Less is More

In a seminal study about creativity, Professors Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi of the University of Chicago analyzed the thought processes of three dozen art students.

One by one, the students were brought into a room with two large tables.  One table was filled with 27 different objects.  The other table was empty.  Each student was asked to take an object or objects from the first table and arrange them in some way on the second table.

Some students examined few of the items on the table, quickly moved a few to the second table and made an arrangement of the objects.  Other students examined all the items on the table, apparently looking for patterns, took a lot more time in selecting objects and then made arrangements on the second table.

The professors divided the two types of students into problem solvers (those who moved quickly and decisively to finish the project) and problem finders (those who took their time trying to understand the point of the exercise). 

18 years later, the professors checked in on the careers of the 36 art students.  Of those who had stayed in the art field, the problem finders were much more successful than the problem solvers.

Professor Getzels:

"It is in fact the discovery and creation of problems rather than any superior knowledge, technical skill, or craftsmanship that often sets the creative person apart from others in the field."

This type of research was pursued for years after.  And, again and again, studies found that creative people tend to adapt a problem-finding mind set:

"(S)cholars found that people most disposed to creative breakthroughs in art, science, or any endeavor tend to be problem finders.  These people sort through vast amounts of information and inputs, often from multiple disciplines; experiment with a variety of different approaches; are willing to switch directions in the course of a project; and often take longer than their counterparts to complete their work."

                                           To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink (Riverhead, 2012)     

Jim Randel is the founder and author of The Skinny On book series, condensed explanations of important life skills.  Randel's books are currently best sellers in China - three of his e-books in the top 100 best-selling e-books in China.  One of Randel’s books is The Skinny on Creativity. 

We have been speaking about the importance of making a physical notation of good ideas as and when they come to you.

One reason is to preserve the idea – so that you do not forget it.

Another reason is so that you embed the idea in your mind in such a way that your thoughts periodically circle back to the idea – and thereby build on it.  Let me explain.

There is something called “attention density.”  This phrase refers to the frequency, duration, and intensity of your mind on a particular subject.  The greater your attention density on a particular topic or quandary, the more likely that a good idea will develop.

Now this does not necessarily mean that you need to dwell on a topic to be creative.  We have learned that creative ideas often flow when you think other thoughts.

Rather, attention density is about placing a topic “in the forefront of your mind” (note that this expression obliquely refers to the prefrontal cortex).  The goal is to put this thought in a place where it can compete with all the other noise in your brain.

Most simply, in order to produce creative thoughts, subject matter has to be important to your brain.  It has to know that you have put a lot of time and energy into this topic (attention density) and so warrants some heavy-duty creative ideas.

And studies have shown that making a writing of an idea is a strong indicator to your brain that the subject is important to you.

“The brain is noisy and chaotic, like an orchestra warming up, a cacophony of sound.  When you pay close attention to something, it’s like bringing the orchestra together to play a piece of music … If you write a task down, you are paying far more attention to it than speaking about the task, so you have increased your attention density.”

                                     Your Brain at Work, David Rock (HarperCollins, 2009)

Jim Randel is the founder and author of The Skinny On book series, condensed explanations of important life skills.  Randel's books are currently best sellers in China - three of his e-books in the top 100 best-selling e-books in China.  One of Randel’s books is The Skinny on Creativity. 

In yesterday’s blog I spoke to the importance of making a physical notation – in whatever medium works best for you – when you have a good idea.

There are several reasons for this – one of which is that the brain’s ability to recall thoughts and ideas is actually quite limited.

I once heard someone say that the brain is like a vending machine – put in four coins and one thing falls out.

Well, that may in fact be accurate.

You may have heard of a study done by a George Miller in 1956.  Miller’s research indicated that the maximum number of items the brain can hold at once is seven items.  Put in an eighth, and something falls out.

Newer research (done by Nelson Cowan at the University of Missouri) lowered that estimate to four items (somewhat depending upon the complexity of the idea). 

But whether four or seven, if you rely on your brain as the repository of your good ideas, you are not using your head (not sure if that is funny or not).

Even the Queen in Alice in Wonderland understood this point:

“‘The horror of this moment,’ the King went on, ‘I shall NEVER forget’ … ‘You will, though’, the Queen said, ‘if you do not make a memorandum of it.’”

                                    Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Jim Randel is the founder and author of The Skinny On book series, condensed explanations of important life skills.  Randel's books are currently best sellers in China - three of his e-books in the top 100 best-selling e-books in China.  One of Randel’s books is The Skinny on Creativity. 

As we have learned in previous blogs, good ideas often come at unexpected times and in unusual places.

AND HERE IS TODAY’S THOUGHT THAT YOU MUST NOT IGNORE:

Whenever a good idea hits you (or even the seed of an idea), make a note of it. 

In subsequent blogs I am going to give you the reasons why making a notation is so very critical.

For today, let me quote one of my heroes:

“Often an idea would occur to me which seems to have force … I never let one of those ideas escape me, but wrote it down on a scrap of paper … In that way I save my best thoughts on the subject, and, you know, such things often come in a kind of intuitive way more clearly than if one were to sit down and deliberately reason them out.  To save the results of such mental action is true intellectual economy.”

                                    Abraham Lincoln

Jim Randel is the founder and author of The Skinny On book series, condensed explanations of important life skills.  Randel's books are currently best sellers in China - three of his e-books in the top 100 best-selling e-books in China.  One of Randel’s books is The Skinny on Creativity. 

In yesterday's blog post, we talked about an over-aroused limbic system and why that is not conducive to high levels of creativity.

Today we are going to speak to an under-aroused limbic system is not great either. 

Scientists are well aware that the brain has a "sweet spot".  A point where there is the right level of arousal (stress but not too much stress).  Here at the "sweet spot" our brain is firing "on all cylinders" and our potential for creativity is at its peak.

You will recall that in a prior blog post we spoke about painting yourself in a corner as a way of inspiring your creative energies.  Well that corner is hopefully the point where your brain is at its "sweet spot". 

When there is an urgency to what you need to do, your body produces norepinephrine - the brain's equivalent of adrenaline.  The result is a sensation of fear - forcing you to go on alert and pushing you to perform.

To maximize your creative juices you sometimes need to develop timelines or other stress points that will arouse your limbic system - in other words, scare (but not terrify) you. 

"The key to this technique is … to arouse the brain just enough to get motivated, but not so much that you end up obsessing about your fear and increase your allostatic load."

                                    Your Brain at Work, David Rock (HarperCollins, 2009)

PS:  "allostatic load":  the impact on the body from continued high-level stress.

Jim Randel is the founder and author of The Skinny On book series, condensed explanations of important life skills.  Randel's books are currently best sellers in China - three of his e-books in the top 100 best-selling e-books in China.  One of Randel’s books is The Skinny on Creativity. 

I recently re-read a book titled Your Brain at Work:  Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long.

The premise of this book is that by learning the "mechanics" of brain function, we can better control our actions, decisions, creativity, and happiness.

I will be addressing this book in several blog posts to follow, but today I want to speak to the limbic system of our brains.

The limbic system is a large section of the brain comprised of several different brain regions (e.g., the hippocampus and amygdale).  For the moment all you need to know is that the limbic system directs our emotional responses to perceived rewards and threats.

It is the limbic system that is "overly aroused" when we get too emotional about things - too overjoyed, or too dejected.

The problem with an over-aroused limbic system is that it draws tremendous energy from our prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain where we make decisions and solve problems.  And so when our prefrontal cortex is drained (because we are in a state of high emotion), we are not very creative.  And, the message for today's post is that ideas flow best when you are at a steady state - neither too high, nor too low

In other words, try to keep your emotions in check when you need to act or think creatively.

                           "Strong limbic arousal … reduces creative thinking."      

                                                Your Brain At Work, David Rock (HarperCollins, 2009)

Jim Randel is the founder and author of The Skinny On book series, condensed explanations of important life skills.  Randel's books are currently best sellers in China - three of his e-books in the top 100 best-selling e-books in China.  One of Randel’s books is The Skinny on Creativity. 

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