I pour a cup of coffee, sharpen my pencil, and get ready to create. I’ve dusted off a half-conceived novel outline I abandoned three years ago, but this time I’m not waiting for my muse to intervene. Instead I hit the play button on the Creative Thinker’s Toolkit, an audio lecture series from The Great Courses that I’ve downloaded on my computer.
Gerard Puccio, a psychologist who heads the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State, and the voice of the toolkit, tells me to engage in “forced relationships.” Choose a random object, he instructs. I scan my office and settle on a bag of Skittles left over from Halloween. Next, he says, describe the object’s attributes. “Sweet, round, colorful, chewy,” I write. I start to draw more fruitful connections. The word “small” leads me to think about making the main character isolated, reacting against a life that has become too constrained.
I’m intrigued. Is creativity a skill I can beef up like a weak muscle? Absolutely, says Mark Runco, a cognitive psychologist who studies creativity at the University of Georgia, Athens. “Everybody has creative potential, and most of us have quite a bit of room for growth,” he says. “That doesn’t mean anybody can be Picasso or Einstein, but it does mean we can all learn to be more creative.”
After all, creativity may be the key to Homo sapiens’ success. As a society, we dreamed up stone tools, the combustion engine, and all the things in the SkyMall catalog. “Our species is not fast. We’re not terribly strong. We can’t camouflage ourselves,” Puccio told me when we spoke on the phone. “What we do have is the ability to imagine and create new possibilities.”
Creativity is certainly a buzzword these days. Amazon lists more than 6,000 self-help titles devoted to the subject. A handful of universities now offer master’s degrees in creativity, and a growing number of schools offer an undergraduate minor in creative thinking.
“We’ve moved beyond the industrial economy and the knowledge economy. We’re now in the innovation economy,” Puccio says. “Creativity is a necessary skill to be successful in the work world. It’s not a luxury anymore to be creative. It’s an absolute necessity.”
But can you really teach yourself to be creative? A study published in the Creativity Research Journal in 2004 reviewed 70 studies and concluded that creativity training is effective. But it wasn’t entirely clear how it worked, or which tactics were most effective. More recent studies, however, take us inside the brain to tap the source of our creative juices, and in the process upend longstanding myths about what it takes to be Hemingway or Picasso.
Some of the earliest scientific studies of creativity focused on personality. And some evidence suggests that innovation comes easier to people with certain personality types. A 1998 review of dozens of creativity studies found that overall, creative people tend to be more driven, impulsive, and self-confident. They also tend to be less conventional and conscientious.
Above all, though, two personality traits tend to show up again and again among innovative thinkers. Unsurprisingly, openness to new ideas is one. The other? Disagreeableness.
“Highly creative people tend to run counter to the popular ways of doing things. They tilt at windmills and go against the grain,” says Rex Jung, a neuropsychologist who studies creativity at the University of New Mexico. “Think of Steve Jobs—a prickly personality to say the least.”
I try to be likable. I’m also a rule follower who thoroughly enjoys spending quality time in my comfort zone—three strikes against my creative capacity. Yet fortunately for me and my conformist counterparts researchers have come around to thinking about creativity not as a personality type, but as a cognitive process.
Too much analysis is “like trying to drive a car with a parachute hanging off the back,” Puccio says. “It just puts a drag on your thinking.”
“Creativity can be thought of as a particular kind of problem solving,” Puccio says. “It’s a way of thinking that’s applied to open-ended problems where there isn’t an off-the-shelf answer.” If creativity is a cognitive process, we should be able to learn to do it better.
For decades, creativity researchers have generally thought of the process in terms of four basic steps. Step one is preparation. Painters need to understand something about color and form; composers have to know how to read music. Sorry, no shortcuts. After preparation comes incubation. During this step, ideas meander through your brain’s neural networks, bumping into other ideas to combine in interesting ways. When the right ideas collide, you experience step three: illumination. This is the light bulb coming on, the fabled Aha! moment. The fourth and final step is verification. This is creativity’s logical bit—the critical thinking component in which you figure out if the idea has legs.
Each step is distinct, and requires a complex set of cognitive abilities. In fact, creativity draws on so many different skills that it can be hard for researchers to know where to start. “As we home in on the different cognitive systems that are involved in different aspects of creativity, it pulls in more and more systems until eventually the whole brain is involved,” Jung says.
That in itself is an intriguing finding. For one thing, it contradicts the popular (but erroneous) belief that creativity is a right-brained endeavor, while the left side is supposedly in charge of analytical thinking and rule-based processes like language. “Certainly you’ll see regions in the right hemisphere that are associated with creativity, but just as often, if not more often, you’ll see regions in the left,” says Jung.
So far, much of the scientific research of creativity seems to have focused on the idea-floating incubation stage of the process. Research from Jung’s lab and others suggests that incubation relies strongly on a neural pathway known as the default mode network (DMN). This neural network, which roughly spans the inner portion of the brain, is most active when we’re not concentrating our attention on a task.
During these idle moments the DMN gets to work, scanning our surroundings for the details of the environment. But the DMN doesn’t just turn our attention outward. It’s also the part of the brain involved in self-reflection. “That’s the part of your brain that you use when you’re thinking about yourself, your relationships, how you’d handle a certain situation,” Jung says. “It’s daydreaming.”
But creativity is more than just staring at the clouds. During creative thinking, there’s a push-and-pull between the default mode network and another pathway called the cognitive control network (CCN). This is the network most active during so-called executive functions such as planning, reasoning, and problem solving. If the DMN makes up the inner portions of the brain, the CCN is more like its “outer rind,” Jung explains.
Our mental processes rely on vast networks of interconnected brain areas. In the DMN, two important network hubs appear to be the medial temporal lobe, which provides you with information from memories and prior associations, and the medial prefrontal cortex, which allows you to put that information together in mental simulations. In the CCN, the prefrontal cortex—long thought to be a locus for planning and decision making—unsurprisingly plays a starring role.
The DMN and CCN aren’t exactly in opposition with one another, however. “Like a Venn diagram, there’s an intersection between them, a back-and-forth,” Jung says. “It’s a dance between internal and external cognitive networks as you bring a new idea into being.”
The first step in that dance is often a process called divergent thinking—the hallmark of incubation. Think of it as tuning out, or letting your consciousness go fuzzy. Distancing yourself from a creative challenge allows your thoughts to travel down new neural pathways, allowing for new connections and fresh ideas, Puccio says. “You’re casting a very wide net to find an insight or a way forward.”
Multiple studies have found that divergent thinking is a strong predictor of one’s creative achievement—better even than IQ. And happily for researchers, divergent thinking can be assessed fairly easily using behavioral measures in the lab, making it a useful metric of creative potential. (A common test of divergent thinking: In two minutes, list all the uses you can think of for a common household object like a toothpick, then determine how many are original or surprising.)
For someone looking for a creativity boost, divergent thinking is the place to start. The trick, says Puccio, is learning to deliberately manage your own thinking. “All humans are able to engage in both divergent and convergent [or analytical] thinking, but we often don’t do that in a very efficient way,” he says.
It helps to have a sunny outlook. People are more likely to maintain broader attention and solve problems when they’re in a positive mood.
For a prime example of mental efficiency, consider Ernest Hemingway. “When he got up in the morning he would do free writing with a pencil, capturing all of his thoughts. He wouldn’t use punctuation. There would be half thoughts,” Puccio says. “Once he had enough material, then he would shift to his typewriter and start to synthesize.”
In one clever study of creativity, Charles Limb, a physician at Johns Hopkins University, scanned the brains of jazz musicians as they noodled on tiny keyboards specially designed to be played inside a cramped fMRI machine. When the musicians improvised (versus practicing scales or playing a memorized composition), a spot in the medial prefrontal cortex perked up. That region has been linked to the creation of autobiographical narrative, suggesting that improvising might literally be a way of telling one’s story through musical notes. Meanwhile, the lateral areas of the prefrontal cortex—areas often associated with self-monitoring and evaluation—were deactivated during improvisation. Freed from self-judgment, they could let their creativity flow.
I’ve already identified one of my big problems: I edit as I go. By the time I get to the second paragraph of an article, I’ve written and rewritten that first paragraph until it shines. I judge and discard new ideas without ever adding them to the list. Mixing convergent and divergent thinking “is like trying to drive a car with a parachute hanging off the back,” Puccio says. “It just puts a drag on your thinking.”
To give my divergent thinking skills a workout, I turn back to his lectures. I vow to channel Hemingway and list every idea that floats across my consciousness, without judgment.
For my next exercise, I pull up four random photos from Flickr. I take time considering each image, one by one, before turning back to my own creative challenge. A shot of a dapper young man in a trim suit and expensive wristwatch, for example, leads me to consider the importance of outward appearances and the significance of material objects in my characters’ lives.
I’m starting to see some payoffs, though it still feels a little forced. Luckily, there are almost endless ways to practice divergent thinking, Jung tells me. There’s often some trial-and-error involved as people figure out what works for them. Some people meditate. Others listen to music or take bubble baths or, yes, turn to drugs and alcohol.
“Most creative people have figured out a way to do the incubation thing—whether it’s meditation or staring out the window or taking long walks so their ideas can percolate,” Jung says. “It’s finding that magic space where you’re not actively engaged with the external world, and not just surfing the Internet.”
In a 2009 review of more than three dozen studies of incubation, researchers from Lancaster University found that setting aside a problem was helpful for improving performance on divergent thinking tasks. Yet some methods may be better than others, they discovered. The trick appears to be engaging your mind, but just a little bit. The researchers found tasks that required a low mental investment, like reading, were most beneficial to the problem-solving process. Mentally demanding tasks like counting backward were less helpful—and surprisingly, plain old rest was also less effective at boosting divergent thinking.
Of course, there’s more to creativity than divergent thinking. The first and fourth steps of the creative process—preparation and verification—are fairly straightforward. But many would argue that the third step—illumination—is where the magic happens. And scientists are just starting to consider the Aha! moment from a neurological point of view.
Inhibition isn’t necessarily the road to creativity. It’s critical to inhibit habits that can prevent us from realizing our potential.
Mark Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, focuses on the science of insight, often in collaboration with John Kounios, a cognitive scientist at Drexel University. They’ve found distinctly different patterns of brain activity when people solved problems using insight versus problems solved analytically. Interestingly, those patterns appeared milliseconds before the problem was ever presented. In other words, some brains appeared to be primed for insight.
The obvious question, then: How do you prepare your mind for a stroke of genius? One important element, Beeman says, is to maintain a loose state of attention rather than focus intently on a problem. This goes hand in hand with divergent thinking. “Incubation and insight are highly related,” he says. “You’ve been working on a problem, you set it aside and boom! It comes to you.”
Some people have naturally leaky attention filters, he adds. But the concentrators among us can take steps to maximize the potential for insight. For one thing, it helps to have a sunny outlook. Beeman and his colleagues found that people are more likely to maintain broader attention and solve problems when they’re in a positive mood.
“The basic idea is that a positive mood loosens the grip of attention, so that stimuli and ideas that used to get filtered out can now have a greater impact on [mental] processing,” he says. “Stress and anxiety have the opposite effect, narrowing attention, which can be good for focused analytic thinking—as long as you keep focus on the right information—but bad for broader creative thinking.”
Beeman’s team has also found evidence that you can actively change your attention state. He flashed images (of sheep, for example) in front of volunteers, too quickly for them to consciously recognize what they’d seen. But with practice, they began to trust their intuitions and somehow tap into the weak associations—wool? farm?—that bubbled up in the moments after the picture flashed before their eyes. They got better at identifying the images, and as they did, they solved more problems with insight. Subliminal messages obviously aren’t easy to replicate at home. But stay tuned. “I’m pretty convinced that what we’re studying in the lab is relevant for real-world creativity,” he says.
Meanwhile, we can take cues from more fundamental findings from the world of creativity research. Robert Bilder, director of the Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity at the University of California, Los Angeles, is trying to work out creativity’s basic biochemistry. He’s focusing on three broad cognitive abilities he believes are crucial to creative achievement: the ability to generate novel ideas; response inhibition, or the ability to shake off old habits and break out of a routine; and working memory, the skill that allows people to hold disconnected ideas in the conscious mind long enough to use them.
All three are complex abilities that can’t easily be pinpointed to specific regions of the brain, Bilder says. Instead, he’s exploring the thickets of brain networks that allow us to engage in these processes, and the genes that code for them. He’s also studying molecular expression to figure out how and when the responsible genes are switched on and off. To do that, he’s looking to our creative counterparts in the animal kingdom.
Zebra finch females, for instance, prefer mates whose songs stand out. So zebra finch males innovate, producing novel melodies to woo the ladies. Researchers have identified gene networks that enable song production during finch development. One such genetic pathway involves the gene FOXP2—a gene long known to be important for speech and language production in humans.
Elsewhere, scientists working with mice have started to identify the gene networks responsible for changing learned habits, and others that seem to give some rodents superior working memories. Bilder is now studying those genes to see what role they play in our own creative thinking. It’s an ambitious project. “The genetic underpinnings are so complex, we can estimate there may be upward of 10,000 genes involved in a particular trait,” he says.
Despite the challenge, Bilder says we can already begin to draw some practical conclusions from these efforts. Consider the finding that inhibition is necessary for creativity. “Many people think being uninhibited is the most important thing,” he says. But it’s critical to inhibit habits that prevent us from realizing our creative potential—like my tendency to shoot down ideas before they’re fully formed.
Working memory is also an obvious target for self-improvement. Some research suggests that working memory is a skill that can be improved with systematic training. But we’d also do well to recognize our limits. “Many people probably attempt to keep things in working memory when it’s not realistic to do so,” Bilder says. “People beat themselves up trying to do things that aren’t neurophysiologically possible.” Luckily, there are workarounds. Tools such as mind maps—diagrams to visually organize information—can serve as a kind of “working memory prosthesis,” he says.
Bilder offers up one last bit of practical advice: Just get your ideas out there—on paper, on canvas, out of your head. “If you get that thought or product out there and externalize it, it frees you up to go onto the next idea,” he says. In fact, creative output is one of the best predictors of creative success. For all the one-hit-wonders, there are many more examples of creators who generated a huge body of work. “Picasso created somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 works during his life,” Bilder says. “Don’t worry about whether [your idea] is good enough. Once it’s out there, then you can say, ‘oh that was terrible’—and keep going.”
Puccio’s Creative Thinker’s Toolkit offers similar advice. Hemingway may have been famous for his brevity, but he wrote 47 different endings to A Farewell to Arms. Come up with enough ideas, and a good one is sure to stick.
Creativity, in other words, is a slog. So I’ll keep practicing. I can’t promise you’ll ever see my Skittles-inspired novel on bookshelves. But I’m excited to take a more hands-on approach to boosting my creative capacity. I can keep waiting around for the Aha! moment. Or I can get to work.
Kirsten Weir is a freelance science writer in Minneapolis.
This article was originally published in our “Creativity” issue in January, 2015.