"Every block of stone has a statue inside and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it." - Michelangelo
Few would deny that Michelangelo was one of the most creative people of all time. He imagined statues where others saw stones, sculpting Renaissance art that has awed and inspired generations. Obviously, stones and brains are not even remotely similar, and yet by extending the underlying meaning, rather than the content, of Michelangelo's quote to neuroscience, an analogous argument could be made that every brain has creative thoughts somewhere inside, and it is the task of the self to discover them.
Why is it important to be creative? In a word, achievement; any great idea ever had, by anyone, started out as a single creative thought, the cumulative effects of which have resulted in the entirety of human achievement. However, an equally justifiable answer is that creativity is fun; so fun, in fact, that it may be the greatest pleasure of the considered life.
Regardless of the motivation, be it achievement, pleasure, or both, the more pertinent questions then become, "What is creativity?", "How is it produced?", and perhaps most importantly, "How can we improve it?"
Most agree that creativity exists, but defining it is surprisingly difficult. In the standard definition of creativity, originality and effectiveness are essential components (1). Originality alone is not sufficient, for an original idea or product may be useless unless it is also effective and therefore valued in some way. Likewise, an idea or product may be effective and therefore valued, but if there are other ideas or products out there that achieve the same result then it is not original. Yet even the standard definition quickly runs into trouble, for who is to judge whether something is original or effective?
Without a precise definition, describing the cognitive processes underlying creativity is challenging. On a psychological level, it seems to involve divergent thinking, which involves the generation of multiple answers to a problem, as well as convergent thinking, which involves aiming for a single, correct solution to a problem (2). Both divergent and convergent thinking are employed throughout the various stages of the creative process, a process proposed to include preparation (preliminary work on a problem), incubation (unconscious internalizing of the problem), illumination (conscious awareness of a creative idea), and verification (conscious verification and application of the creative idea) (3). However, these descriptions of creative thinking, though they may be essential features, really only scratch the surface. We must go deeper, to a more "nuts and bolts" level that considers structure and how it relates to divergent, convergent, unconscious, and conscious processing.
The structure of the neocortex, a thin 2-3 mm sheet of 30 billion or so neurons that envelopes the rest of the brain and is the dominant brain structure contributing to human intelligence and creativity, potentially explains divergent and convergent creative thinking. For decades, it has been known that the neocortex consists of a single massively repeated unit of about 100 neurons called a minicolumn (4,5). Structurally, each minicolumn is the same as any other, implying the existence of a common neocortical processing algorithm across the entire neocortex, regardless of the information being processed - as an example, the visual area can process information related to other senses, and vice versa (6). Moreover, minicolumns are organized into six well-defined cell layers, leading some to suggest that the neocortex functions as a massive predictive hierarchy, with information processing occurring along divergent and convergent pathways across these layers, the overriding role of which is to make predictions about what will happen next in the environment (6).
Though notoriously difficult to define, the essence of consciousness is that it involves a degree of awareness of the world, including our own thoughts and feelings (7). There are excellent reasons to believe that unconscious processing, not subject to awareness, occurs through a rapid subcortical route involving the brainstem superior colliculus, thalamus, and amygdala (8). In contrast, conscious processing occurs through a slower cortical route dominated by the neocortex and its predictive hierarchy, but with critical contributions from subcortical structures such as the thalamus, basal nuclei, and hippocampus - the thalamus forms extensive thalamocortical circuits with the neocortex through which a prolonged and amplified state of mutual activation called thalamocortical resonance may develop, thus producing a unified perception of experience (9,10); the basal nuclei form numerous circuits with the neocortex leading to the suggestion that these circuits allow the neocortex to "parallel process" contextual information (11) resulting in fast, contextually appropriate decisions; and the hippocampus is strongly interconnected with the neocortex in a way that strongly implies that it is the highest level of the neocortical hierarchy, processing novel sensory information only if the rest of the neocortex has failed to do so (6).
Thus creativity defies definition, yet it must involve originality and effectiveness, and creative thinking defies description, yet it must involve divergent, convergent, unconscious, and conscious processing. Creativity cannot be localized to any particular brain region; it is probably processed everywhere, by a common processing algorithm that involves not only the entire neocortex but most or all of the subcortical brain structures too.
These concepts are simple, but powerful.
Normally, the human brain is awake or asleep. During wakefulness, two cognitive states, flow and mind wandering, are associated with creativity. Dreaming during sleep also appears to play an influential role in the creative process.
Flow is a state of focused attention in which one is fully immersed in doing something that is goal-oriented (12). During flow, one feels the joy and motivation to perform their best, yet is so absorbed by the task at hand that they lose awareness of anything else, including time, people, basic bodily needs, and even the sense of self (13). Several studies have linked flow to creativity (14,15,16).
To achieve flow, three steps are necessary (17). First, one must engage in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress towards them; this adds direction and structure. Second, one must have immediate feedback; this allows for performance adjustment so as to maintain the flow state. Third, one must view the task at hand as challenging, and yet rate their own abilities as high enough to meet this challenge; this fuels confidence. In the final point, a balance must be maintained or flow will be disrupted by apathy, boredom, or anxiety - if the challenges and one's skill level are both low, apathy arises; if the challenges are low but one's skill level is high, boredom results; and if the challenges are high but one's skill level is low, anxiety surfaces.
(2) Mind wandering.
The opposite of flow in many ways, mind wandering is a sort of daydreaming where attention is shifted away from a primary task to some other, personal information in a way that is not obviously goal-oriented (18). Mind wandering often occurs without awareness of the thoughts themselves (18); it therefore must involve a degree of unconscious processing. Mind wandering has also been linked to creativity (18,19,20).
Mind wandering is linked to the incubation stage of the creative process, a stage that is most effective when the incubation period is filled with a simple, nondemanding task that makes no demands on working memory, as opposed to a demanding task or no task at all (18,21). It has been shown that performing such a task, during which unconscious processing presumably occurs, produces more creative ideas compared to a period of conscious thought (22). Thus, performing simple tasks that do not engage working memory seems to be the best way to encourage creativity associated with mind wandering.
(3) Dreaming. Normal sleep alternates between periods of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep; both states are associated with dreaming. NREM dreams are realistic and thought-like, consisting of memories of personal experiences that occurred in a certain place and time (23), particularly experiences during the preceding day which Sigmund Freud called "day residue" (24). NREM dreaming may be important for the consolidation of recent, novel experiences into the neocortex and does not appear to play a direct role in creativity (25), although obviously the consolidation of novelty may indirectly enhance long-term creativity. REM dreams are fragmented, bizarre, and laden with emotion, consisting of memories from both the recent and distant past that lack the context in which they were experienced (23). The entire emotional spectrum is covered in REM dreaming, from joy and elation to anger, fear, and sadness (26). In contrast to NREM dreaming, REM dreaming has been shown to be directly linked to creativity (25,27). In one particularly good study, the impact of an afternoon of quiet rest, NREM sleep, or REM sleep on the ability to solve creative problems was examined; it was found that an afternoon nap containing REM sleep, as opposed to quiet rest or a nap containing only NREM sleep, enhanced creative problem solving (25).
By observing the ideas of others, creativity may emerge within a group setting. Most people associate group creativity with verbal brainstorming, but surprisingly, this method often limits creative idea generation, largely due to a range of social factors including the fear of being judged by others, conflict among one or more group members, and the inhibition of certain group members by the more dominant personalities within the group (28,29).
The limiting social suppression of verbal brainstorming may be circumvented by two other methods, brainwriting and electronic brainstorming. In brainwriting, instead of speaking verbally, group members write their ideas down; it is best for each member to write down their ideas individually, before they are shared amongst the group (30). In electronic brainstorming, instead of speaking verbally, group members communicate by exchanging typed messages (31). Thus, by minimizing social suppression, brainwriting and electronic brainstorming are effective at enhancing creativity (28,31).
Since creativity is processed everywhere in the brain and not localized to a specific brain region, it cannot be measured or quantified through neuroimaging or any other methods (32,33). Despite this, many believe that creativity can be improved, and multiple attempts to do so have arisen over the decades (28). In the end, perhaps the best way to enhance creativity is to optimize time spent in proven creativity-generating situations.
(1) Find flow.
In flow, while performing a meaningful activity, one feels their best; for this reason alone, leaving aside that it enhances creativity, it could be argued that no limits should be placed upon the time spent pursuing flow. To find flow, one must be aware of their passions, a level of awareness that is not always easy to attain. However, once passionate activities are identified, it is just a matter of doing them - by setting the right goals, ensuring that there is immediate feedback, and finding a balance by tackling a challenging yet achievable task.
(2) Make time for mind wandering.
Mind wandering is facilitated by performing simple, nondemanding tasks that do not engage working memory. However, there is a time and a place for mind wandering; often, there is too much happening in the now to permit the mind to wander much of the day - driving a car down a busy highway or chopping wood with an axe are both tasks that could facilitate mind wandering, but the time filled by these activities might be better spent focusing on the moment so as to avoid a potential accident. The best solution is to set aside time to mind wander each day in an appropriate and conducive environment.
(3) Encourage dreaming.
It is no secret that many people do not obtain sufficient sleep quantity or quality, and yet dreaming during sleep, particularly REM dreaming, enhances creativity. The best way to facilitate REM dreaming is therefore to improve one's night of sleep by taking measures such as avoiding coffee after lunch, removing artificial light sources, and getting to bed by 10 pm. Take the occasional afternoon nap.
(4) Express emotions.
The prominent emotional content in flow and REM dreaming implies that a wide range of positive and negative emotions may profoundly influence creativity. Since spontaneous joy and rapture are core feature of flow, don't ever hold back on expressing these positive emotions. The presence of despair or tragic loss in many great creative works also hints at the importance of expressing negative emotions. Don't bottle up emotions.
(5) Seek new ideas. Observing the creative ideas of others, such as in a brainwriting or electronic brainstorming session, can bring forth further creative ideas. This notion could be expanded to include exposure to novelty in general - perhaps meeting new people and new experiences, such as travel, can spur creativity.
Michelangelo believed that every block of stone contained a potential statue, a statue awaiting release by an inspired sculptor. Perhaps then, it all comes down to just that - the will to believe that not only do you already possess great creativity, but you can improve it.
Don't hold yourself back - create!
Solace (inspired by James Leyden).
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