Having trouble being creative? Sleep on it!

Lessons from Inception

by Andrew Grant

Question: What did the following people all have in common?
– Manfred Eigen, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry (1967)
– Donald Campbell, Scientific Contribution Award from American Psychological Association (1970)
– Freeman Dyson, recipient of Max Planck Medal (1969), quantum electrodynamics
– Kekulé, 19th century chemist – molecular structure of benzene
– Archimedes – weight in water theory.
– Cobb- Inception

Answer: They were not working at the time of their “discoveries”

We now have the greatest technologies, the highest levels of connectivity, the most impressive standards of productivity. And yet while we and the technologies we create are becoming smarter and smarter, one critical aspect of our development is gradually lagging behind. Research just out this month shows that while each successive generation is getting smarter in terms of IQ, we are not getting more creative. After analyzing the Torrance (creativity) scores of almost 300,000 children and adults Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary has discovered that creativity scores had been steadily rising just like IQ scores until 1990, but since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downwards. Why are levels of creativity dropping in the general population?

The blockbuster movie Inception alludes to the fact that creative thinking rests somewhere between our awake and dream states. Cobb, the central character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, uses a contraption in a suitcase to control dreaming and waking states (even having the capacity to create opportunities for ‘shared’ dreaming). This could be symbolic of the quick fix our generation is looking for when it comes to finding solutions, but the reality is we need to create time to dream.

Dreaming is a major key to creative thinking, and creative thinking is a major key to future survival. So how can we deal with the current crisis in creative thinking find new ways to dream?

Unfortunately many work and educational environments these days focus on ‘productivity’, which is basically cramming as much as possible into the day. Idle time is considered wasted time, and any spare moments that might become available for downtime can end up being rapidly consumed by our desire to remain connected (think about the incessant use of smart phones, laptops etc).

By identifying the creativity killers we can start to find ways to develop renewed creativity:

The creativity killers:

No time to play

Free play creates a mental state where it is possible to feel safe and secure and to explore ideas without restrictions. Research is now showing that adults who have less play time as children are less creative as adults.  Melinda Wenner has revealed in the Scientific American that children (and animals) who do not ‘free play’ when they are young may grow into anxious, socially maladjusted adults. Free play is one of the conduits needed to ensure brain resources are diverted away from dealing with the primitive survival functions so they can access creative thinking. Down, who has studied criminals, has concluded that one common factor that many have experienced severe play deprivation. Elizabeth Vandewater, a researcher at the University of Texas in Austin, has found for every hour kids watch television, their participation in creative activity drops about 10%.

No time to explore creativity

Meryman who penned a Newsweek cover story called “The Creativity Crisis”, says that  for a teacher overwhelmed by a big class, a pile of standards and a test coming up for the kids and perhaps him or herself, the idea that you are going to add creativity to the curriculum would probably send him or her over the edge. But that is a false choice. Creativity researchers are very clear that freedom from facts is not what creativity is about. It is how you use facts that makes creativity really valuable. So you could add a lecture on creative theory to the school day, but the problem with that approach is kids will see the skills of creativity, of thinking originally in new and useful ways, as limited to the creativity class.

No time for free thinking

These days, most people’s time is strictly scheduled and structured, so that there is very little time for ‘free thinking’ – the sort of thinking that encourages creative ideas. This ‘free thinking’ time allows the mind to wander into new territories and stumble on new ideas (through alpha brainwave activity, which is only activated when the mind is not specifically focused). Imagination only works in the divergent space in our mind. However to  be creative requires both divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result). The combination opens up both left and right functions of the brain. A person that can initially accept the ambiguity of a problem will be the most likely to solve it.

No time to dream

We know intuitively that ‘down time’ stimulates creativity when we suggest to someone to ‘sleep on it’ to help them arrive at a solution – we are allowing their divergent thinking to work and giving their imagination some room to breathe. It increases the total space in someone’s brain that is open to new ideas. Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard University says that because dreams are highly visual and often illogical in nature, it makes them ripe for the type of “out-of-the-box” thinking that much problem-solving requires. The mind uses sleep as a time to reboot itself and problem-solve, In one experiment, Barrett had college students focus on a homework problem each night before they went to bed. At the end of a week, about half the students said they had dreamt about the problem and about a quarter had a dream that contained the answer. In the same way that a person’s brain works to solve problems when they are awake, the mind also works at resolving issues when a person is dreaming. http://www.livescience.com/health/dream-problem-solving-100627.html

We may not yet be able purposefully create a dream state for solving problems creatively (and provide the architectural structure for it!), but by creating space in our lives where we can play, explore, think freely and dream will open up multiple possibilities. By turning off our technological gadgets and mastering our obsessive focus on productive outcomes, and by opening up new possibilities for creative exploration instead, we will create a new future.

And we will need to learn to be patient. The latest research has also shown that there are no quick fixes. We cannot (yet), as in Inception, control our brain by connecting up to a contraption.  The research reveals that  successful creativity programs alternate maximum divergent thinking with bouts of intense convergent thinking, through several stages, and this takes time. Real change won’t come from a weekend workshop. But with the tools in hand, when creativity is regularly applied to the everyday processes of work or school, our brain function will, ultimately, improve over time.

Want to see something creative? The creative ‘mash up’ combination using the voiceover of Inception and footage of Toy Story, UP and the Simpsons…


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