What is a creative idea? A mystical gift from your God? The discovery of something new? A profound insight of almost spiritual proportions? An irritant to rational thinking? A creative idea can be any of these things. But to understand creativity and how you have ideas, it helps to take a somewhat more clinical perspective. In terms of your brain, memories and creativity, let’s look at what exactly happens when you have a creative idea.
But first, we need to talk about notions
A notion is any bit of information stored in your brain’s memory
A notion is a piece of information stored away in your brain’s memory. It could be a bit of information you learned at school, it could be something you read in a book, it could be your reaction to something you have seen, smelled or tasted. Notions do not need to be factual or even true. If you believe in Santa Claus, then this is a valid notion as far as you are concerned. If you believe that Picasso was a better artist than Dali, this is also a valid notion as far as you are concerned.
When 2 or more notions come together to create a unique notion, an idea is born.
Whenever two or more notions come together to create a unique, all new notion in your mind, a creative idea is born. The notion of small sheets of notepaper combined with the notion of slightly sticky glue became the creative idea of Post-It notes. The notion of nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas) and the notion of reducing pain during surgery became the creative idea of anesthesia. Interestingly, although the effects of nitrous oxide were discovered by Sir Humphry Davy in a series of experiments in 1799—it took another 40 years before someone combined this notion with the notion of dealing with pain. Nevertheless, once the discovery was made, you can assume a lot of people were slapping their foreheads and exclaiming, “why didn’t I think of that?”
Indeed, think about any creative idea or invention (which inevitably has been inspired by creative ideas) and you can deconstruct it into notions that were established at the time the idea or invention was born.
Once a creative idea is formed. It becomes a notion that can form new creative ideas.
Once two or more notions have created an all new notion, or creative idea, that new notion becomes a part of your repository of notions that can be constructed into more creative ideas. For instance, once the idea of the Post-It had been realized, people quickly up with new ideas for using the notes: marking pages in a book, annotating documents without marring them and brainstorming to name but a few. Each of these new uses of Post-It notes were the result of a creative idea, which was the result of the notion of a Post-It note being combined with other notions.
This is the amazing power of the creative idea! Not only does it give us something new and exciting, but it provides a new building block for creative ideas. Indeed, every invention, every innovation, every creative ideas we humans have ever had have been built upon the building blocks of previous ideas. And those goes all the way back to the cavemen and women combining such basic notions as banging rocks together to make a sharp stone and the notion of the potential usefulness of that sharp stone as a tool.
It’s very simple then. A creative idea is the result of two or more notions coming together in the mind in order to create an all new notion; a creative idea, which in turn becomes a useful notion for future creative ideas.
How Do People Have Creative Ideas?
Notions are stored in the average brain as memory and different kinds of memories are stored in different parts of the brain. Moreover, it seems that similar memories are stored in proximity to each other. Certainly, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of people thinking seems to bear this out. That said, science is only just beginning to understand how the brain forms, stores and accesses memories.
As noted, we devise creative ideas as a means of finding a path to achieving a particular goal. A composer wishes to express thoughts in a song, a scientist seeks to explain a natural phenomenon, a designer seeks ways to improve a particular kind of product. Incidentally, you can also consider creativity as a means of solving problems, but I prefer to work with goals. Anyway, the need to solve a problem is also a goal—so it’s really the same thing.
Even when a creative idea seems to come to you out of the blue, it is almost inevitably because it helps you achieve a goal. You may not be consciously thinking about the goal, you may not even be terribly interested in achieving the relevant goal, but you need to be aware of the goal in order to recognize the creative idea. For instance, if you are relaxing in the bath and suddenly have a brilliant and creative idea for a new curry to cook for dinner one day, that idea enables you to achieve a goal: cook an interesting new meal for dinner. You may not have been thinking of that goal. If you had no interest in food and only ever ate peanut butter and jam sandwiches prepared by your mother, the notions of combining various kinds of food in novel ways would not have happened in your brain.
What creative uses could you make of a shoebox?
If you take a person of average creativity and ask her to come up with ideas towards achieving a goal, she will probably focus her thinking on notions related to the nature of the goal. If, for instance, you have asked her to come up with creative ideas for using a shoebox, she will likely focus her thinking on boxes. This would probably inspire ideas about storing small things. She might remember that as a schoolgirl, she made dioramas in shoeboxes and suggest ideas about making dioramas and other decorative things. These ideas might inspire her to think further. But her ideas will still circle around her existing notions of small boxes and their uses.
Average person looks for notions to combine to devise idea
If you could look insider her brain while this was happening—perhaps with a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner—you would probably see that a relatively small, focused area of her brain is active. This would be the area of her brain where she stores memories (i.e. Notions) about small boxes.
At the same time that this is happening, a part of her brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex will inspect ideas before letting them develop. This is the bit of the brain is a sort of censorship filter that is responsible for regulation of thinking and action. It’s what prevents you from behaving in ways that would be inappropriate socially. It prevents you from saying stupid things that might cause your friends, colleagues and others to laugh at you or look down upon you. Basically, it keeps you out of trouble. And that’s a good thing.
Your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex filters ideas.
The censorship filter reviews ideas, when you are generating them, and stifles potentially stupid, crazy or embarrassing ideas. Unfortunately, those ideas are often also the most creative ideas. Indeed, most really great creative ideas initially sound stupid.
Bra made out of a cut up shoebox—a creative idea or a stupid idea?
For example, imagine our averagely creative thinker is thinking about bras—perhaps she is planning to buy new ones at a sale later in the day—while generating ideas about boxes. As a result, she suddenly has a crazy idea to cut up the hypothetical shoe box and make it into a bra with cubical cups and give women more angular chests. Most likely, her censorship filter will immediately reject the idea as potentially embarrassing and stupid. So, before the idea has fully formed in her mind, it is rejected.
As a result, an averagely creative person can easily come up with moderately creative ideas. But those ideas will center around the nature of the goal. If you demand that this person has lots of ideas (such as in a traditional brainstorm or for a creativity exercise), she still will not veer far from the goal. She cannot help it. It is the way her brain is wired.
People Who Are Exceptionally Creative Are Different
People who are very creative, let’s call them “highly creative”, are different. Their brains seem to be wired differently in two significant ways. Firstly, when asked to find ideas to achieve a goal, they search around much more of their brains, looking for notions with which to build ideas. Clearly this is a powerful advantage in terms of creativity. If you can access a greater number of more diverse notions from which to create new notions, than can average people, it is easier to devise creative ideas; ideas that averagely creative people would never think about.
If we were to use our MRI scanner to look into the brain of a highly creative person trying to devise ways to achieve her goal, we would see much more of her brain is active as she searches many diverse memories for notions that she can combine to create ideas.
Creative people search much more of their brains for ideas than do average people.
If our highly creative thinker is tasked with coming up with creative uses of a shoe box, she will—like the average person—think small boxes, storage and dioramas. But she will also think about many other seemingly unrelated things, such as shoes, clothing, toys, weapons, fuel for a fire and more. She will play with the box in her mind, take it different places. She will imagine what it is like inside the box. She will think about the box burning. She will cut up the box. She will throw it. As she is doing all of these things in her mind, various and seemingly unconnected notions come together to form ideas. Ordinary ideas and crazy ideas.
But that’s not all! The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in the highly creative person becomes significantly less active than usual when she is developing ideas. In other words, she is far less likely to filter out ideas; she is far less likely to feel her ideas are inappropriate. As a result, her brain can play with and develop ideas that the averagely creative person’s brain would reject in an instant. Moreover, she will not feel embarrassed about sharing her crazy ideas with others. She will not worry about people laughing at her or looking down upon her for having silly ideas.
This is what makes her highly creative: her brain. Its internal search engine seeks far and wide for diverse notions to combine into ideas and its censorship filter rejects few ideas, no matter how stupid they may seem to others. It is also what makes her different to most people whose brains focus much more when searching for notions and then reject far more notions as stupid or inappropriate. In a nutshell, highly creative people’s brains are wired differently than are averagely creative people.
Getting More Creative
It seems that the way people think is largely hard-wired into their brains during childhood and cannot significantly be changed later in life. So, if you are not extremely creative, but wish to be, you cannot take medication, lessons or undergo brain surgery in order to make your brain think significantly more creatively than it does now… And that is probably a good thing. Who and what you are is largely the result of the way you think. Radically changing how you think would radically change the kind of person you are, which could have unpleasant consequences. For instance, a successful accountant with an eye for detail and strong analytical skills might lose these precious skills if she could “rewire” her brain to be more creative!
Nevertheless, there things you can do to improve your ability to generate creative ideas. Understanding what creative ideas are, how we form them and how highly creative people differ from creative people enables us to judge what kind of tricks might actually help you be more creative and which are more likely to be wasting time. In some cases, research bears these judgments out.
The first thing to observe is that highly creative people generate ideas by exploring a diversity of notions in their minds and associating those notions with the creative goal. If she is looking for creative ideas incorporating a shoebox, she looks at the shoebox in many different ways and tries to associate it with a diversity of other notions.
Great creative trick: choose a random word in a dictionary and apply it to your goal
In other words, her creativity comes not from the ideas or how many she generates, but from how she looks at the goal and associates it with other notions in her mind. This is why some of the classic creativity “tricks” work. For example, if you are stuck for ideas, a great trick is to open a dictionary (or any book) and randomly choose a word. Then try and find ideas that incorporate that word. This brings new notions to your goal (something highly creative people do naturally) and almost inevitably results in creative ideas. In fact, this simple trick is probably one of the best creative thinking tricks you can use!
Going for a walk is a good way to get creative inspiration
Another trick is to let the goal sit in the back of your mind for a day or two. Go for a walk. Visit a museum. Read a book on an unrelated topic. As you do these things, think about your goal from time to time. If you are reading a novel, think about what kind of ideas the protagonist would devise in order to achieve a goal like yours. If you are visiting a museum, think about how you could associate exhibits with your goal.
Another, more recently discovered trick is to distance yourself from the goal. Imagine someone across the country or in another country has the same goal. What would you suggest to her? If you work in the London office of a multinational company, imagine the Mumbai office has a similar goal. What would you suggest they do? Distancing yourself from the goal gives you a new perspective on the goal and that brings new notions into your idea generation.
Another trick for generating creative ideas is to give your censorship filter different instructions. For instance, when generating ideas, consciously reject conventional ideas and seek unconventional ideas. If you are facilitating a brainstorm or other idea generation activity, make it clear that the most unique, craziest or most unusual ideas will be rewarded and selected. This tells participants to reject more conventional ideas. Better still, emphasize that boring, conventional ideas will be rejected.
Likewise, never, ever tell people in an ideation event that the “best ideas” will be rewarded and selected. “Best ideas” are, in most people’s minds, tried and trusted ideas that have always worked in the past. Best ideas are conventional ideas. Indeed, as soon as you tell people the best ideas will win the brainstorm, their censorship filters will reject outlandish, unconventional ideas in favor of conventional ideas similar to those best ideas implemented in the past. As a result, you reduce the level of creativity you can expect in an ideation event!
Another useless creativity trick is to force yourself or a group to generate a lot ideas under the assumption that your brain will run out of conventional ideas and start thinking about unconventional ideas. Simply demanding your brain devises a lot of ideas does not help you bring more diverse notions together, nor does it instruct your censorship filter to reject conventional ideas in favor of unconventional ideas. However, if you combine a demand for as many ideas as possible with the tricks we’ve discussed above, then you can expect more creativity as well as more ideas.
To summarize, an individual’s level of creativity is largely hard-wired into her brain and cannot be substantially changed. However, someone of average creativity can improve the creativity of her ideas by using tricks that enable her to associate her goals with notions unrelated to those goals and by consciously telling her mind to favor crazy, unusual ideas over conventional ideas.
This is a cross-post from Jeffrey Paul Baumgartner.
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of The Way of the Innovation Master and Report 103, creator of Jenni innovation process mgmt software, founder of jpb.com & father of two great sons. Follow him on Twitter at @creativeJeffrey.