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The neuroscience of creativity – the unconscious mind

by | Jan 6, 2017

I’ve always been fascinated by what’s actually playing out on the hills and valleys of our 3lbs of grey matter whilst we’re generating creative ideas.

When I set out to write my new book, In Your Creative Element, I knew from very early on that I wanted to look at how the brain functions during the creative process and the neuroscience of creativity. To help me understand more I teamed up with neuroscientist Ben Martynoga to learn more about how different brain states affect our creative thinking. It turned out to be more than an interesting diversion: it totally absorbed me as I learned about what actually goes on in the old grey matter during “thinking” time, and also as I discovered the brain’s role in emotion, improvisation and logic – and how these all fit into the creative process.

Not surprisingly, it was so interesting and, I felt, so important, that I dedicated a whole chapter to it.

The device I use for the book is to distill creativity down into 62 component parts, or “creative elements”, and the first aspect of the neuroscience of creativity I look at in The Creative Mind chapter is The Unconscious Mind or (Um).

Simplifying things a bit for the sake of brevity here, the brain can broadly be split into two halves: one part acts quickly and is very intuitive, the other is more analytical and is the side of our thinking that we’re more aware of – the complexity of this is summarised brilliantly by Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his masterly 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  He describes these two dominant modes of thought used by our brains. The first, which he calls ‘System 1’ is quick and intuitive. It operates automatically, mostly outside of our awareness and control. ‘System 2’ is more familiar to us; it’s the one we’re conscious of. This (relatively) slow mode is less easily duped. It likes evidence and doesn’t jump to conclusions.

The Unconscious Mind is at play in the former.

I explain how the Unconscious Mind plays a key role in powering the imagination – it explains how how William Blake could claim that he wrote his poem Milton “without premeditation, even against my will.” It’s perhaps why Einstein claimed to “see” the solutions to many of his problems long before he was able to describe them.

For all creative thought, the Unconscious Mind is extremely important – it’s where you subliminally “incubate” ideas. Tests have shown that when two groups of people were told they had to think up as many ideas about something for just a few minutes, the ones who were distracted first – playing a video game, to be specific – went on to come up with more original ideas.

John Whiston, MD of Continuing Drama & Head of ITV in the North, told me how the Unconscious Mind works for him. In a nutshell, when he receives an email from someone who is seeking a story idea he deliberately refuses to read it. Instead, he scans it rapidly and gets the gist. He doesn’t want to know the details – what he is doing is feeding the most vague (but also most necessary) snippets of information into his mind and the answer, he says, “will spring at me” sometime later.

You can apply the concept to something you’re working on by sending yourself a verbal letter just before bed. Try it: tell your mind that you need some ideas for a specific challenge by 9am tomorrow and see what happens. A bit less extreme, perhaps, is to remember the importance of incubation during the ideation process. After initial brainstorming it is vital to walk away for a while to allow ‘the tentacles of the mind’ to digest the information. It’s why the cliche of ideas in the shower or when you’re not thinking about the problem happens. Deliberately build it into your creative process.

Next time: how the Relaxed Mind will help you get the most out of the Unconscious Mind.

In Your Creative Element book

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