I’ve recently developed a new live presentation on: “The Neuroscience of Creativity,” which I first presented at the Royal Society of Arts in February 2012. The rapidly expanding list of Brain Coach Live topics continues to grow.
I kick off by describing some of the features of modern life that are “Enemies of Creativity.” To help motivate this section I describe a Channel 4 architecture series I contributed to called “The Secret Life of Buildings.” In this show I used EEG to illustrate how the brain responds to a variety of sensory distractions typically encountered in a modern work environment – the open plan office. The presenter, The Independent architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff (pictured left), was wired up with an electrode studded scrum cap and plonked in the middle of a busy open plan office to write up an overdue newspaper article. When a colleague (to his left in the photograph) mentioned the word “pub,” an extensive burst of activity was triggered across his prefrontal cortices (pictured top right). His brainwaves also pulsed in response to movements in the background, conversations going on around him and especially the rattle of the trolley loaded with crockery and cutlery as the tea lady tottered by.
The point I wished to convey was that, although we might not consciously register sights and sounds that are constantly being picked up by our senses, they are nonetheless processed in the brain; diverting precious resources away from the task at hand.
This is relevant to the process of creativity because soaking up and considering vast quantities of information from a variety of sources for a prolongued period of time is often the first step towards solving a tricky problem and this requires sustained attention. And it is not just disturbances in our open plan working environments (classrooms fall into this category too, of course) that pull the brain’s attentional resources hither and thither, thus disrupting the intake of information. The demands made on us by our smartphones constantly alerting us to the arrival of endless emails, texts, calls and social networking updates also interferes with creative thinking.
The first tip for boosting creativity is thus to block out distractions by switching off smartphones, closing down email accounts and sticking in the earplugs. Take a tip from french polymath Henry Pointcaré and work in regular two hour sessions from 10:00-12:00 and 17:00-19:00 to get those distraction-free bouts of unbroken concentration in. That way you will be able to take in all the necessary input relevant to the problem at hand. Later, once the subconscious brain has mulled over the possibilities, circumventing the inevitable mental blocks, your Eureka moment will come when you least expect it.
Great thinkers have typically reached their big creative breakthroughs, usually described in the scientific literature as “Aha! moments,” at a time when they were not thinking terribly hard. For instance, Henry Pointcaré cracked one of his biggest mathematical conundrums whilst stepping onto a bus, Kekulé day-dreamed a snake biting its tail to crack the chemical structure of benzene whilst dozing by the fire and Archimedes was famously plonking himself in the bath.
The point is that when a “mental impasse” is reached i.e. you’ve done lots of work on trying to crack the problem, but don’t seem to be getting anywhere – the best thing you can possibly do is walk away from it and do something else. You must leave it to your subconscious to play with all the information you have furiously uploaded into your brain and wait for the solution to percolate up into consciousness once you are between thoughts.
The rest of the talk describes a medley of the latest neuroscientific investigations into the Aha! moment courtesy of the likes of Joydeep Bhattacharya and colleageues at Goldsmith’s University. They discovered that the moment that a problem is solved is associated with activation across the right prefrontal cortex up to 8s before the person registers their response.
I also touch upon Alan Snyder and colleage’s contraversial experiment where transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) was used to transiently deactivate brain areas over the left anterior temporal/prefrontal areas whilst stimulating right anterior temporal/prefrontal areas resulting in three-fold improvements in finding solutions to creative problems. The idea is based on the theory that, in most right handed people, the left brain controls well rehearsed over-learned behaviours, whilst the right brain is more involved in grappling with novel stimuli and generating creative behaviour.
Finally, I described what modern science knows about the hypnagogic state, where wakefulness drifts off into sleep, well know to be an incredibly fertile ground for creativity. Scientist and engineer Thomas Edison was a great believer in using the hypnagogic state to boost creativity and given his 1,093 patents and inventions that lead to electric lighting, plus the music and movie industries, I would say that his is a testimony we can all believe.
Clues as to how and why this brain state is so enormously innovative arise from very recent studies (Magnin et al, 2010) in which electrodes attached all over the surface of a human brain to measure the neuronal activity as a person falls asleep. This has revealed that the thalamus – the brain’s main junction box through which all parts of the cortex are connected to all other parts – “falls asleep” first whilst other brain areas “switch off” up to 5mins, 10mins, 15 mins and even 20 mins later! Until then these brain areas are still firing away, yet cut off as they from the rest of the brain by the absence of viable cortico-thalmo-cortical connectivity, it is surely this dissociation which leads to those magical sparkles of insight?
Edison even invented a clever device for capturing creative thoughts before they are forgotten. If you want to know more about this then you can click here to book me in to give this talk at your school, university or firm!
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On Monday 4th July Dr Jack will be back on This Morning between 10.30-12.30 (ITV1). If you’d like to recap on the memory tricks you can see his first contribution all over again by clicking here.
Later on that evening at 20.00 the first episode of his new series “The Tech Show” is launched (Discovery Science), followed immediately afterwards by the second episode at 20.30.
Monday’s item on This Morning will be all about decisions. Whether deciding what to have for lunch, what route to take to reach a destination, whether or not to resist the temptation to make that impulse purchase or the best way to avoid getting in trouble – all of us have to make literally hundreds of decisions every day.
The problem is that our brains, having remained pretty much unchanged since the Stone Age, rarely make decisions that maximise long term returns. The default setting of the brain tends towards choosing quickly, based on gut feelings, about the currently available options. People often can’t be bothered to put the effort in to figure out what’s really the best choice in the long run. So we just go on our impulses and make up explanations that fit with the choice after the decision has been made.
When hungry, stressed, excited or in a rush, people rely even more on hot, emotional, short-sighted desires to immediately get what we want. This is the state that supermarkets and other shops want you to be in so that you’re tempted by the seemingly great deals. Dr Jack will describe why the only way to make good decisions is to do it in a cold, far-sighted, rational state of mind where we can calmly consider only best option in light of what we really need in the long run. He will suggest a variety of strategies people can use to get themselves in this state of mind in order to SAVE YOU MONEY!
Just a few hours later, at 20.00 over on Discovery Science, Dr Jack showcases some of the most fascinating, amazing and sometimes bizarre new inventions, discoveries and breakthroughs from the world of science, technology and engineering enterprise. “The Tech Show” will run as pairs of back-to-back half hour episodes at 20.00, and then again at 01.00, 09.00, 12.00, 15.00… so it will fit into your schedule no matter how busy you are. As you are flicking through the channels on your satellite or cable box over the summer, don’t forget to have a little scan through the Discovery channels to see if you can catch an episode. The tone of this particular series was specifically directed to be upbeat, friendly and lighthearted, so viewers should find it stimulating without becoming overwhelmed by too much boring “techie” information. This is a flagship show for Discovery and they have high hopes for it so fingers crossed many people will get stuck in and hopefully watch the whole series. That way there’s a chance that Dr Jack will be back on Discovery for another series in the not so distant future.
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