The Creative Thinking Myth

The Creative Thinking Myth

Psychology April 06, 2012 / By Jeffrey Davis, M.A.
The Creative Thinking Myth

Being habitually creative requires far more than original thinking.

The right-brained creativity myth isn't the only limited notion of what creativity is, what it requires, and how it happens. Again, let me be audacious enough to mention another one: the creative thinking myth. And you tell me what you think. (I certainly appreciated every contribution to the previous conversation.)

Myth: being creative means mostly thinking in novel and original ways.

Many creativity studies in the mid-20th century started with this premise. Metaphorical thinking, associative thinking, flexible thinking, divergent thinking. How many uses for a brick can you come up with? What does this grasshopper wing look like? The work of Paul Torrance, Edward de Bono's Six Hats and Lateral Thinking, the Remote Associates Test, and others have contributed profoundly to our understanding of how people can engage in non-discursive, non-linear thinking that might or might not contribute to being creative.

But being creative requires more than thinking in novel ways. Most of us have much fresher ideas than we give ourselves credit for, and yet we're not necessarily habitually creative.

Creativity's unromantic truths
Why not? First, because being creative also requires that an idea actually be produced, that whatever is being produced or exhibited actually works, and that this product is useful, even if that usefulness is limited to a person's family.

Being creative also means actually executing an idea. Daydreaming is invaluable to ideation, but the world is full of daydreamers whose scripts and inventions never get past the novelty spurt or grand vision. To move from lightning-bolt idea to completing a novel, or a new way to use a room, or starting a business, or a new product design requires far more than the idea itself.  

New Yorker writer and artist biographer Joan Acocella sums up the matter well, "What allows genius to flower is not neurosis, but its opposite, 'ego strength,' meaning (among other things) ordinary, Sunday-school virtues such as tenacity, and above all, the ability to survive disappointment." And even the non-genius creatives among us, what psychologists call the "small c creatives," must demonstrate more perseverance, physical stamina, focus, organization & time-sculpting, mood monitoring & shifting, and field know-how to surpass original thinking.

Being creative requires meta-awareness—or creative mindfulness. A person who is aware of how her mind works and who trains herself to pay attention to and to capture those flashes of insight, of course, is more likely to follow through on them. The work of Dr. John Kounios (Drexel University) and Dr. Mark Beeman (Northwestern University) have specifically tracked this facet. The rest of us get flashes without that tiny flashlight of awareness, or without the automated habit of capturing those flashes of insight on a napkin or in a notebook.

Creativity's two elephants
What influences creative ideation and creative idea execution? To jump right in and say, "think creatively" is unfair to a person or a team. To do so betrays the fact that more than will and desire influence what happens in the mind. 

There are two elephants in the room when we talk about creativity. The first elephant of creativity studies is the body. You'd be hard-pressed to convince me that a person's physical condition, quality and nature of respiration, and even physical movements, do not influence how he or she perceives, computes, and imagines. We know, for instance, that a person's general physical condition, how he or she breathes, and even moving the body can in some cases lead to greater focus, mood moderation, increased meta-awareness or creative mindfulness, persistence, and even imaginative insight.

Japan's arguably most celebrated novelist Haruki Murakami reflects on this fact in his memoir-essays, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Many, but not all, researchers and consultants in creativity have overlooked the body or ignore this elephant altogether. We're uncomfortable talking about this fleshy mobile home. We're embarrassed we don't know more about it. And we'd just assume no one look at ours.

On one hand, we agree with most cognitive scientists, psychologists, and even some neuroscientists who now use terms such as "embodied mind" and "embodied consciousness." On one hand, we agree that, despite his many useful contributions to science, Descartes got it wrong when he said that the mind influences the body but the body has no influence on the mind. And on the other hand, we lack the tools or capacity to "connect the dots" of how the body does influence creative cognition and creative execution.

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff and cognitive scientist Mark Johnson set the tone in their two books, Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh: How the Embodied Mind Challenges Western Thought (1999). And Northwestern University's Li Huang and Adam Galinsky's work with mind-body dissonance follows up on this fascinating new path of creativity research. There's truth to my adage that your "muse" is as near as your body and breath.

The other elephant is the environment. We're just now beginning to accept that cinder-block classrooms with low ceilings and poor lighting might actually affect the way a teenager can compute mathematical formulas or play music.

Or for that matter the atmosphere for how a marketing team can come up with, collaborate, and execute a whole campaign. Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School, as well as author of Creativity in Context and numerous studies, has tracked this facet for over fifteen years.  

Optimal team dynamics and communications, more collaboration thancompetition, optimal leader enthusiasm, optimal amounts of responsibility, and given information each contribute to whether or not people in an organization are habitually creative.

Woe to the team who's told "be more creative" but who is not given the resources for focus, imagination, stamina, mood moderation, and atmosphere. And woe to the leader or consultant who perpetuates the myth.

Am I out of line here? What insights can you contribute? What other researchers' work has contributed to debunking this myth? What conditions and habits are you setting up to better assure "creativity happens" for yourself or for your team?

See you in the woods,

Jeffrey Davis is a creativity consultant and author of The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies & Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing (Monkfish Publishing 2008; Penguin Putnam 2004). He mentors creatives, professionals, teams, and solo-preneurs to track wonder and to delight by design.

This article originally appeared at Psychology Today
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