Creativity. It’s tough to find another word so widely used yet so difficult to understand. When we think ‘creative’, we think of Beethoven’s symphonies, Picasso’s portraits, and Wren’s architecture, but the exact definition is a little foggy. A common intuition of creativity is that it’s artistic creation, but then we’d have to dismiss the geniuses who find creative workarounds in scientific fields and technological innovation. The dictionary talks more about the ability to create something original, but then throwing a pile of dog excrement at a wall could also be considered creative. Originality is one part of the act of creative ambition, but an equally important part is less acknowledged: problem solving. Believe it or not, good problem solving might be what distinguishes my “Dog Excrement on Wall” from Picasso’s “Guernica”.
It might seem strange to think of the creative process as problem solving. When you paint a pretty picture, have you really solved a problem? A good artist has some purpose in mind when they create their art, and it might be to elicit a particular emotion or experience in their audience. So we can express this kind of problem as “how I do make people feel what I want them to feel?”, or “how do I express this thought in a way that relates to people and helps them overcome their own problem?”. And this is not always an easy problem to solve. People have adapted to photographs, Hollywood films, and social media; all things that can have powerful effects on our emotional experiences, but also things that have generally lost an important sense of subtlety and nuance. Social networks for example have become rage and show-off machines. You either read about news that makes you angry or see the latest selfie from an old friend who seems determined to prove that they have a better life than you. We are left in this position because these are the things that drive the strongest responses from people. But it means that our life gets funneled into simple entertainments that are attractive on a basic level but do not necessarily help us improve on any deeper level. So this has become the artist’s job. The best artists try to solve the problem of providing us with material that makes for better living.
A good way to describe creative work is to say that it provides unique and valuable solutions to complex open-ended problems. There is no single best answer for a good piece of music or art, and no single way to provide an audience with an engaging, memorable, or worthwhile experience. With other more scientific subjects, there may ultimately be a single best answer. But there are many different ways to envision and find that answer, so creativity is required in the process of identifying important problems and developing strategies to solve them. It is the play and exploration within these large spaces of ideas and solutions that we can describe as creative. It is not particularly creative to solve a Rubik’s cube or drive a car because there are specific formulae that we stick to in completing those activities. In fact, when we become experienced enough in these kinds of activities, we can do them almost automatically without any real attention. Creative problems generally do not allow that kind of automaticity, and cannot be solved with step-by-step guides.
Given its complexity and resistance to basic procedural instructions, it might seem a long shot to expect that we could improve our creativity. Scientists have tried to develop simple tasks that require creative thought in an attempt to study it in more detail. One such approach to studying creativity is a divergent thinking test, in which people are asked to provide multiple answers to specific problems, for example “name as many alternative uses as you can for a newspaper” (answers might be swatting a fly or making a paper hat). Tasks like this require you to ‘think outside the box’, going beyond the most immediate answer that pops to mind when you hear a question. A newspaper’s traditional role is to provide you with reading material but once you exhaust that answer to the question, where do you go next? This is creative in the sense that it forces you to think of some strange ways you might be able to use a newspaper, but of course it’s relatively limited in its creative demands. People overlap a great deal in the kinds of answers they come up with, which is not like many other traditional forms of creativity. It’s unlikely that another architect of Christopher Wren’s time would have independently designed a replica of St Paul’s Cathedral by chance. There are too many ways in which highly creative tasks can diverge in their solutions.
Despite its limited creativity, divergent thinking does seem to say something useful about creativity. Musicians perform better in divergent thinking tasks than non-musicians, suggesting that their creative spark within music generalizes to other areas of creative thinking too. They also perform better in a task known as the Remote Associates Test (RAT), where you are asked to find the word that connects three other words (e.g. ‘blue’, ‘cake’, and ‘cottage’ are linked by the word ‘cheese’ which can precede or follow each of them). The RAT requires both convergent and divergent thinking, and you only have to try some examples of the test online to know how tricky it can be. Some evidence suggests that creativity training (for example through lectures and divergent thinking practice) can improve divergent thinking and problem solving. So perhaps improvements in our creative ability are not entirely beyond reach.
If you’re anything like me, some of your best ideas will come to you in the most unexpected places. A particularly fruitful area for me is the shower. I can sit all day at my desk focused on finding a solution to a tricky problem, and the day can easily end in a fit of rage over wasted time and failed productivity. But then I can go to the bathroom, stand under the shower washing away my sorrows, think about what I should buy for dinner as I pick up the soap, and suddenly the most powerful idea of my lifetime will pop into my mind mid-lather. It’ll just come out of nowhere. Why would my maker torture me so? Success should come when you’re trying, not after you give up.
To consider whether the torture is justified, we need to look more carefully at what creativity requires and how the brain typically deals with such a challenge. Many explanations of brain function use the concepts of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ processing. These are certainly not strictly defined or independent processes, especially because the brain is a highly bi-directional machine, but it can be helpful to distinguish between the two possible streams of processing. Bottom-up processing refers to activity that starts from the lowest levels of sensation. For example, I happen to see an object on the table, which the visual areas of my brain process and categorize as an apple, and then I imagine the taste and texture of that apple, and then recall the amazing apple pies that my mum used to bake me in my childhood. You start from the most basic principles of perception and work your way up to higher levels of memory and association. Top-down processing on the other hand runs in the opposite direction. I might feel nostalgic one day and think of my happy childhood memories, which brings me to the memory of those delicious apple pies, which then makes me want an apple pie now, and so I do everything I can to drive my low level perceptions towards finding apples and cooking them.
We should keep in mind that top-down vs bottom-up is a convenient conceptualization rather than a definitive law in the biology of the brain. However, you would probably expect that creative activities and divergent thinking involve more of the higher level top-down functions, in which the brain hits upon solutions based on past experiences, memories, feelings, and contexts. So how might the brain actually deal with this kind of process?
Activity in the brain can occur rhythmically as oscillations or brainwaves, and these oscillations are categorized into different frequency bands. Lower frequency oscillations (slower oscillations with longer wavelengths), such as alpha (8–12 Hz) and theta (4–8 Hz), are commonly associated with long range interactions in the brain and top-down processing, while higher frequency oscillations are more associated with directed attention and perception (once again, these are not clear-cut boundaries but patterns that seem to hold true to a meaningful extent). So creativity could benefit more from the low frequency oscillations. One of the most easily visible and reliable signals in the brain is the appearance of alpha waves when you close your eyes or relax your mind. So it’s probably more likely that these signals appear in the shower when you are beginning to relax and let your mind drift, rather than when you are dead focused on a specific problem while staring at your computer. And if these signals are more conducive to creativity, then you are more likely to come up with crazy but useful ideas in the shower.
A free and relaxed mind is more likely to happen upon unusual perspectives or associations that could help with a problem, while a busy and occupied mind is looking at a problem with something that resembles tunnel vision, and so creative flashes are less likely. Indeed, people also report frequent creative ideas during hypnagogia, which is that slightly disoriented state between waking and sleeping, also associated with lower frequency alpha and theta oscillations. The chemist who discovered the benzene ring structure reportedly had his moment of inspiration in exactly this state.
Researchers have used neurofeedback training to stimulate alpha and theta oscillations in the brain. In these training protocols, oscillations in the brain are recorded and communicated to participants using different sounds (e.g. lower frequency oscillations produce a lower pitched sound). Participants are told to maximize the sounds associated with theta waves, and over time, they implicitly learn how to shift their brain towards lower frequency oscillatory states (although they are not always sure how they do it). Evidence suggests that this kind of training can improve mood and performance in creative activities including music and dancing. While we may not yet have the chance to do this kind of neurofeedback training by ourselves at home, we can certainly do more of the things that engage those kinds of brain states. Meditation, walks, relaxation, naps, and showers, are great examples of things we should take a little more seriously in our work. And they don’t really have much of a downside.
Activities that promote new mental perspectives on problems, and escapes from narrow-minded attention, are a creative’s best friend. These are some of the great benefits that lie in the power of metaphor and poetry, and allow the mind to make distant connections that it would otherwise miss. None of this article is to say that you should avoid focused effort and hard work at your desk because we all know this activity has its own advantages for productivity. But for those moments when we need a creative spark, we often need to take a step back in order to see both the forest and the trees.