Thinking Creatively: Making Coal into Diamonds

In the October edition of Fast Company Magazine, Gregory Berns wrote an article entitled "Neuroscience Sheds New Light on Creativity", which I think is fascinating. Read it here.

The article essentially explains that our brains, beautiful and complex as they may be, are fundamentally lazy. Or rather, they are efficient streamliners. When our brains process new information for the first time, it may take an entire section of the brain to process all of the incoming stimuli, but by the 5th or 6th time the brain reacts to that same set of stimuli, only a small set of neurons are needed to process the incoming information. The more we experience the same information, the more facile the connection becomes in our brain, the less the brain works, and the harder it becomes for us to experience spontaneity or creativity.


Berns tells us that creativity and innovation happen when the brain has a hard time predicting what is going to happen next; new experience and new stimuli require new ways of thinking, literally, and as such call for neural adaptation and improvisation in order to sort out and understand. This "sorting out" is, by nature, the biological and procedural root of that ineffable thing called creativity: "Novel experiences are so effective at unleashing the imagination because they force the perceptual system out of categorization, the tendency of the brain to take shortcuts," Berns says.

So what do we do to encourage creative and innovative thinking? Change our surroundings, talk to new people, do things we might normally do in a different place or different environment. Besides being mind-meltingly interesting, Berns’s suggestion is a fairly simple yet genius prescription for fostering innovative thought. "Innovation" itself is nothing more than the process of inventing or introducing something new, right? So it makes perfect sense that in order to innovate, we must encourage innovative patterns in our behavior and in our thought-processes…and doing this is no more complicated than taking your team for a brainstorming session at Dunkin Donuts, or in the park, or if you’re feeling charitable, to laser tag.

We are now living in a time when some of the greats of innovation (like Bill Gates) are talking about an innovation gap between America and the rest of the world, and we’ve been told that the U.S. seems to be losing the motivation necessary to foster the next innovative workforce of the future. To have a culture of innovation, one needs leadership, policy, funding, and a culture that embraces creativity and novel thinking. Many argue that the forecast, at present, is grim. Perhaps we’ve gotten lazy. Perhaps we don’t care enough.

Governmental funding for scientific research is paltry, corporate research is dwindling, and students are opting out of engineering or programming degrees for other avenues.  Clearly, innovation is not aided at all by the current financial crisis and credit squeeze. Innovative organizations rely on financial institutions for funding, and clearly in this economic climate, it’s hard to borrow a buck, let alone stir up the kind of funding that will lead to an innovative revolution.

We know that the current economic decline is precipitous and may last well into the future, so we need to take novel ideas like those proposed by Berns and turn them into innovative capital. Green building, renewable energy, and sustainable solutions could be areas with potential for a whole mess of innovating even in the midst of this financial hullabaloo. We need to combat the problem with creative solutions. And I think that economic depression can provide the stimulus for creative thought. Credit is tight, budgets are tight, so your business is going to have to find creative solutions to actualize that next project. So take the team to laser tag, get out of a psychology of humbuggery, of anxiety, and get that brain to cough up the creativity that you know is in there. But I’m still working on finding a new way to put on my pants, so I’m looking to you for help. Any suggestions?

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