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There are people on this planet that study creativity, or to be more precise they study the neuroscience behind creativity. Joel Chan a PhD Student from the University of Pittsburgh is one of these people. Last year (2013) Tanner Christiansen interviewed Chan and published an article called “What neuroscience can teach us about Creativity.“  to help us understand what is involved when we are thinking creatively.

Chan describes five processes at work in creative thinking:

1. Attention.
Now focused attention involves our prefrontal cortex and while many of us use this aspect of our thinking a lot during the day we can also access those quieter thoughts from our memory banks. This means alternating between focus and unfocused thinking. Joel describes this as engaging in flexible searching in memory and our environment.

2. Analogy and metaphorical thinking
He says these to help connect those pieces of knowledge that currently seem unconnected. Analogy builds a picture to help us relate to the idea and allows us to think around a concept.

3. Network organisation of memory.
This is about allowing our memories to be altered by external input. I think what he is alluding to here is that in creative thinking we can take what we “know” i.e. our memory and allow this to be refashioned or added to by new input. He describes this as “priming to overcome functional fixedness.” (Perhaps I should buy the dictionary of neuroscience speak.)

4. Forgetting.
I don’t know about you, but I love to forget and do it all the time!
Chan sees forgetting as a useful tool of freeing up thinking space in our mind. When we are thinking about a new idea, unless the solution comes to us in a moment of insight, they often require time to incubate and develop. During this time it is normal for some memory to fade and as Chan says “forgetting allows unproductive thought patterns to decay and stop taking up valuable memory space.”

5. Imagination.
In neuroscience speak, Chan describes this as the “capacity to construct multiple construals of stimuli, and to flexibly combine bits of memory into novel representations.”
I call this “play.” Watch any child or group of children engaged in unstructured play, they are deeply engaged in their imaginary world.

Sir Ken Robinson in his TED talk, speaks very eloquently about his concern that creativity is being knocked out from our kids through their exposure to the education system, because society values academic results more.

What if we were to allow ourselves as grown ups to indulge in more imagination time, along with the other processes described by Chan? Would that result in a higher level of creative thinking?

Could that then lead to the faster development of solutions to some of the major global problems we face today?

It’s certainly food for thought.


Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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