Self Improvement — 14 September 2008
How to spark your creative thinking

We all know some people whom we identify as thinking “outside the box”. Employers seek creative thinkers since they offer innovative solutions that seem to elude most other people. However, new research suggests that the capacity for creative insight may also be learned.

Mark Jung- Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University and psychologist Jonathan Schooler studied brain function during subjects’ attempts to solve word puzzles. They discovered that initially the brain sought the solutions in the speech and language area in the left side of the brain, however, when the solution was not forthcoming and the person was about to give up, an insight appeared as a “burst of brain activity” from the right hemisphere. They concluded, “We must concentrate on letting the mind wander.”

It appears that it may not be a unique gift to access one’s creative thinking, but a new way to use the brain to stretch. The traditional teaching of problem solving urged us to think logically, step-by-step, and build on what we already know, to make assumptions about what may work. Though this is still the default mode, the new research may advise us to also try another way. By letting your mind wander you may no longer wonder, but may discover the solution.

Additional aspects for some insights have to do with one’s interest and fascination with the subject. Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi who researched creativity, also developed the term “flow”, which he defined as, “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Perhaps becoming one with the subject of interest may free us to release the traditional thinking mode and allow both sides of our brain to understand and “feel” the subject matter neurologically in a more whole way.

R.K. Sawyer in his book “Explaining Creativity” recommends tools for increased creativity based on the sociocultural approach Pioneered by Howard Becker, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Howard Gardner. Their emphasis was based on both individual interest and group cooperation. Sawyer recommends, among other ideas; “Choose a domain that’s right for you, Turn your gaze outward instead of inward, Don’t try to become creative in general; focus on one domain, Be intrinsically motivated, Balance out your personality, Be confident and take risks, Look for the most pressing problems facing the domain, Collaborate.”

These points are akin to Dr. E. Paul Torrance’s motto in his “Manifesto: A Guide to Developing a Creative Career, “Do what you love and can do well”, plus; the focus of concentration; the freedom to take risks, understanding your personality, expanding your mind and collaborating with others.

So, if you have convinced yourself that you are not a highly creative person, or refrained from attempting any interesting area in which you lack experience or expertise, or if you fear not being able to be like those uniquely creative and insightful people, please consider these ideas:

• Research may have just discovered that creativity and insights may not be the privilege of the few. It may be a trainable asset for many.
• Getting to the point of not knowing, after long logical search- may be just the starting point for your right brain to activate new ideas.
• Your insights are a different type of ‘knowing” since they cannot be logically explained, but feel certain to be correct.
• Allow yourself to “go crazy” with ideas that seem initially to be unfit. The absurd thought, may actually trigger a new brilliant insight.
• It appears that developing your creativity is similar to enhancing a relationship by: choosing a topic you love, being curious to learn more about it, concentrating, fantasizing about the impossible, not giving up when discouraged, discharging your ego, facing the pressing problems and cooperating with others.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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