Neuroscience is now beginning to shed some light on the elusive nature of human creativity. Once considered the ultimate reward for intensive and conscious deliberation over an unsolved problem, the results of recent brain imaging experiments are beginning to paint a rather different picture of what drives creative thinking and the environmental contexts that stimulate it.
The introduction of MRI scanners, which allow neuroscientists to see inside the working human brain, have shown that our ability to “think out of the box” depends on the coordinated participation of a very wide network of brain areas, rather than the activation of a specific “creativity” spot. Furthermore, these creativity-promoting brain states occur predominantly when our unconscious brain is allowed to dominate, for example, when we are very relaxed, meditating or even asleep. In these contexts, the brain is more easily able to exchange and manipulate existing mental representations, such as words, symbols and images, by disassembling and recombining them to produce novel representations that may not physically exist. During this process, new connections between otherwise unrelated concepts are formed in the brain and original ideas are born.
Clutter too, it seems, plays a factor in how effective the brain can think creatively. Neuroscientists have shown that our social motivations are heavily governed by the principle of minimizing threats and maximizing rewards. When we perceive a situation as threatening, the brain reacts by focusing it’s resources on minimizing the threat, leaving it less able to deploy resources required for creative thinking and problem-solving; processes which it seems need the calm participation of large swathes of grey matter. Perceived threats also inhibit our ability to think laterally, reducing vital “aha” moments of insight.
So what are some of the common drivers that provoke a threat response and constrain the brain’s propensity for original thought? Consider the classic brainstorming scenario. Young members of staff, presumably possessing the elixir of fresh thinking, are herded into a room where they are expected to generate original insights and exchange ideas with their senior peers. It is difficult to imagine a more anxiety provoking situation in the workplace and so clearly destined to scupper the optimal mental environment for creative thought. Unrealistic deadlines, multiple-task pile up and insufficient time to relax or sleep are all barriers to creative thinking. We are all familiar with the age-old adage – if you’ve got a problem, sleep on it – but it now seems there is a very real basis in the human brain for doing just that. Scientists now believe that dreaming is one method by which the brain integrates and consolidates new information into existing memory stores, and in the process allows previously unsolved problems or challenges to be resolved. When REM sleep is restricted, there is an adverse effect on memory formation, problem-solving and creativity.
What practical implementations can companies derive from this new neural knowledge? The solution it seems is for companies dependent on their creative potential to take a step back, reflect and consider how to assimilate these new insights about the human brain into the creation of optimal working environments and practices that will stimulate and promote originality of thought.
Here are five insights based on neuroscience that companies should consider in order to minimize threats and maximise creative output: