The workings of the creative mind have been subjected to intense scrutiny over the past 25 years by an army of researchers in psychology, sociology, anthropology and neuroscience. But no one has a better overview of this mysterious mental process than Washington University psychologist R. Keith Sawyer, author of the new book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation (Oxford; 336 pages). He's working on a version for the lay reader, due out in 2007 from Basic Books. In an interview with Francine Russo, Sawyer shares some of his findings and suggests ways in which we can enhance our creativity not just in art, science or business but in everyday life.
Q. Has the new wave of research upended any of our popular notions about creativity?
A. Virtually all of them. Many people believe creativity comes in a sudden moment of insight and that this "magical" burst of an idea is a different mental process from our everyday thinking. But extensive research has shown that when you're creative, your brain is using the same mental building blocks you use every day—like when you figure out a way around a traffic jam.
Q. Then how do you explain the "aha!" moment we've all had in the shower or the gym—or anywhere but at work?
A. In creativity research, we refer to the three Bs—for the bathtub, the bed and the bus—places where ideas have famously and suddenly emerged. When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we're doing and our context, and that can activate different areas of our brain. If the answer wasn't in the part of the brain we were using, it might be in another. If we're lucky, in the next context we may hear or see something that relates—distantly—to the problem that we had temporarily put aside.
Q. Can you give us an example of that?
A. In 1990 a team of NASA scientists was trying to fix the distorted lenses in the Hubble telescope, which was already in orbit. An expert in optics suggested that tiny inversely distorted mirrors could correct the images, but nobody could figure out how to fit them into the hard-to-reach space inside. Then engineer Jim Crocker, taking a shower in a German hotel, noticed the European-style showerhead mounted on adjustable rods. He realized the Hubble's little mirrors could be extended into the telescope by mounting them on similar folding arms. And this flash was the key to fixing the problem.
Q. How have researchers studied this creative flash?
A. By using many cleverly designed experiments. Some psychologists set up video cameras to watch creative people work, asking them to describe their thought processes out loud or interrupting them frequently to ask how close they were to a solution. Invariably, they were closer than they realized. In other experiments, subjects worked on problems that, when solved, tend to result in the sensation of sudden insight. In one experiment, they were asked to look at words that came up one at a time on a computer screen and to think of the one word that was associated with all of them. After each word—red, nut, bowl, loom, cup, basket, jelly, fresh, cocktail, candy, pie, baking, salad, tree, fly, etc.—they had to give their best guess. Although many swore they had no idea until a sudden burst of insight at about the 12th word, their guesses got progressively closer to the solution: fruit. Even when an idea seems sudden, our minds have actually been working on it all along.
Q. Has brain imaging illuminated the creative process?
A. The first such study was done this year but was inconclusive. In the next five to 10 years, cognitive neuroscience will be able to tell us more.
Q. What has been learned from historical research?
A. Studying notebooks, manuscripts and historical records, we've dissected the creative process of people like the Wright brothers, Charles Darwin, T.S. Eliot, Jackson Pollock, even business innovators like Citigroup's John Reed. We find that creativity happens not with one brilliant flash but in a chain reaction of many tiny sparks while executing an idea.
Q. But isn't it the original creative flash that's critical?
A. Not at all. Take the first airplane. On Dec. 8, 1903, Samuel Pierpont Langley, a leading government-funded scientist, launched with much fanfare his flying machine on the Potomac. It plummeted into the river. Nine days later, Orville and Wilbur Wright got the first plane off the ground. Why did these bicycle mechanics succeed when a famous scientist failed? Because Langley hired other people to execute his concept. Studying the Wrights' diaries, you see that insight and execution are inextricably woven together. Over years, as they solved problems like wing shape and wing warping, each adjustment involved a small spark of insight that led to others.
Q. Are there other generalizations you can make about creative people?
A. Yes. They have tons of ideas, many of them bad. The trick is to evaluate them and mercilessly purge the bad ones. But even bad ideas can be useful. Darwin's notebooks, for example, show us that he went down many dead ends—like his theory of monads. These were tiny hypothetical life forms that sprang spontaneously from inanimate matter. If they died, they took with them all the species into which they had evolved. Darwin spent years refining this bizarre theory before ultimately rejecting it. But it was a critical link in the chain that led to his branching model of evolution. Sometimes you don't know which sparks are important until later, but the more ideas you have, the better.
Q. So how can the average person get more ideas?
A. Ah, here's where we come up against another of our cultural myths about creativity—that of the lone genius. Ideas don't magically appear in a genius' head from nowhere. They always build on what came before. And collaboration is key. Look at what others in your field are doing. Brainstorm with people in different fields. Research and anecdotal evidence suggest that distant analogies lead to new ideas—like when a heart surgeon bounces things off an architect or a graphic designer.
Q. Can we become more creative by studying more than one field?
A. No one can be creative at everything. You have to work hard in your area, let's say music, and learn everything that's already been done. But multitasking on several music projects at once might foster unexpected connections and new ideas.
Q. Are great artists different from inventors and scientists?
A. All the research shows that the creative process is basically the same: generating ideas, evaluating them and executing them, with many creative sparks over time. The role of collaboration may be more obvious in business than in writing, but even apparently solitary creators like writers read constantly and talk to one another. In the 1920s and 1930s, for example, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis batted around religious and literary ideas with the Inklings, a group of unfashionably Christian professors who met weekly at an Oxford pub.
Q. What advice can you give us nongeniuses to help us be more creative?
A. Take risks, and expect to make lots of mistakes, because creativity is a numbers game. Work hard, and take frequent breaks, but stay with it over time. Do what you love, because creative breakthroughs take years of hard work. Develop a network of colleagues, and schedule time for freewheeling, unstructured discussions. Most of all, forget those romantic myths that creativity is all about being artsy and gifted and not about hard work. They discourage us because we're waiting for that one full-blown moment of inspiration. And while we're waiting, we may never start working on what we might someday create.
(This article was published on TIME in January 2006)