Decoding Design

How to spark creativity

How to spark creativity

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Is creativity innate? Researchers are exploring the science of creativity and Jonah Lehrer argues that anyone can use their findings to learn to be creative.

What allows some people to create the iPod, produce Star Wars, or develop Twitter? Is it in their genes? In an excerpt from his upcoming book, "Imagine: How Creativity Works", Jonah Lehrer argues that creativity is not inherited or innate, but learned and developed. Lehrer also explains how researchers are exploring the science of creativity and how anyone can use their findings to learn to be creative.

"Imagination was once thought to be a single thing, separate from other kinds of cognition. The latest research suggests that this assumption is false. It turns out that we use "creativity" as a catchall term for a variety of cognitive tools, each of which applies to particular sorts of problems and is coaxed to action in a particular way."

Whether a problem requires a moment of insight, a gradual, laboring rumination, or a greater and more diverse collection of information, Lehrer says there are ways to spark all kinds of creativity.

Moments of insight

The hardest problems are often solved with flashes of inspiration or insight, and two researchers, Mark Beeman and John Kounios, have identified that the flashes might come from a region of the brain that excels at connecting distantly related information. The area, the superior anterior temporal gyrus (aSTG), exhibits a sharp spike in activity seconds before an insight appears. They also found that humor and alcohol increased the likelihood of having an insight.

Why humor and booze? Both help us relax and relaxing helps us shift focus. Instead of concentrating on what is probably a wrong answer, our minds loosen and expand to make associations. Those associations, Lehrer says, are often the sources of insight.

Relentless rumination

Other problems are solved by drudgery and determination. This is the kind of creativity we have to work on constantly. Lehrer presents the example of Milton Glaser's "I love New York" campaign. Glaser intuitively knew that his first design wasn't quite right even though it had been approved. The legendary graphic designer thought about and worked on his design until he arrived at the now iconic design.

Mental restructuring

When a problem can't be solved with just the information in our own brains, acquiring more and more diverse information can trigger creativity. Diverse ideas, experiences, and people provide new concepts for us to connect. Since expertise can inhibit this kind of breakthrough creativity, Lehrer encourages looking at other fields not only for solutions but also for problems to explore.

But how do we know which creativity we need? The answer is a type of intuition that researchers call "feelings of knowing". Researchers found that the human mind can naturally assess which kind of creativity is required, and whether we can arrive at a solution if we continue thinking about it. In other words, our minds are capable of figuring out the likelihood of solving a problem, and when we're getting close.

Are these really keys to creativity or just problem solving? Is creativity innate or can creativity be learned? What do SmartPlanet readers think?

Related on SmartPlanet: Why brainstorming doesn't work--and what does

How to Be Creative [Wall Street Journal Online]

Image: Mykl Roventine Flickr

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Sun Kim

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Sun Joo Kim is an architect and creative consultant based in Boston. Her projects include design and master planning of museums, public institutions, hospitals, and university buildings across the U.S. She holds a degree from Carnegie Mellon University and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure