dig somewhere else. Fail quickly and move forward. Mental models serve as a guide. In a difficult moment, you can always use it to make yourself through and not give up.

Why is creativity important?

Creativity leads to originality. If we want to create something that is not yet existing, creativity is a way of thinking that can help us to achieve that. It is easy and low-risk to copy from others but it leads to mediocrity. Mixing and tweaking is an incremental change and does not lead to progress. Extraordinary achievements are accomplished by creative people.

Prototyping and testing

Let's say, you worked intensively on a problem, took a break, let our subconscious mind to work on it, and came up with an idea. The usual response can be "It is not possible" or "It is silly". But. It is when Elon Musk builds a reusable rocket, flies it to space 50 times and people say "I thought it is not possible". Nobody did it before him because nobody tried out the idea, even theoretically. As you might know, he used First Principles thinking to test the idea and concluded that it is possible to make the rockets cheap and competitive.

I noticed myself rejecting ideas based on beliefs and conventions without even giving a try millions of times. If you continue to reject your ideas throughout your life, then your thinking will be biased towards traditional solutions. The idea can be crazy at first sight, but in the process, you can adapt it to reality. The result might not even include this particular idea, but it is essential to let yourself come up with cool ideas, test them, and see which one works.

An important step in the process is to try out different ideas quickly to test if it fits your creation or not. In architectural design, we try out quickly different options and then evaluate them by different criteria. In moviemaking directors or scriptwriters think if an idea or a solution adds to the story and is aligned overall. If the creative idea does not fit in the context, then it's not creative. It should be useful and add to the outcome. If it is novel, but not useful, then it is not creative and vice versa. As I mentioned earlier, fail quickly and move forward.

Final thoughts

When I tell people that I work as an architect, they often think that I must be very creative. It appears that creativity is a "birthright of every brain". Somewhere on the path of growing up, we lose that skill. I hope you could find something useful and try to find your once lost creativity. I believe each one of us has a creative inner self. Our goal is to let it free and use the power of creativity to come up with unique ideas and solutions.


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