Some Clues to How Creativity Works

20:43 Sun 08 Apr 2012
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Last Wednesday I went to a talk by Jonah Lehrer on the topic of creativity, and left it feeling quite inspired. This post is a brief summary of why.

(Any inaccuracies in this outline are my own, as there is no guarantee that I understood what Jonah Lehrer intended to convey; I intend to read his book Imagine: How Creativity Works for more insight, but have not yet done so.)

One of the key points in the talk was that two very different brain states are required for two different classes of problem:

  • The focused state, in which we concentrate intently on the problem at hand and solve it by methodically working through it.
  • The relaxed state, in which “flashes of insight” are possible.

What was new to me about this was the claim that these two states are exclusive—we cannot put our brains into modes where we can work on both types with any efficacy. Further, both modes require training—something that sounds more obvious than it is, as it’s not a particularly common idea that we need to learn how to relax in order to be creative.

While the notion of the “genius” has been steadily undermined, and the importance of practice and hard work strongly emphasized as we’ve studied the components of high achievement, Lehrer was claiming that the creative process is really about the alternation between the “grind” approach and an approach that involves leaving the problem and doing something else and, essentially, waiting/hoping for inspiration to strike.

He related an anecdote involving a Tibetan monk—all the best neuroscience stories involve Tibetan monks—brought in to participate in a study of so-called “insight problems”, problems that could not be solved by methodically working through them. This monk was hooked up to an EEG and given problems to solve. He began very poorly, failing repeatedly at every one. As his failures stacked up, the scientists began to think there might be something seriously wrong with him, as no previous candidates had had so many consecutive failures. After about 20 of the problems, however, he began solving all of them. He reeled off about 30 in a row, more than they had seen anyone solve.

They examined the EEG records and found that his brain wave state changed after the first 20, and their hypothesis was that he had thought that the questions were of the methodical type requiring intense focus, so he focused intently on them. So intently that he had no flashes of insight whatsoever, and so failed to solve any. Then he decided that this wasn’t the right approach, and that he needed to be in the other problem-solving mode, so switched his brain state to that and had tremendous success. The implication is that his meditation training allowed him to move between brain states at will.

Apart from strongly suggesting that I should learn how to meditate, I was also inspired by this concept of the different domains being exclusive because it seems to provide a certain freedom—not too much, as in the model where you have to wait for inspiration to strike, but enough to promote a balance between the hard work and the need to get away from it. As a creator I can certainly stand to do a lot more hard work, but I feel better thinking that when I get stuck, it’s not necessarily due to a lack of that work, nor can it necessarily be remedied by hard work. It also makes the “grind” sections easier in that it takes away some of the pressure to be “creative” in them. This gels with another inspiring post I read recently, “How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day”, which advocates an approach compatible with this, where the flashes of insight come during planning, and the production is managed during the focused periods[1].

On the other hand, I’m not particularly good at relaxing, so in a way this adds more pressure to that state. But the message that you have to give up the grind sometimes to solve problems still strikes me as more of a liberating one, rather than one that seeks to “productize” relaxation.

Lehrer also made the claim that cities promote creativity in their inhabitants, and that the larger cities become the more this is true. The opposite, however, is true of companies. In examining why this might be so, Lehrer suggested that random contact between people, even contact that produced friction, was a boon for creativity; that contact between people who were different to each other sparked creative output; and that a large number of “weak ties” to many different people would likely aid your creativity. He stressed the importance of information sharing, of bringing ideas to new environments, and of having ideas mix and clash. Strict hierarchy and structure, particularly structure that tends to place people in silos and encourages them to deal only with other people in the same silo, all act as barriers to creativity.

As a city-dweller, and someone who loves cities, and further whose attendance at this talk was due to fairly random events and social connections, I found that inspiring also.

Further, as an extrovert who doesn’t like to talk to strangers for fear of imposing myself upon them, this provides an excellent rationale for doing so: if random connections aid creativity, then random social connections—even awkward ones—are likely to aid not merely my creativity but also that of whoever I talk to.

Those were the key concepts I took from the talk. I’m curious about the relationship between the states he discusses and the flow state, and relatedly wonder about how his model fits my own experience of writing, which seems to have at least three modes:

  • The insight mode, where I get ideas, most often the basic ideas for stories, but sometimes critical points later in works.
  • The grinding mode, where I know mostly what I want to write and simply have to get the words down, which often seems to require a lot of determination.
  • The “inspired” mode, almost like a cross between the two, where insights don’t seem as major, but where getting the words down isn’t a grind, and where I will go in directions I don’t expect while also feeling that I’m focused and know where I’m going.

If the first two are as exclusive as he suggests, what is that third mode? Is it a form of the first that’s simply going on for longer? (If so, it would be nice to stay in it all the time…)

[1] This is my interpretation of Rachel Aaron’s post, and while she was hardly the first to advocate heavy planning prior to the “actual writing”, I still found her post useful and inspirational.

2 Responses to “Some Clues to How Creativity Works”

  1. jeffliveshere Says:

    I have followed Lehrer’s blogging for a while, and want to read his books.

    I wonder if he talked about sleep as a way of being in the “relaxed” mode. The grind/inspire shift seems to have happened to me (and many others) after having worked on some problem a bunch during the day, and then having the answer “pop” into my head upon waking the next day (especially if I haven’t been consciously thinking about the problem while trying to sleep). Perhaps a subset of the same sort of phenomena…

  2. 2BiT Says:

    I’m not feeling that there’s the background to many of Lehrers ‘claims’ that he feels there is…and I’m not the only one:

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