04 January 2012

Unconscious Pathways to a More Creative World

Creativity is one of our most valued human traits. It has given human beings the ability to change the world that they live in; and it has also, paradoxically, given them the ability to adapt to changes in the world over which they have no control. Our highly developed capacity to develop and implement new ideas arises from our highly developed human brain. Understanding how creative ideas arise from the brain is one of the most fascinating challenges of contemporary neuroscience. _Journey Into Chaos
Creativity makes our lives richer in many ways, but it cannot be easily explained by ordinary conscious thinking or decision making. Creativity is not the same thing as intelligence, since people with very high intelligence do not tend to have a high creative output on average. Persons of greatest creative achievement appear to have IQs that cluster near the 120s -- above average, but not genius level. (Andreasen 1987, MacKinnon 1965)
If creativity is not equivalent to a high IQ, then how else might it be defined and measured? Several different approaches have been taken to address this question. One has been to develop tests specifically designed to measure creativity and to designate people who achieve high scores on these tests as creative. The basic assumption behind most such tests is that creativity can be defined as having a capacity for achieving a high level of divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is defined as the ability to come up with a large number of responses to an open-ended probe; it is contrasted with convergent thinking, which tends to apply a sequential series of steps to answer a question that has only one possible solution (Runco and Marz, 1992). An example of a probe used to assess divergent thinking is asking: How many uses can you think of for a brick? A series of similar questions can be asked and then used to create a score that is a continuous measurement of divergent thinking (Torrance, 1998). This approach is favoured by some psychologists as a way of achieving an objective measure of creativity.

An alternative approach is to define creativity operationally. That is, people who have produced some type of creative output are designated as creative based on their achievements. When this method is used, it is typically in conjunction with an approach known as the “case study method.” People are selected because they have achieved a high level of success and recognition in fields such as architecture, writing, mathematics and physics. Often a specific criterion of success is used, such as having won a major prize or award (e.g., Fields Medal, Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Lasker Award). These people are further assessed using structured interviews about their work habits and thought processes, personality tests and measures of cognition. The commonalities that they share are considered to be characteristics of creative people and their cognitive style. An important recent spin-off of this approach is to conduct neuroimaging studies of such people in order to examine the neural basis of creativity. _Mens Sana Monograph...Chaos, Creativity, and the Unconscious

Creativity may be able to tap into deeper wells of thought than are available to the conscious mind in the setting of a timed, structured IQ test.

Creativity involves both the creation of novel ideas, and the selection of the best of these novel ideas for further development. It has been generally felt that the unconscious participates most in the stage of novel creation, rather than in the selection stage. But recent research suggests that the second stage -- selectively choosing the best creative ideas -- is also an area of unconscious expertise.
Today's world of continuous change thrives on creative individuals. Anecdotal reports suggest that creative performance benefits from unconscious processes. Empirical research on the role of the unconscious in creativity, though, is inconsistent and thus far has focused mainly on one aspect of the creative process – idea generation. This is the first study to assess the role of the unconscious mind for both idea generation and idea selection. Participants generated creative ideas immediately, after conscious thought, or after a period of distraction during which unconscious thought was hypothesized to take place. After having listed their ideas, participants selected their most creative idea. Performance in idea generation was similar between conscious and unconscious thought; however, individuals who had unconsciously thought about ideas were better in selecting their most creative idea. These findings shed more light on the role of unconscious processes in creativity, and provide a means to enhance creative performance. _Thinking Skills & Creativity
Here is a plain language explanation of this research

Although the authors of the above study make an excellent point regarding the value of the unconscious in selecting between creative ideas, they appear to understate the value of the unconscious mind in generating creative ideas. More on this later.

Interestingly, the unconscious also seems to play a role in improving economic decision-making:
...a more rational and optimal approach to financial decision making than is proposed by finance theories alone would be that includes unconsciousness into the process. The total cognitive decision making capacity of an individual is comprised of both a conscious component and an unconscious component; and these two components are complementary and compensatory to each another. A decision-making process that integrates these two components would, therefore, first generally improve the quality of decisions, and second reduce the unfavorable impact of behavioral biases (with overconfidence, heuristics, etc as examples) on decision making. _(Abstract) Journal of Behavioral Finance

It is important not to underestimate the role of the unconscious in the generating of novel and creative ideas, however. Successful induction of creative mind states almost invariably calls on the unconscious -- as if in the conjuring of spirits. When conjuring the creative unconscious spirits of one's own mind, it is best to adopt a humble attitude. The conscious mind thinks of itself as the star of the show, and often struggles for dominance as if it were a question of survival.

The unconscious mind will make its creativity known, if allowed to. Suppression of the conscious mind occurs automatically during sleep, and much creativity occurs in that state. We cannot access this creativity, however, except during specific stages of transition between sleep and wakefulness -- the hypnagogic states.

If you want to be creative without falling asleep, you will have to find other ways to temporarily suppress the conscious mind, at least partially. Several methods have been devised, including Edward de Bono's "Lateral Thinking" method, and John David Garcia's powerful "Autopoiesis" method. Few of these methods are widely used either by professional writers, musicians, inventors etc., or by educational institutions.

Many creative persons suppress their conscious minds with chemicals, such as alcohol, opiates, or sometimes hallucinogenics. While it is possible to function creatively under the influence of moderate quantities of alcohol or opiates, the creative benefit of hallucinogens is often not experienced until after one has mostly emerged from the hallucinogenic state.

Deep relaxation or meditation can sometimes induce more creative quasi-unconscious mental activity as well, as can deep laughter. But as with the hallucinogens, an enhanced productive creativity may only be accessible as one emerges from the meditative state.

Once one has generated a wealth of creative ideas, and selected the most promising among them, actual creative production can be enhanced by stimulating other parts of the unconscious mind, which drive semi-rote behaviours. These highly automatised unconscious processes can be induced by caffeine and other stimulants such as amphetamines, as well as by rather light doses of alcohol.

One of the best all-around mental exercises for enhanced creativity, is the use of Manfred Clynes' Sentic Cycles (PDF). These cycles are not generally promoted as creativity enhancers, but it is likely that the best ways of enhancing creativity are those that are not yet recognised as such.

More aspects of the unconscious mind are being discovered

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