The Science of Creative Thinking

Creative Thought Has a Pattern of its Own, Brain Activity Scans Reveal  – According to a recent study, highly creative thinkers have a distinctive combination of brain activity – areas which are associated with wandering thought, and with focused thought are active simultaneously.  Usually these processes work against each other in less creative brains.  It’s clear just how undervalued creativity is in our modern world – one scientist suggested further research would be necessary to determine whether creativity was a transferable skill (*eyeroll*).  Best quote: “One of the barriers to creative thinking is the ease with which common, unoriginal thoughts swamp the mind.” Too true.

Another recent study suggests that suppressing areas of the brain responsible for planning and abstract reasoning results in a greater aptitude for original thinking.

Nick Davis, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Manchester Metropolitan University, who was not involved in the study, welcomed the research. “When the [dorsolateral prefrontal cortex] was ‘cooled down’, the brain seems to have stopped applying old rules, and been more successful at finding new rules – this is the essence of creativity in problem-solving,” he said of the study.

In a way – it seems like creativity requires us to ‘turn off’ what we’ve learned.  This makes sense when we consider divergent (“blue sky”) thinking.  We generate ideas without considering the barriers, without judgement.  So much of the design process is the interplay between divergent and convergent thinking – is the first study essentially saying that creative thinkers are better at doing these simultaneously? 


Thinking about how this connects to personality – it seems that openness and creativity would go hand-in-hand.  As we get older, we tend to become more closed – so are young people better at creative thinking?  I wonder if there’s a sweet spot… The more we learn, the more we make sense of the world, the less that novelty presents.  As we collect more ‘answers’, and as we are less often confronted with not-knowing, it makes sense that we would become more closed, less awe-struck, more frightened by the unknown.  Yet that knowledge that we collect certainly helps in creative process.  We gain more experience with ‘good’ answers, and know enough to avoid reinventing the wheel, perhaps?

I consider my own relationship with awe.  It swallows me up.  There is nothing I like more than a perspective shift, a surprise, a little rule-breaking.  I am always thinking about how things work – and I’m no slouch in logical reasoning.  But show me a portal, a trap door, a world through the looking glass… prove me wrong, and I love you.

IMG_0430And then I consider humour.  I remember hearing someone say that to write good comedy, you need to create surprise.  I mean, check out this gem from shitheadsteve.  Well, considering I’ve seen this on a few instagram feeds, from whoever shitheadsteve ripped off.  This is so utterly delightful to me that I have sent it to half a dozen people today and now it’s worked its way into my blog.

And this is another element of creative thought to me.  For me, it’s intertwined with a bad attitude.  It’s independent thought, which is highly discouraged in most contexts.  When I’m most creative, I’m being subversive, I’m breaking rules, I’m being a bit of a shithead.  I’m being critical, and challenging, and confrontational.  And unpopular.

As I move forward in my study of education (I started my Masters of Education last week btw), I want to examine this further: the dance between creativity, openness, and learning.  In the new education landscape, where everyone seems to be grasping at straws, minimum we need to prepare ourselves (and our learners) to see knowledge as ever-changing, and to be prepared for life-long learning.  Openness and creativity seem (from my angle) to be two of the most essential attributes for success in a world of accelerating change.  How do we support this as educators?


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