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Are People More Creative Alone Or Together? Trick Question

Your brain doesn’t care if you’re an introvert or an extrovert. It needs solo- and group-time to be creative–in that order.

Are People More Creative Alone Or Together? Trick Question
Source photo: OgnjenO/iStock Source photo: OgnjenO/iStock

“Want to be more productive and creative?” one Fast Company contributor recently asked. “Collaborate less.” “You’ll never do your best work alone,” wrote another, also on the question of creativity. “Just ask Beyoncé,” whose acclaimed album Lemonade credits 72 different writers.

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So which is it?

Why We Can’t Agree On When We’re Most Creative

Everyone seems to have their own answers:

  • Introverts: “When I’m alone.”
  • Extroverts: “When I have other people around.”
  • Management consultants: “When I’m with a group of people in a well-run meeting–preferably run by me.”
  • Harvard Business Review: “Erm, which issue did you pick up–the one with this article, or with this one?”

How did we get here?

The debate has been running for much longer, but its current form can be traced to two influential books published in the last decade. One is Susan Cain’s Quiet, a 2012 manifesto for introverts, which decries what she saw as the rise of a counterproductive new groupthink.

While collaboration had become the new “it” thing for generating ideas, she argued that research and history both show the importance of solitude and being alone with one’s thoughts in order to generate real breakthroughs. Cain also contended that introverts are more creative on balance, and that people generate more good ideas on their own than do brainstorm groups.

Keith Sawyer wrote Group Genius in 2007, an effort to rebut much of the research concluding that breakthroughs come just from the exchange of ideas in groups. Sawyer believed that the stronger research pointed toward the most creative people being both introverted and extraverted. He argued that, on average, groups are ultimately better at solving complex problems than individuals.

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But if both camps can point to solid research to back up their claims, is it possible–scientifically speaking–to have it both ways? Well, sort of. Let’s look at it in terms of how the brain works.

The part of our brain that usually leads to our most creative ideas is called the “default mode network.” It’s what gives us the ability to relate seemingly unrelated concepts, to create novel connections, to see patterns where others see noise. This network works best when we daydream, when we’re quiet, when we’re involved in mindless tasks and are just staring off into space, not really seeing anything in the outside world. It works best when we sleep. In other words, when we’re alone.

It’s this part of the brain that the introvert camp (Cain et al.) tend to study most intensively and point to as the source of true creative inspiration. But it doesn’t work alone.

The extroverts (Sawyer and company) have a solid argument, too. One of the ways the default mode network functions is by being stimulated with new ideas. When you space out, your hippocampus starts to build new memories out of the raw material of your experiences. And when it does that, it has a tendency to throw random memory shards into the default mode network. These random shards of new memories act like sparks to the kindling of your default network, lighting the fire of what ultimately becomes a creative breakthrough.

And these new ideas most often become apparent to us in conversation with others, in a lively chat at the café, or in an argument in a bar.

So the answer is that human beings are most creative when we get time by ourselves and then time with one another. The way to maximize creative potential is to flow between being alone and being in a group, and back again. When you’re alone, you’re essentially building a woodpile in your brain. Then, when you join a group, you’re igniting a shower of sparks that might light it up. Of course, you sometimes need to go be alone again in order to let the sparks you’ve started generating get close enough to the wood.

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The Alternating Alternative

Paul Paulus at the University of Texas at Arlington ran an experiment to test how this process works. First, he had a group spend 10 minutes writing down ideas. Then they went and built off those ideas individually. Then Paulus reversed the conditions: People wrote ideas down alone and then brought them to the group. The group that worked under the first condition produced 37% more ideas than the second.

But then Paulus tried it a third way: He had another group spend eight minutes writing down ideas individually, then come together to share their ideas for three minutes, then go back to being alone, only to rejoin the group a second time–four steps: alone, together, alone, together. This group produced 71% more ideas per person. Alternating between solo time and collaboration seemed to encourage more creativity than either approach exclusively–very likely because that’s how our brains are built.

How can you put this into practice? Try brainstorming like this:

  1. Grab some large sticky notes and have everyone write down their ideas, one per note, for 10 minutes.
  2. Have them put their ideas on the wall, and everyone gets three minutes to look them over.
  3. When time’s up, everyone goes back and writes new ideas for five more minutes.
  4. The stickies go up, and everyone looks at them for two minutes.
  5. Then everyone goes back to being alone and writes out new ideas for just 90 seconds.
  6. The stickies go up one last time, and everyone looks at them for a final five minutes.
  7. Discuss.

You’ll be done in half an hour.

By breaking this process up into ever shortening intervals, you keep the creative energy flowing, maintain a structure, and allow everyone’s brains to hop between the two forms of thought that creativity requires. The time constraints force people to be concise and trust their instincts rather than overthink things. And on a more tactical level, Paulus discovered that by writing everything down, no one could dominate the group conversations, and no one had to wait their turn, only to forget their idea.

So the introverts and extroverts are both right, up to a point. What they really need is to sit down together and chat it out, then go be alone again, and rinse, repeat. They may find they have more in common than they’d thought–and probably more creative ideas, too.

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Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane are the coauthors of The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking.