Neuroscience and Your Creativity

You’ve heard that we only use a small fraction of our brain’s capacity, say around 5%. You may not have heard that your brain is actually very l-a-z-y. Yep, lazy.

Well you can hardly blame your brain, why would anyone put out more effort than is necessary to complete a task? Well, that’s how normal thinking, all quite logical, keeps us from enjoying creative breakthroughs.

Gregory Berns, author of the book, Iconoclast, just published by Harvard Press, has applied neuroscientific findings to creativity. He defines iconoclasts as people who do things that others say can’t be done, such as Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Dale Chihuly, and even Florence Nightingale.

What iconoclasts do that sets them apart is they perceive things differently. This is how Berns put it, in the October Fast Company article about his book:

Visual perception is largely a result of statistical expectations, the brain’s way of explaining ambiguous visual signals to the most likely way. And the likelhood of these explanations is a direct result of past experience (54).

That would explain why media exposure is not good for one’s creativity — our brains are adapting media-produced explanations for what we see, and so our lazy brains accept those perceptions as default settings, unless we take action to intentionally imagine alternate realities.

That also explains why novel experiences break our established thinking mold and set off potentially creative responses. Everyone who’s cooked has experienced this when in the middle of preparing some delicious dish, s/he finds out that someone else used up all the ________ (key ingredient!)

Here’s Berns’ advice:

When your brain is categorizing a person or an idea, just jot down the categories that come to mind. Use analogies. You will find that you naturally fall back on the things you are familiar with. Then allow yourself the freedom to write down gut feelings, even if they’re vague or visceral, such as “stupid” or “hot.” Only when you consciously confront your brain’s shortcuts will you be able to imagine outside its boundaries (56).

Mixonian adds this: If you want to be more creative, consciously cut down time spent in front of the television or on the Internet. This one tactic catches your brain off guard and gets it to work, and you might even make a fabulous discovery.


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