By Laura Helmuth, Scientific American
Creative people are able to recombine information in new and useful ways. People with experience in particular fields can have creative breakthroughs when they apply their expertise to new areas. Studies have shown that there are advantages when one forces their brain to shift gears. Often, people are hit with inspiration while daydreaming or doing a different task.
Creativity and the Acquisition of Expertise
Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis, has linked creativity with the acquisition of expertise. He compared the cumulative years of experience of 59 opera composers with their aesthetic success. He measured aesthetic achievement in eight different ways—tallying the number of times an opera was recorded and performed in major opera houses, for example, as well as the number of pages devoted to the work in opera histories.
Simonton found that a composer’s years of musical experience were a powerful predictor of an opera’s acclaim. He also found that if the composer had already created a number of other works within the same genre, this would actually hurt the opera’s critical reception and legacy. In other words, solutions to great problems demand practice, skill, and study, yet creative solutions occur when someone applies their experience to new domains.
Whether you are proving Fermat’s last theorem or planning a birthday party, finding novel solutions involves a little advance research. How much preparation you need will vary, but the more you know about a problem, the better equipped you will be to solve it.
Some of the most creative minds in history were masters of their respective fields. Given that these people spent large amounts of time immersed in their studies, one of the best ways to maximize your creativity is to find an area you would like to develop an expertise in. Then, begin to follow that passion.
Once you have immersed yourself in a problem, the best way to come up with a creative solution is to stop consciously thinking about it.
This is a transcript from the video series Understanding Your Inner Genius. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Forcing the Brain to Shift Gears
Kounios and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging to record the brain activity of 44 people as they solved 185 remote-association problems. These word puzzles require finding a single word that can pull together three seemingly unrelated words; for example, the solution to foam, deep, and salt is sea. After finding an answer, the subjects reported whether they had solved the problem using insight or analysis.
Kounios found that in the two seconds before a problem appeared, the insight users prepared for the challenge by shifting from their scattered outward attention to an inward focus. Puzzles solved insightfully were preceded by increased activation in the anterior cingulate cortex—a brain region that monitors internal attention to different ideas, among other things.
In contrast, tasks solved analytically were preceded by significant activation in the occipital lobe, which handles visual processing. This increase indicates that the analytical solvers concentrated more on what they were looking at.
Research from the University of Amsterdam and the University of Bologna in Italy has demonstrated that sleeping on a problem or stepping away from it and then immersing yourself in an alternative activity can help you unconsciously cultivate creative solutions.
Taken together, the findings reveal a benefit to forcing your brain to shift gears or look within. One reason might be that your attention can then be captured by a surprising solution your unconscious mind has been ruminating on. So take a nap or try your hand at something new.
Getting Hit with Inspiration
History is replete with examples of creative individuals who describe being hit with inspiration while daydreaming or attending to a different task. Writer Robert Louis Stevenson and musician Paul McCartney, for instance, used dreams as starting points for new works.
Many day-to-day problems can be solved this way, which explains why so many people recall stumbling on ideas while taking a shower, driving to work, or walking.
Brain Activity when Insight Hits
When insight hits, certain changes happen in the brain. Psychologist Mark Beeman of Northwestern University led a study that measured people’s brain activity with fMRI and EEG during the moment of insight. The participants tackled remote-association problems and then indicated if they had cracked the problem using insight.
The results showed significantly increased activity in the anterior superior temporal gyrus of the right hemisphere at the critical moment when the solution appeared, in comparison to problem solvers who did not experience such an aha! moment.
This gyrus is a prominent ridge on the cortex of the right hemisphere and plays a fundamental role in recognizing distant connections between words.
The activity surge in the right but not the left lobe may be meaningful. According to the researchers, there are areas in the right side of your brain that interpret information more loosely than areas in the left side. This means that the information is less tightly defined, allowing you to access other concepts more readily, which is a key component of creativity.
Common Questions about Creativity and Brain Activity
According to a study, the insight users prepare for a challenge by shifting from their scattered outward attention to an inward focus. There is an increased activation in the brain region that monitors internal attention to different ideas, among other things. In contrast, tasks solved analytically are preceded by significant activation in the area that handles visual processing. This increase indicates that the analytical solvers concentrate more on what they are looking at.
Findings reveal that by forcing your brain to shift gears or look within, your attention can be captured by a surprising solution your unconscious mind has been ruminating on.
When insight hits, certain changes happen in the brain. Psychologist Mark Beeman of Northwestern University led a study that measured people’s brain activity with fMRI and EEG during the moment of insight. The results showed significantly increased activity in the anterior superior temporal gyrus of the right hemisphere at the critical moment when the solution appeared, in comparison to problem solvers who did not experience such an aha! moment.