The mechanics of creativity

We’ve spoken before about how to define the creative process what counts as a creative process, breaking it down into three key chunks:

  1. First, you need to do something original

  2. (Although we did say that this one is a bit subjective and not obligatory), whatever you are trying to create has to have value to somebody — preferably you.

  3. (Maybe most importantly) whatever shape your creative process takes, it has to result in something — a ‘product’.

In this post, we wanted to dig a little bit deeper into the mechanics behind creativity: what’s going on in your brain when you try to create something. It’s something that we believe is just as important to study as the specific tools you use to create.

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All in the brain

For some reason there’s a big mysterious cloud hovering over the concept of creativity that makes it seem like something only some people can do. When you really break it down, there’s actually not so much ‘magic’ involved; it’s mostly your brain doing the hard work, with the help of a few other organs and body parts.

From a neurological point of view, you might not feel like it but you are actually being creative all the time. In fact, you’ve completed quite a few creative tasks already today without realising. A simple example: you probably said a sentence today that you’ve never said before. In other words, you created something new — something that fits all the rules of creativity that we mentioned above.

Creativity in your sleep

Here’s the cool bit: the process that helped you create a new sentence — something you’ve most likely done thousands of times without even realising — is exactly the same process that determines every creative action or decision you make. Better yet, that process is made up of three main parts:

  • Impulses

  • The unconscious mind

  • Making creative decisions

Let’s quickly talk a bit more about what we mean by these:

Impulses

When your brain tries to process this information, it is using almost all of its parts to do so. Each part handles a different parcel of info and then sends it on to its next destination like some kind of cerebral post office. We refer to these parcels of information as impulses…

This is basically when all of your senses click into gear and start pulling in information from the world around you. This information also includes anything you ‘see’ or ‘hear’ in your head (your imagination, if you like).

When your brain tries to process this information, it is using almost all of its parts to do so. Each part handles a different parcel of info and then sends it on to its next destination like some kind of cerebral post office. We refer to these parcels of information as impulses because its an easy way of stuffing a complicated process into one less-complicated word. You might prefer to think of it as a spark, like lighting a match.

It’s essentially the kick-off for the whole creative process, and it’s what we try to do with our triggers decks. The questions are designed to stimulate those impulses and get the brain warmed up to produce something.

The Unconscious Mind

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been alive for a fair amount of time now. Congratulations on that, by the way. In that time, you have probably done quite a lot of ‘things’ and, because of your experience of doing those things, there is not a single human being on the planet who is like you.

Whenever you do something and think: “Where did that come from?”, that’s the unconscious mind.

Unfortunately though, your brain doesn’t work like an SD card; it doesn’t file and organise your memories of those things neatly into labeled boxes that you can just reach into and pull out whatever you want whenever you want. Bummer.

Your long-term memory basically ends up in a part of the brain that’s commonly referred to as the ‘unconscious mind’. Whenever you do something and think: “Where did that come from?”, that’s the unconscious mind. This is where the impulses pass through after they’ve been handled. If the impulses are the spark, think of the unconscious mind as the pile of wood soaked in gasoline: the fuel for creativity.

Sometimes we call this part of the process ‘imagination’ or ‘learning’, too.

Making creative decisions

This is the part of the process that involves a bit more consciousness on your part. It’s the part that most of us think about when we think of ‘creativity’.

Remember, our impulse started its journey then made its way through the unconscious mind. Its next stop in the brain is the frontal lobe — the place where your problem-solving happens. Things like your social behaviour and judgement also get dealt with here. Now you can actually do something with that impulse; now you can create.

It’s like reaching into a closet at night with the lights off and trying to pick out a decent outfit…

Here’s an attempt at something nearly impossible: describing how your brain ‘feels’ that impulse in the frontal lobe. We imagine it to be a bit like looking at an out-of-focus photograph of somebody you know, where you can only just identify who it is.

When your brain gets information from the unconscious mind, it’s like reaching into a closet at night with the lights off and trying to pick out a decent outfit. In fact, sometimes your brain does it before you’ve even realised what it’s up to. This is what happens during those “Where did that come from?” moments we mentioned earlier, or whenever you reply to somebody in a conversation without thinking about it.

So if the impulse was the spark and the unconscious mind was the fuel, say hello to the fire — the creative decision making.

Summary

In order to master an activity, it’s important to understand all of the components that go into making it a success. Think about a chef creating a signature dish; without knowing all the necessary ingredients, how they work together and compliment each other, and what they bring to the table (ha!), the end result wouldn’t be as pleasing to the diner’s palette.

We hope this post gets you thinking about creativity a little differently. If you are aware of what’s happening in your brain when you do something creative — the impulse, the unconscious mind and the creative decision — you’ll know a bit more about what you can do to feed that process — something we look forward to tackling in future posts!