"You don't know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas" - Vincent van Gogh
Good ideas don't often feel like something over which we have control. They hit us when we're minding our own business washing the dishes, and they're stubbornly reclusive when we're staring at a blank page. We've all experienced the fleeting excitement of that "a-ha!" moment, and probably more often, the dread of writer's block. Is there anything we can do to enjoy more of the former and less of the latter? Exactly how people conjure ideas is the work of cognitive psychologists, and their research on divergent thinking gives us some practical advice for managing our creativity.
For the Skimmers
Our best ideas come after we’ve sorted through our most immediate and accessible knowledge
Our own knowledge and experience can cause us to fixate on uncreative ideas and to feel stuck
We can get unstuck by alternating our attention on multiple creative problems
Every idea you've ever had, whether it was terrible or amazing, was some transformation of a memory, a feeling, or a fact you already knew. When we generate creative ideas - those ideas that are novel, useful, and sometimes surprising - we are associating and combining existing ideas in new ways. Just as shadows define the light, our existing knowledge defines our new ideas.
The problem is, sometimes what we already know dominates our thinking so much that we can't imagine a new creative angle. This is called fixation and it's what causes that frustrating feeling of being creatively "stuck." Psychologists commonly study fixation through a test of divergent thinking called the Alternate Uses Task (AUT). People in these experiments are asked to generate lists of creative uses for everyday items like a brick, a paperclip, or a toothpick. Consistently, people will rapidly pour out a short list of not very creative ideas before slowing down and coming up with better ones.
Try it. How many different ways can you imagine using a coffee cup?
If you're like most people, you probably started with a few ideas of holding things other than coffee: pens, loose change, etc. Then you might have thought of other categories of uses, like as a doorstop, a projectile, or a gift. A pause happens when we switch like that. It's a miniature moment of insight; a tiny "a-ha!" moment. The degree to which we consider unrelated categories of ideas in response to a creative problem is called flexibility. It’s the opposite of fixation. Typically, flexible ideas only happen after we've worked through more obvious or less creative ideas. Before we switch to a new category or a better idea, we have to let go of the ideas preceding it.
Research in creative cognition is showing how we can get unstuck, and how to create more moments of insight.
In 2017, researchers discovered that an AUT that had people flip back and forth between producing ideas for two objects led to more novel and more flexible ideas. When people were asked to generate ideas for a brick, then a toothpick, then a brick again (and so on), they came up with better ideas than people were able to choose between the two items at their own discretion. In other words, people were most creative when they had to switch tasks repeatedly. Shifting attention from one object to the next mitigated fixation by forcing people to continuously activate a broader set of their own knowledge.
A later experiment had people produce creative uses for 10 different objects. The quality of their ideas and the speed with which they produced them was compared to a sample of people who only needed to generate uses for one object. People producing ideas for 10 different objects were not only more creative, their ideas came more quickly when compared to people working on uses for just one object.
There are few practical takeaways from this research:
Even though humans are generally terrible at multi-tasking, having multiple problems to chew on allows us to be more creative overall.
Creative ideas come from combining ideas across multiple domains of knowledge. The more we can engage with diverse topics, the more creative we’ll be.
Forcing ourselves to shift our attention can help us break free of creative ruts. Even if we're making slow progress, we might go faster if we pause and come back.
We should be persistent in looking for the best ideas. It might take time and effort, but the more ideas we produce, the better they get.
The moments of insight we experience while we're doing mundane tasks is, in part, the result of us forgetting the distracting information or memories that cause fixation. For instance, in some AUT studies, people who come up with the strongest ideas are the least able to remember what their first few ideas even were. Breaking out of fixation comes from not just from forgetting our old ideas, but by working on many disconnected creative problems. We can’t force creativity, but we can maximize our chances of letting the “a-ha!” moments find us.