On many evenings, power in our house is defined as being the one holding the TV remote. As we flop down into the sofa, chores done, one of us casually reaches for the controls half buried under cushions…
Now imagine a TV without controls. A TV that gets stuck on channels – often the wrong channel – and that doesn’t allow you to adjust the volume, or even turn it off. Welcome to your brain.
I want to look at one particular scenario. I want to look at how pointing a remote control at yourself might improve your creativity.
The Channel Button
Suppose that every time you encountered a problem you had to start from scratch and figure it out. Even tying your shoelaces would be a nightmare if each morning you faced the challenge of working out afresh how to tangle those strings in order to keep your shoes on. Clearly, this would be impossible.
Each time you successfully solve a problem, your pattern of thinking is stored. Like a channel on a TV. All you need to do, when you encounter a problem, is select the right ‘channel’. Fantastic; much more efficient. What’s even better news is that our range of channels increases with experience, with each new problem type we successfully resolve.
There is a problem though. The brain is crazy about automation. Since our conscious processing power is so limited, the brain stores as much as it can into pre-conscious areas. Then, when we encounter a problem type, ‘click’ the brain chooses the appropriate channel; most of the time.
When we get stuck on a problem, when we’re struggling to come up with ideas, it’s because we’re on the wrong channel. We’re stuck on the channel the brain auto-selected. This is called fixation.
Example: You find a pipe, a carrot and a couple of sticks in a field. Why? Your brain may have auto-selected ‘rubbish’, or the world ‘field’ may have triggered you to think in terms of agricultural channels. You only solve this puzzle when you select more wintery channels: snowman.
In one of the more famous creativity tests first used by Karl Dunker in 1945, people are given a candle, book of matches and a box of thumb tacks. They are told to attach the candle to a wall so that the candle doesn’t drip when lit. People typically try and use the thumb tacks to stick the candle directly to the wall, or melt the side of the candle so they can attach it. The solution is to tip the tacks out of the box, put the candle in it and attach the box to the wall using the tacks. People get stuck on a channel which continues to see the box as something that simply holds the tacks. Interestingly, if the problem is presented with the tacks lying alongside an empty box, most people get the answer pretty quickly.
Creativity happens when we are able see a problem from a different perspective, using a different pattern of thinking. In fact, when people are being creative, one of the most active parts of the brain is the medial prefrontal cortex: the brain’s channel button. Consistently creative people are not simply good at thinking about problems, they’re good at spotting how they are thinking. Specifically, they recognise when their channel isn’t working and go surfing.
The Volume Button
When you’re working on a problem, ever had that feeling that you’re close to a breakthrough? You can feel the brain grasping for something…you don’t know what, but you sense you’re close. It turns out people can be pretty accurate at assessing how close they are to having a creative breakthrough. How can this be, since the creative process is far from linear?
Creativity is all about making new connections, combining information and ideas together in ways that haven’t been done before. The brain picks up weak signals from outside its current pattern of thinking, and recognises it may be close to an aha moment. Mark Beeman – a leading creativity neuroscientist – found that about 1.5 seconds before a breakthrough, people almost go blind. The fact is, our visual sense is so dominant it can drown out quiet internal signals, crying out to be heard. So alpha waves flood into
the visual cortex, blocking visual signals. The brain is saying ‘Shhhh. What was that?’
Meetings can be frenetic. Pressure can be intense. Environments can be stimulating. However, creative people have learnt to turn the volume down at key moments, either by choosing to change environments or by shutting out the noise. They turn the focus of their attention from the shrieking external world to the still quiet place of lost memories and distant thoughts. They pick up those weak signals and make strong connections.
What is the solution? How many lines do you need?
Any blog on creativity wouldn’t be complete without the famous, nine dot challenge that spurned the term ‘thinking outside the box. The solution involves going outside the box to enable you to complete the challenge in only four straight lines. Did you get it?
I rather hope not. I included this example to demonstrate one of the biggest barriers to creativity: solutions. The correct answer to the nine dot challenge above is 1. The instruction never mentioned the lines had to be straight! However, we’re often so sure we ‘know’ the solution that any further search for ideas stops.
The brain is such a busy fellow that once it finds a solution it thinks ‘job done’ and shuts up shop. So while it might seem odd, one of the most important functions of the brain during creativity is inhibition: stopping previous solutions from prematurely terminating the creative search, or at least interfering with it. These previous solutions may not have been from a long time ago, they may be the first new idea that came to mind in the very meeting you’re in. The ability to keep your full attention on your
creative quest, to go beyond the obvious and the previous, is central to creativity.
Creativity is a process, not a solution. Creative people are great at parking good solutions once identified: ‘that’s Plan A, now what about Plan B?’ They hit the power button and put solutions on standby to allow them to keep searching.
Remote Control your Creativity
The most consistently creative people aren’t necessarily the most experienced, or the cleverest. They are also not born with some unique creativity gene. They have learned to pay attention to what’s going on inside their head. They have learned to switch channels, turn down the volume and hit the standby button for previous solutions. Your TV remote allows you conscious control over the images, information and ideas that flow into your house. Next time you want to be creative, point it at yourself.