Whether you’re trying to write that literary masterpiece you’ve been kicking around lately or you are just looking for an innovative solution to a problem at work, the creative process can be something of a mystery. Over the past few years, though, a number of studies have begun to chip away at our limited understanding of how creativity works, reports Scientific American Mind (July/August 2012).
The first step in creative problem solving and productive thinking is to generate ideas with an open mind. Sharon Thompson-Schill, neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested in 2009 that this is achieved when one rejects the rigid thought structure of the prefrontal cortex for a more relaxed and blurred frame of mind—what she calls the state of hypofrontality. While in this mode of thinking, “the brain enters a state that emphasizes often overlooked perceptual elements,” increasing one’s ability to find new solutions to old problems.
In the second phase of the creative process, the brain must sort through potential answers and pick the best one. To do this, a kind of mental acrobatics is needed. The prefrontal cortex, previously turned down, has to be “more engaged” so that the best solution can be chosen in a clear-minded way. In a study at North Dakota State University in 2010, students were tested on their ability to look at a list of color words and instead of reading the word, such as “blue” or “green,” the students were asked to say the color of the text, which was often different than the color symbolized by the word. The results showed that creative students were better able to “switch from a matching combination…to a clashing one,”—a skill known as cognitive flexibility.
For those not predisposed to much creative thinking, there is hope. Psychologist Tony McCaffery had students describe an ordinary object in as general terms as possible to separate its physical nature from its common use, and found that this exercise primed the brain for creativity. If this technique doesn’t work, you can always resort to the age-old solution for creative slumps and just sleep on it.