• 04.17.12

The Science Of Creativity

During the creative process, the brain shuts off its normal inhibition of new ideas. Most of the time, it’s important to self monitor so you don’t say everything you think or do everything you consider. But when generating new ideas, this function gets in the way.

The Science Of Creativity

With enhanced creativity, instead of problems you see potential, instead of obstacles you see opportunities, and instead of challenges you see a chance to create breakthrough solutions. Look around and it becomes clear that the innovators among us are the ones succeeding in every arena, from science and technology to education and the arts. Nevertheless, creative problem solving is rarely taught in school, or even considered a skill you can learn.


Sadly, there is also an often-repeated saying, “ideas are cheap.” This statement discounts the value of creativity and is utterly wrong. Ideas aren’t cheap at all–they’re free. And they’re amazingly valuable. Ideas lead to innovations that fuel the economies of the world, and they prevent our lives from becoming repetitive and stagnant. They are the cranes that pull us out of well-worn ruts and put us on a path toward progress. Without creativity we are not just condemned to a life of repetition, but to a life that slips backward. In fact, the biggest failures of our lives are not those of execution, but failures of imagination. As the renowned American inventor Alan Kay famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” We are all inventors of our own future. And creativity is at the heart of invention.

Preliminary brain research by Charles Limb at Johns Hopkins University shows that the parts of your brain that are responsible for self-monitoring are literally turned off during creative endeavors. He uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which measures metabolic activity in the different areas of the brain, to study brain activity in jazz musicians and rap artists. While they are in the MRI scanner, he asks the musicians to compose an improvisational piece of music.

While they are playing, Limb has found that a part of the brain’s frontal lobes believed to be responsible for judgment shows much lower activity. This implies that during this creative process the brain actively shuts off its normal inhibition of new ideas. For many activities it is important to have high self-monitoring of your behavior so that you don’t say everything you think or do everything that you consider. But when you are generating new ideas, this function gets in the way. Creative people have apparently mastered the art of turning off this part of their brains to let their ideas flow more smoothly, unleashing their imagination.

Many people question whether creativity can be taught and learned. They believe that creative abilities are fixed, like eye color, and can’t be changed. They think that if they aren’t currently creative, there is no way to increase their ability to come up with innovative ideas. I couldn’t disagree more. There is a concrete set of methods and environmental factors that can be used to enhance your imagination, and by optimizing these variables your creativity naturally increases. Unfortunately, these tools are rarely presented in a formalized way. As a result, creativity appears to most people to be something magical rather than the natural result of a clear set of processes and conditions.

It might seem counterintuitive to use a set of tools to enhance creativity, since creativity necessitates doing things that haven’t been done before. But a guide is just what we need. Just as scientists adopt tried-and-true scientific methods to design experiments, enhancing your creativity benefits from a formal set of tools for idea generation. Consider the fact that we are taught how to use the scientific method from the time we are children. Starting at an early age, we learn how to make hypotheses and to test them in order to discover how the world in which we live works. We learn how to ask probing questions, to unpack all the assumptions, and to design experiments to reveal the answers. This important skill and the associated vocabulary are honed for years until they become quite natural.

We already use creative thinking to some degree when we face challenges in all aspects of our lives. Some of these challenges result in quick creative fixes, such as using a shoe to prop open a door or using replacements for ingredients you don’t have when making dinner.  These solutions come so naturally that we don’t even think of them as innovative responses to the small problems that surface each day. However, other creative solutions are significant enough to grow into entire industries. Everything we use has been conceived of and invented by someone, including alarm clocks, buttons, cell phones, condoms, doorknobs, eyeglasses, food processors, hairbrushes, the internet, jet engines, kites, lasers, matches, pencils, radios, socks, toasters, toothbrushes, umbrellas, wineglasses, and zippers. All of these inventions resulted when individuals were faced with a problem or saw an opportunity and created a way to bring their innovation to the world.


There is a recurring theme: creativity is not just something you think about–it is something you do. By using a creative thinking method, you will learn how to jump-start your innovation engine, and you will fully appreciate that every word, every object, every idea, and every moment provides an opportunity for creativity. It costs nothing to generate amazing ideas, and the results are priceless.

This is an adapted excerpt from Tina Seelig’s InGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity, published today by HarperOne. Seelig is director of Stanford’s Technology Ventures Program.
To learn more about her method for cultivating creativity in individuals, teams, and organizations, check back tomorrow for a Fast Company Q&A with the author.

[Image: Flickr user James Vaughan]