As we learn more about the brain we learn that it is ridiculous to think that creativity cannot be cultivated. It’s an exciting thought in a time when new ideas, innovation and discovery mean so much. I suspect this recent Newsweek article about creativity is a call to action that was initiated by Dan Meyer’s TED Talk which encourages us to change the way we teach. It’s exciting to think that we can practice creativity just like we practice sports by alternating maximum divergent thinking with bouts of intense convergent thinking:
When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn’t come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.
Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the “aha!” moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it’s come up with.
Now the brain must evaluate the idea it just generated. Is it worth pursuing? Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.
The article suggests that maybe it’s time that we revisit standardized testing and other methods that aren’t taking a smart approach to preparing students to solve problems. One class in Ohio taught by creativity theorist Donald Treffinger suggests a lesson plan that takes students through a process of fact-finding, problem-finding, idea-finding, and solution-finding which eventually leads to a project that nurtures innovation. “Along the way, kids demonstrated the very definition of creativity: alternating between divergent and convergent thinking, they arrived at original and useful ideas.” The program achieved results moving the school to be ranked as one of the top three schools in Akron. It’s ironic that teachers and parents become frustrated with students; after all, who’s really at fault? “Students don’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around. They lose interest because they stopped asking questions.”
Another researcher, Runco, conducts a research study which shows that adults who do better in both problem-finding and problem-solving have better relationships. They are more able to handle stress and overcome the bumps life throws in their way. The article goes on to list ways we can nurture the creative mind; I tagged this article and bumped it to the top of my “how to parent” queue.
- Highly creative adults tended to grow up in families embodying opposites. Parents encouraged uniqueness, yet provided stability. They were highly responsive to kids’ needs, yet challenged kids to develop skills. This resulted in a sort of adaptability: in times of anxiousness, clear rules could reduce chaos—yet when kids were bored, they could seek change, too. In the space between anxiety and boredom was where creativity flourished.
- Highly creative adults frequently grew up with hardship. Hardship by itself doesn’t lead to creativity, but it does force kids to become more flexible—and flexibility helps with creativity.
- In early childhood, distinct types of free play are associated with high creativity. Role-playing helps develop the ability to analyze situations from different perspectives. Play serves as a safe harbor to work through forbidden thoughts and emotions.
- In middle childhood, creating paracosms—fantasies of entire alternative worlds – peaks at age 9 or 10, and is a very strong sign of future creativity.
- Creative people tend to exhibit active moods and positive affect. They’re not particularly happy—contentment is a kind of complacency creative people rarely have. But they’re engaged, motivated, and open to the world.