Metaphoric lightbulbs, that is — ideas. Many of my best ideas have come to me in the shower. So, I did some reading about creativity that shed a bit of “light” on why this is the case.
There is a lot more to creativity than the “Aha!” moment. Creativity is a process consisting of four stages: preparation, incubation, illumination (my lightbulbs in the shower), and verification. In the preparation stage, you gather any information that might be relevant to the problem at hand — through planning, research, entering the right frame of mind, letting your imagination roam free … Your unconscious then takes over for the incubation stage.
Renowned psychologist and best-selling author Daniel Goleman and his colleague Paul Kaufman explain that “the unconscious mind is far more suited to creative insight than the conscious mind. Ideas are free to recombine with other ideas in novel patterns and unpredictable associations. It is also the storehouse of everything you know, including things you can’t readily call into awareness. Further, the unconscious speaks to us in ways that go beyond words, including the rich feelings and deep imagery of the senses. … We are more open to insights from the unconscious mind when we are not thinking of anything in particular. That is why daydreams are so useful in the quest for creativity. Anytime you can just daydream and relax is useful in the creative process: a shower, long drives, a quiet walk.”
In this incubation stage, the brain unconsciously creates “trains of association” among the seemingly disparate elements we’ve gathered. Many of these trains of association will be unsuccessful — until eventually one “clicks.” This is the point of illumination — the lightbulb goes on, creating the “Aha!” moment that most people consider the essence of creativity.
So, how do we inspire illumination in ourselves?
Relaxation plays an important role. Psychology/neuroscience blogger Sam McNerney writes that breakthroughs occur when we are relaxed, when the mind is not focused but at ease. On the path to discovery, he says, it’s important to let the mind wander. To make this point, he quotes The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra: “… insights tend to come suddenly and, characteristically, not when sitting at a desk working out the equations, but when relaxing, in the bath, during a walk in the woods, on the beach, etc. During these periods of relaxation after concentrated intellectual activity, the intuitive mind seems to take over and can produce the sudden clarifying insights which give so much joy and delight to scientific research.”
Goleman and Kaufman emphasize the importance of seeing things in a fresh way in order to deepen your creative capacity. Every day, they suggest, do one thing that is different from your regular routine — take a new route to work, eat something you would not normally consider eating, start a conversation with someone who is particularly difficult to deal with. The key is not to think about how to change things, but rather to change things just for the sake of changing them, to see the commonplace through a different lens. Begin with something as basic as water. Notice how many times a day you come in contact with it, and the many ways it appears in your life.
Trying something new each day seems like a good new year’s resolution. Maybe I’ll try showering with a different body wash. What will you do in the new year to jump-start the creative process?
Cindy Mascone is Editor-in-Chief of Chemical Engineering Progress, AIChE’s member magazine. She has more than 25 years of experience as a technical editor and writer, including four years as the head of her own freelance consulting business, Engineered Writing. Previously, she worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards.
She holds a BS in chemical engineering and engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon Univ., and has been an active member of AIChE and Society of Women Engineers.Read more
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