The many forms of creativity have at there foundation two distinct ways of problem solving.
Consider what happens when you’re confronted with a problem. Do you sit down and analytically work through it, or do you just wait for a sudden insight where a solution pops into your head out of mid-air?
More often than not you probably have experienced both when tackling problems or bringing creative ideas, products and services to life. These are the so called ‘analysis verses insight’ creative modes.
The analysis mode, also referred to as the deliberate mode, is described as thoughtful and purposeful solving of problems, retrieving knowledge and making plans, often called the higher order thinking skills. It’s the logical, deductive and incremental approach that typically results in a gradual solution of a problem.
While the insight mode is referred to as spontaneous or the ‘aha’ mode, and is characterised by undirected, unintentional thought and associated with imagining the future.
This flash of insight often comes at the most unexpected times when we relaxed and not consciously thinking about the problem. So how does this form of creative insight happen? Part of the answer is to do with how comfortable we are allowing our minds to wander and move into a daydreaming state when we’re under pressure to perform and come up with a solution.
Science has explained that creativity is a whole brain effort where we switch from the spontaneous and imaginative networks, our default mode, to more focussed attention and concentration, our cognitive and executive control network. In one sense it’s like moving from a time stopping daydream mode to the time monitoring, and highly aware, central executive mode.
So problem solving and achieving insights across a range of problems like interpersonal conflict, work issues, the daily crossword or more artistic activities like composing music typically follow a pattern. We can start by focussing all our attention on the problem, considering all the various ways we can approach it, combing through scenarios, heavily relying on our prefrontal cortex to do its job.
This is a preparation phase that uses information from our past memory and experience to help tease out the problem. But if the problem is trickier and more unfamiliar than what we already know, then this is not going to be enough to solve it. This is where we can move into a second phase, where we need to relax and let go of the problem. Here we rely on the brain’s ability to seek out insight, where we might experience a seemingly unrelated thought that can assist to solve the problem.
If you could see into the brain, this insight would be accompanied by a burst of gamma waves that link disparate neural networks, effectively binding thoughts into a new coherent thought. For this to all work, relaxation is crucial. You may find this happens during a shower or taking a walk where your thoughts are free to wander and aren’t focussed on the problem at hand.
Many of us have experienced the concept of flow, where we have been blissfully immersed in an activity and lost all track of time. This flow state is often coupled with a feeling of contentment. It’s also where the prefrontal cortex, the area that is associated with self-criticism, and the amygdala, the brain’s fear centre, are said to deactivate, enabling us to experience more freedom from worrying about failure, take more risks and be less judgemental of ideas.
Another characteristic of flow is that we are less distracted, the same distractions are out there but we are less tempted to attend to them.
Flow states don’t just occur for any or all types of activity. They can occur when we’re deeply focussed on a task that requires concentration and commitment, with clear goals and where we receive immediate feedback. It’s also matched with our skill level, if the task is too simple and we aren’t challenged, we can get bored and the mind may wander too far. If the task is too hard, it can be too challenging and we can become anxious and frustrated, breaking our attention.
Flow also requires a level of domain expertise, that is, the raw materials of knowledge, technical skills or talent that we draw upon as we move through the creative process.
So here is where the Goldilocks Principle kicks in, the challenge needs to be just right to enable you to reach a state of flow and along the way become a better creative.