I met my muse in a startling manner seven years ago this fall. I was taking a wheel-thrown pottery course, and (like so many do) I found that it looked easier to do than it actually was. My hands did not obey my brain’s orders when encased in slippery clay and slurry. I had a bad habit of pressing too hard with my right hand. For the life of me, I could not get the feel of the centered clay, so any pot that I pulled from my slightly-off-kilter hump would look lopsided and, well, just plain bad. I really wanted to learn this skill, however, so I took two separate “beginners” classes over a period of about six months. As the months progressed, I began to get frustrated and considered abandoning my hopes of becoming a potter.
My muse came to me in a dream, in which I saw my hands on a hump of clay that was spinning on the wheel. My clumsy attempts to center were gone. Instead I carefully and effortlessly felt the clay as it centered, and then I pulled a pot carefully but with skill. I could feel every motion – the cold clay, the smooth centered wet mound in my hands spinning, the rubbing of the wheel on the edges of my hands, how my fingers were pressing delicately to thin out the sides – everything finally made sense. I woke the next morning, eager for my class later that day, sure that I could now center my pots correctly. And I was right. I could, from that day forward, center my pots with ease, although admittedly, there have been many other potting challenges since then.
How many times have you been able to solve a problem from a vivid dream as I was, or thought of the perfect response to a question in a conversation – two days later? How many of you have had “ah-ha” moments about a home renovation dilemma while cooking dinner, or the solution to a simmering problem after not thinking about it for a week or a month?
This is your creative mind at work, but it is only one step in the entirety of the creative process. Granted, it is the step that gets the most attention in people’s imaginations or storytelling (think Newton’s apple), but it is only the last step in a three stage mental process that defines the core of what we know about creative thinking.
The Three Steps of a Creating Brain (1)
The first step is data gathering. When presented with a problem, humans tend to first search out information about the issue. We read books, magazines, journals, and Internet articles. We interview people who know something about the issue. We do a lot of talking to others and ourselves about the problem at hand. We move three dimensional objects in space, or draw out the problem in an effort to visualize its solution. This part of the creative process requires a specialized skill-set: being open to conflicting information, the ability to take in and process information from varied sources, as well as the ability to listen without judgment. Young people are naturally good at these skills and readily apply them to all problem solving experiences. Adults, however, seem to unlearn these creative skills as they mature, tending to approach varied problems from reiterative perspectives as well as self-censoring themselves based upon past experiences or the judgments of others.
An important aspect of our ability to be fully creative is whether we have enough “background information” to make sense of the task at hand. Do we understand the language well enough to know exactly what the problemto-be-solved is? Do we have skill-sets that allow us to tackle some parts of the problem? Have we had experiences in our lives that inform us about parts of the problem? If we have too little experience or understanding, our mind cannot be creative to its full potential. If we have too much information, the problem is simply solved and boring. There is a space of opportunity, where our skills match the problem at hand, and that paring of ability and challenge allows for a state of mind called “flow” by neuroscientists.(2) Flow is that time when one is completely absorbed by a problem, and time seems to stand still or move slowly.
Why is it that young people are so good at gathering information and processing it in novel ways? Why is it that they enter “flow” with such ease? Preadolescents have a different brain wave constitution than adults. Their brain activity is rich in theta waves.(3) Theta waves are rare in adults but occur frequently in that in-between state when we are just falling asleep, that jumble of images, memories, and ideas (what my son calls “the twitching time.”) Puberty changes the brain structure dramatically,(4) and the theta waves are no longer dominant. So the brains of young people are naturally filled with this creative jumble of images, ideas, and connections that are so rich during the adult theta wave pre-sleep state, allowing them to make associations that are unconventional and novel.
The second process of a creative mind at work is the digestion of the information. Only a small part of this process is done consciously. We are unconsciously working on problems most of the time, our brain searching neural pathways and networks for connections as we eat, sleep, talk, play, and generally live our day-to-day lives. Even if your conscious mind is really struggling with the issue at hand, your brain is at work on more subtle levels, looking for creative connections. Your unconscious mind uses memories as well as emotions to try and find new and unlikely associations. Quite often, if the problem is particularly vexing, unconscious mental space is needed to allow the brain to do “its job.” It is helpful to engage in unrelated activities, such as thinking of other things, or slipping away from problem solving mode by meditating, sleeping, exercising, playing with your children…doing anything that keeps your mind relaxed and at peace.
The third process is when the insight comes to you.(5) There can be big “ah-ha” moments, or slow, processinfused “ah-ha” moments (i.e. those that come to you as you work through complex problems one step at a time, so there isn’t one big solution, but several small ones that work in conjunction.) There are few feelings as good as when you have creatively solved a problem that is vexing to you or you have found your creative voice in an artistic manner. For me, it is one of life’s great joys.
When asked to define creativity, most people focus on artistic achievement. That is only one specific aspect of the overall view that neuroscientists promote as creativity. For them, true creativity is defined by using a new approach to a problem, whether that problem is novel or common. Howard Gardner, the author of the seminal book on multiple intelligences entitled Frames of Mind, (6) suggests that everyone is creative in their own way in areas of interest to them. Creativity, however, needs to be used and encouraged early in life, thus building confidence over time in one’s own creative abilities. Young people, as well as adults, need opportunities to learn to listen to their creative thoughts and instincts in order to develop flexible thinking skills – skills that are important to thriving and contributing to our world.
Creative thinkers tend to exhibit many of the following traits: they feel free to challenge all assumptions about a problem, including core beliefs (morality, “givens,” scientific or social “laws,” etc.) Most creative thinkers have a fine-tuned sense of intuition and they listen to it. Everyone makes mistakes, but creative thinkers take pleasure from their mistakes, seeing them as opportunities to learn and fine-tune their problem-solving skills. Creativity requires working within community, and creative people know how to listen to others’ ideas without dismissing any as impossible or implausible. When you find people having fun with their work, you will often find creativity at its finest. It is easier to be creative when your whole being enjoys the work at hand. And finally, creative people tend to have a supportive environment around them; positive people, whom they trust and respect, necessary supplies, and aesthetically pleasing habitats are examples of this.
So often, however, we stifle creative thinking by employing “creativity killers.” These come in many packages. It is hard to be creative when you are watched and hovered over. Another hindrance to creativity is the feeling that you are being evaluated and will ultimately fail. Similarly, feeling like you will fail, and in failing, that you will be judged (or lose face) removes all joy from an activity and focuses the participant to merely “get it over with” rather than spend time creating. Creativity is also stifled by being told how you “must” do something rather than being able to explore things on your own. Feeling a pressure to perform, whether that pressure is internal or external, also hinders creative thinking. Finally, time limits that interfere with “flow” take away our ability to work through problems thoroughly and at our own pace. Encouraging the positive traits of creative thinking while reducing the “creativity killers” in your life and in the life of your child can maximize the creative process for your family.
And now, since I do not have a grand finale to this article readily available in my mind, I will move on to another unrelated task and hope that one comes to me before I have to submit this article to editing. I have gathered all of my information and processed it over several days before writing this article. Perhaps I will be granted an “ah-ha” moment in an hour, while picking my son up at an activity, or in a day or two. Perhaps it will come the day after the deadline for this article. That’s more like my luck! I will acknowledge and banish all of the creativity killers lingering in my mind, and then sleep on it. Perhaps if I go out and play with my children and enjoy the beautiful fall day with them and meditate on their innate and quite active creative minds, maybe then I will find some inspiration. We’ll see.
1. The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius. Nancy C. Andreasen. Plume (2006.)
2. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. M. Csikszentmihalyi. Basic Books (1997.)
3. Creativity and the Brain. Kenneth Heilman. Psychology Press (2005.)
4. The best description that I’ve found of what this brain restructuring is and what it means to teens is in The Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pierce.
5. Ibid. 3.
6. Frames of Mind. Howard Gardner. Fontana Press (1993.) An updated work is Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons, by the same author (2006.)
First published in Open Connections Magazine, October 2007