A New Approach To Creativity: A Mashup of Art & Science

Posted Oct 31, 2012 by Hult Labs

Creativity is not the sole purview of the art world, which means there’s some hope for those of us outside of it. In a TEDxTokyo talk earlier this year, IDEO General Manager Tom Kelley discussed how scientific research on creativity is beginning to shed light on some (more accessible) ways we can all learn to be more creative, no matter our chosen field.

Kelley is a big promoter of abolishing the notion that creativity, and any insights around it, belongs only to a chosen few (namely artists). Moreover, who among us has the time to wait for muses to hover over us and transmit lightening strikes of inspiration? Muses, after all, generally travel on their timeline not ours (according to the ancient Greeks), and when deadlines loom there’s no walk-in clinic or 1-800 number for immediate inspiration.

Over the years, Kelley has assessed findings on creativity from top scientists, plucked some notable ones, and in his talk provides some good tips on how we can stir our own creative juices to tackle our own real world problems – large and small.

1. “Choose creativity”

That’s right.  You have to choose to be creative: “This first one is so simple that the skeptical, analytical part of your brain may try to reject it.” In interviewing renowned psychologist Dr. Robert Sternberg, Kelley learned that the number one shared characteristic of highly creative people is that they all chose at one defining moment to “be creative.”  Dr. Sternberg determined that this deliberate choice was critical because creativity is not the “default setting” for grown up brains. Our wild, imaginative abilities begin to taper off by the time we hit the 4th grade. “If you want to be extraordinary, try to stop being ordinary,” says Kelley. “Try to choose to be creative.”

And, after making the choice to be creative, you can begin to make it actionable by whipping out a notebook to…

2. “Capture your best ideas”

According to Kelley, scientists say that our “short-term memory lasts only 15 to 30 seconds.”  That means if we’re not diligent about capturing snapshots of ideas we have, we might be missing out on some good fodder we can harness later to solve a problem in an innovative way. Whether you choose a notebook or a smart phone doesn’t matter, as long as you have a way to continuously trap your thoughts for review later.

3. “Gain some ‘Mental Distance’”

When tackling a tough challenge, there’s no question that mental distance can be a big help. But what also helps is to totally re-frame a problem, or in other words, draw some new context around it. Kelley says that people will inevitably come up with more ideas if they are asked to provide solutions from the perspective of a child, for example. He found that by instructing people to imagine they are a different age, or at a different point in their lives, they will come up with ideas they wouldn’t have otherwise — and much more quickly than if they had participated in a traditional brainstorming session.

4. “Switch off self-critique”

Kelley attributes this tip to Dr. Charles Limb, an Associate Professor at John Hopkins Medical School, and a faculty member of the Peabody Conservatory of Music. Dr. Limb conducted a study in which jazz musicians underwent an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging; a way to detect blood flow in the brain as it responds to neural activity) while playing two pieces of music – the first by memory and the second by improvising.

Dr. Limb discovered two things when the musicians played their improvisational pieces. A part of the brain associated with creativity lit up, and another associated with self-critique, shut down. Kelley has a theory on why this happens: “Your brain is helping you out…you’re risking embarrassment, sharing new ideas with a bunch of people, and you’re brain says, look, I’ll switch off self-critique here to help you get through it.” Silencing our inner critic may be necessary for us to take a creative leap.

5. “The Muse Button”

The frontal cortex is the part of the brain that controls higher functions like problem solving. Kelley likens it to the “executive center of the brain,” but says it can be a barrier to nurturing creativity. However, the frontal cortex goes to sleep when we do. And it, just like us, is groggy in the morning. This means that before it takes full control we can leverage our morning grogginess to think about a problem in an “unfocused” way. This allows us to entertain solutions we wouldn’t necessarily consider after we’ve fully awakened or fueled ourselves with caffeine. Kelley suggests renaming the snooze button a “muse button.” But when you hit it in the morning, stay awake “and see if you don’t suddenly have some new ideas on that problem.”

For the video in its entirety, you can go here

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