I have been thinking about and studying the creative process for a long time.
There are tons of books on this topic, but no book addresses the subject better than Chapters 6 and 7 of Benedict Carey’s How We Learn and Why It Happens (Random House, 2015).
There is a lot of meat in these two chapters. I am going to condense them in this and the next few blog posts.
OK, let’s say you are involved with some activity that requires an answer, a solution, a creative idea. But, you are hitting the wall.
When you are stuck - totally out of ideas - it’s time to stop thinking about the matter at hand. Rarely can you muscle your way into a solution.
The current science on inspiration (getting unstuck) is that you have to alter the environment in which your mind is working. This can (and often does) mean your physical location - go for a walk or move from one room to another (the religious reformist, Martin Luther, claims to have gotten his best ideas sitting on the toilet). But, it also can mean changing up what you are focused on - go watch TV, play a videogame, take a nap (more on that in subsequent blogs).
Every activity you engage in provides your mind with certain mental cues. Prompts that can help you see your challenge in a whole new way.
Here is one example of how subtle the cues can be:
One study brought 20 people into a room, each person being in front of a table with a hammer, a large box of nails, candles, and matches. The challenge was to mount a candle on the wall so that it could be lighted. Almost everyone tried to nail the candle to the wall which broke the candle.
Then, a new group of 20 people were brought into the room. Nothing was different (all the same materials were on the table) but this time the nails were out of the box (mental prompt). This group experimented a bit and found that using the empty box as a platform (nailing the box to the wall and melting wax in the box into which the candle could be positioned) was an excellent solution.
No change in the materials. The only change was that the second group was given a hint.
The point: by changing up the information flow to your brain, you can sometimes produce mental cues that will unlock the creative solution you so desperately need.
Jim Randel is the founder and author of The Skinny On book series, condensed explanations of important life skills. One of his books is The Skinny on Creativity.
Randel’s books are currently best sellers in China - three of his e-books in the top 100 best- selling e-books in China.