The need to be creative was part of my professional life day in, day out, for more than 20 years working as MD and then a creative director in the PR industry. I had to embrace (and flex) between what Unruly founder Sarah Wood calls “imagination and maths”, despite my own preferences.
We know, thanks to the proliferation of assessments and books on the subject, that we each have cognitive preferences. And there is plenty of debate among marketers about whether they should try and develop a ‘whole-brained’ approach for ourselves and our teams, or play to our strengths.
Marketing Week’s Anatomy of a Leader study found that ‘essential’ attributes for a modern marketer are to be human, empathetic, rational, emotional and brave. The findings themselves clearly show the need for mental agility is a key requisite too.
The left/right brain theory is well-established shorthand for the idea that left-brain thinkers are logical and analytical compared with creative, emotional and intuitive right-brained thinkers. But the generalisation that the two brain hemispheres work in isolation has been debunked, and with the advent of live fMRI scanning, neuroscientists are beginning to be able to see what’s going on in real time.
How the brain works in relation to creativity
I worked with neuroscientist Ben Martynoga for my book ‘In Your Creative Element’ to learn more about how different brain states affect our creative thinking. The more we understand about how our brain works, the more agile we can be (if and when we want to be) when faced with a myriad of different tasks.
After reviewing hundreds of studies in creativity from neuroscience and psychology we identified different ‘creative elements’ as a way to think about our mental toolkit. We found several elements about how our brains work in relation to creativity.
The first is the unconscious mind (Um) the intuitive, unconscious and fast mode of thinking contrasted with systematic, logical, evidence-based thinking. As we know from Daniel Kahneman’s masterly ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, these are referred to as system 1 and system 2 thinking.
If you find yourself always drawn to a particular style of thinking, and you want to find a new perspective, try to shake things up.
We constantly jump between these two systems of thought. System 1 is the domain of the unconscious mind. It’s where our minds wander when we’re relaxed. It’s where we forge most associations and it’s where emotions come from.
Our logical and analytical faculties belong to system 2. When we’re being mindful, we’re exercising this system and it’s system 2 that keeps us on target.
Martynoga suggests that neither dominates when it comes to innovation. In fact, we can view the process like a kind of mental ping-pong, as creativity seems to happen when the two systems bat ideas back and forth. When an insight emerges with a sudden “aha!” it’s system 2 that sees it and can choose to run with it. But it was system 1 that hatched it, brewed it and nurtured it.
The creative element of emotion relates to the fact that while we may think we’re being rational, our first reaction is always emotional. This is key to a better understanding how we evaluate and consider creative ideas. When generating ideas don’t worry about having good ideas, just have lots of ideas and evaluate them later. This is the work of the prolific mind.
The improvising mind calls for you to put your inner critic on ice and get into creative flow. US researchers teamed up with 12 professional rappers and using a brain scanner asked them to improvise to an eight-bar beat. As the lyrics started to flow, the part of the brain that drives analytical thought and self-control switched off. The rappers had taught themselves to silence their inner critic and give free rein to their stream of consciousness.
Leave the judging for your analytical mind (Am) – a conscious process that works with your logic to evaluate, interrogate that all-important data and plan.
We can all try to be more creative and agile by exploring every crevice of our brain and to try to switch between different, often contradictory, modes of thought.
When we’re awake but relaxed, scientists can detect waves of electrical activity lapping across the surface of the brain. These are alpha waves, and in tests it was observed that people with high creative output have more alpha waves. In this relaxed mind (Re) state is when we unwind and allow our tentative ideas and growing hunches to bubble up to the surface.
John Cleese said: “We don’t know where we get our ideas from but we know we don’t get them from our laptops.” Not directly thinking about the problem – the classic out running or in the shower ‘aha’ moment – is known as incubation. To tap into our wandering mind (W) is to allow time for distraction and mental detours, which may seem counterintuitive. But it can result in the best ideas.
The insightful mind (In) takes over when you’ve done the legwork first so you can wait for the lightning strike of inspiration and make associations.
Putting it into practice
So how can you apply any of this to your day job? Next time you have a creative problem, try to keep tabs on the mental processes you used in solving it. Does your workflow tap into any of the elements we’ve identified above?
Also notice whether you have a natural preference for any particular mode of thinking over another? If you find yourself always drawn to a particular style of thinking, and you want to find a new perspective, try to shake things up. If you’re usually very focused and logical, try loosening your grip. If, on the other hand, your mind wanders too readily, see if it helps to force yourself to put in a bit more analytical graft first.
We can all try to be more creative and agile by exploring every crevice of our brain and to try to switch between different, often contradictory, modes of thought. Know when to put in conscious, effortful mental work and know when to let the mind perambulate and surrender to the powerful workings of the unconscious mind.
Claire Bridges is founder of Now Go Create, author and the course leader on Marketing Week sister title Creative Review’s new Mastering Creativity six part e-learning course.