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As a creative person working in an ideas business an important part of the job is to sit down, either on your own or with a colleague, and try to crack a brief to find that illusive idea or insight.
Most of us know the story. After many hours or days of stress and perspiration something happens. You go off take a break and do something completely different or just stare out the window. Then the answer for no apparent reason enters your head. Eureka! (I Blaspheme). You know it feels right, it feels good, and it’s the answer you have been looking for. A rush of euphoria and an aura of invincibility usually follow this moment.
Hence the creative ego.
It’s a mental process that most of us haven’t thought too much about. However, I was struck by an article by American Neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer who was promoting his latest book ‘Imagine: How Creativity Works’. He thinks about this stuff a lot.
Lehrer is a bit of a genius. He’s only 32, he’s a Rhodes Scholar and has already written three books on Neuroscience. He’s a contributing editor to Wired Magazine and to the New Yorker Magazine. He frequently lectures around the world too.
Now if you’re thinking John has gone off on one of his science benders please bear with me. Lehrer is just casting a bit of light on something we do everyday. So I thought I’d share it.
He believes there are a number of factors in us arriving at a moment creative insight or idea. He backs this up with anecdotal evidence and experiments from the science lab. He uses a simple example of how our brain works coming up with an idea. It is called Compound Remote Association Problem – CRAP for short. In the video in the link below he asks the audience a CRAP problem.
Experiments have shown that during this process of Compound Remote Association Problemour brain uses the same patterns when we go through the brainstorming process to arrive at an idea or insight. These brain patterns or waves are called Alpha waves.
We produce the most Alpha waves when we‘re relaxed and calm, or even daydreaming.
Bob Dylan wrote his best music when he decided to quit the music business. Einstein came up with the theory of relativity while staring out the patents office window, daydreaming. And Isaac Newton took long walks in his garden while mulling over gravity.
So, daydreaming is good.
However Lehrer is not saying we should all go out, lie in the grass, and chill out anytime we feel like it. The moment of insight usually follows a lot of hard work and is followed by more hard work. ‘Grit’ as he calls it.
Lehrerdescribes Grit as being single-minded in our focus to succeed and our willingness to learn from failure. Great ideas are still 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.
If you’re engaged by all this stuff you can read about how experience and environment also affect the way we come up with ideas. Some of the examples he uses in this area seem to contradict his observations about being relaxed and calm. Moments of extreme stress, like a life and death situation can result in an insight.
He has been accused by fellow Neuroscientists of trying to simplify how the mind works to appeal to a lay audience. They point out many processes of the mind are still a mystery and undefined.
I have highlighted the area that is of most relevant to us. But if you want to know more you can read and see a bit more of him in action on the links below. Or, if you’re really impressed you can buy the books.