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.
Is this learnable? Well, think of it like basketball. Being tall does help to be a pro basketball player, but the rest of us can still get quite good at the sport through practice. In the same way, there are certain innate features of the brain that make some people naturally prone to divergent thinking. But convergent thinking and focused attention are necessary, too, and those require different neural gifts. Crucially, rapidly shifting between these modes is a top-down function under your mental control. University of New Mexico neuroscientist Rex Jung has concluded that those who diligently practice creative activities learn to recruit their brains’ creative networks quicker and better. A lifetime of consistent habits gradually changes the neurological pattern.
The good news is that creativity training that aligns with the new science works surprisingly well. The University of Oklahoma, the University of Georgia, and Taiwan’s National Chengchi University each independently conducted a large-scale analysis of such programs. All three teams of scholars concluded that creativity training can have a strong effect. “Creativity can be taught,” says James C. Kaufman, professor at California State University, San Bernardino.
What’s common about successful programs is they alternate maximum divergent thinking with bouts of intense convergent thinking, through several stages. Real improvement doesn’t happen in a weekend workshop. But when applied to the everyday process of work or school, brain function improves.
A related article Forget Brainstorming provides some suggestions on how to stimulate creativity:
Almost every dimension of cognition improves from 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, and creativity is no exception. The type of exercise doesn’t matter, and the boost lasts for at least two hours afterward. However, there’s a catch: this is the case only for the physically fit. For those who rarely exercise, the fatigue from aerobic activity counteracts the short-term benefits.
Take a break.
Those who study multi-tasking report that you can’t work on two projects simultaneously, but the dynamic is different when you have more than one creative project to complete. In that situation, more projects get completed on time when you allow yourself to switch between them if solutions don’t come immediately. This corroborates surveys showing that professors who set papers aside to incubate ultimately publish more papers. Similarly, preeminent mathematicians usually work on more than one proof at a time.
Explore other cultures.
Five experiments by Northwestern’s Adam Galinsky showed that those who have lived abroad outperform others on creativity tasks. Creativity is also higher on average for first- or second-generation immigrants and bilinguals. The theory is that cross-cultural experiences force people to adapt and be more flexible. Just studying another culture can help. In Galinsky’s lab, people were more creative after watching a slide show about China: a 45-minute session increased creativity scores for a week.