We can all be more creative


The BBC’s Kate Dart has written and directed an excellent Horizon documentary on creativity, insight, the brain and how we can all be more creative.

If you’re interested in understanding or developing your creativity I would highly recommend it.

It is available on BBC iPlayer till 18th April. http://www.bbc.co.uk/i/b01rbynt/

Here’s a summary of the main ideas:

The advancement of humanity depends on creative insight and innovation and always has – from the wheel, to mobile phones, medicine and the internet. Our ability to think in novel ways is a defining characteristic of humanity.

The flash of Insight

Insight is a critical aspect of creativity. We all know the moment when we experience a flash of insight, when we figure out a problem or when the penny drops. However, for years creativity has been considered too elusive for scientists to study. Now with better technology and tools scientists are finally able to study creativity more objectively, as it occurs in the brain. They are concluding that we can all be more creative.

Observing the inner workings of the brain shows that we really are thinking differently when we have an insight. During a flash of insight it is the right side of our brain that erupts with gamma waves. Flashes of insight don’t just subjectively feel different, but they are objectively different in the brain.

The creative side of the brain

There is a structural difference between each side of the brain. The left side of the brain is primarily involved with reason, logic and language. The right hemisphere of the brain is more likely to make the connections that lead to insights. The neurons on the left have shorter dendrites while neurons on the right have broader/longer dendrites pulling together more distant unrelated information, finding connections that might not otherwise be made.

Check out this fantastic video on “Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain” pioneered by Betty Edwards, where she shows that anyone can draw if you can turn the left side of the brain off. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctkRwRDdajo

Developing divergent thinking

Creativity and intelligence are related but are not the same thing. Whilst intelligence is primarily linked to quicker thinking, creativity is not. Creativity is not fast and efficient but slow and meandering. Creativity is fostered when we allow our brain to slow down and to try different neural paths, rather than the shortest and quickest pathway from A to B. Partially formed ideas from different fields of experience need to collide with each other to being them into our consciousness.

Top tips for kick-starting your creativity

Creativity exists in everybody. Each second of our day and life is not scripted. We make most of it up. We improvise. We just need to understand our brain better and exercise our creativity regularly.

New, unusual and unexpected experiences boost your creativity because they open up your mind, help you see things differently and make new associations between concepts.

To think differently we need to disrupt our normal patterns of thought, routine or behavior. Just switching the steps of a well travelled routine, or doing something we don’t normally do boosts our creative abilities. When we break well trodden neural pathways, we open new possibilities.

We have our best ideas when we least expect, because ‘mind-wandering’ has always had a strong connection with creativity. When our mind wanders the front part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) switches off. This is the part that is responsible for conscious self monitoring. When people improvise the same part of their brain switches off – our inhibitions reduce, we are less self conscious, any mental handcuffs come off and ideas flow more freely.

If you’ve been doing mentally demanding work your creative ability crashes. When you allow your mind to wander you become more creative, but that doesn’t mean doing nothing. In fact, the best thing you can do is to engage in a non mentally demanding task (for example, arranging Lego bricks by colour, watering the garden, washing the dishes, yoga, meditating, etc.), which allows your mind to wander and fosters creativity.

The best thing to do if you’re stuck on a problem, is to take a break, go for a walk or shower and then return to the problem. If you’re still stuck – disrupt your routine or try out a new experience. This allows the creative process to kick in.

So we can all be more creative, if we can slow down, let our minds wander, allow different ideas to collide, experience something new or do something differently. 


Further reading and videos:

  • Steve Johnson, Where good ideas come from – RSAnimate Video
  • Dr Mark Beeman (Northwest University, Cognitive Neuroscience) – Website
  • Dr Charles Limb, John Hopkins University – see his TEDxMidatlantic talk 
  • Dan Pink, A whole new mind, 2005
  • Dr Simone Ritter, Creativity: the role of unconscious processes in idea generation and idea selection, 2012
  • Robert Ornstien, The Right Mind: Making Sense of the Hemspheres, 1997

Mercedes Benz have captured the difference between the right and left hand side of the brain beautifully in these pictures:



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