I used to be creative as a child, but like many of us, I lost my flair for creativity growing up.
In the beginning of my public relations career, this lack of natural creativity turned into a big problem. I feared being invited to brainstorms.
I would often just sit there, unable to come up with any good ideas.
So, I bargained with myself. One doesn’t need creativity for creativity’s sake, I argued. “I can rely on my strategic mind instead,” I thought.
I was about to realise that I was wrong.
My fear of brainstorming
Despite relying on this “strategic mind” of mine, my best work still came from rare sparks of creativity.
One client wanted to raise awareness of their recruitment services. My line of thinking stated that I should compare them to their competitors via research, do a SWOT analysis based on data, and continuously position the brand in the news media.
to news reporters and editors, I would pitch strategically chosen conflicts to clarify my client’s carefully chosen position and get one, two, three, four, five mentions over a period of time.
It was always a lot of hard groundwork and patience involved, but it worked.
But on a rare whim, I wanted to do something different for the recruitment service. On a rare whim, I wanted to know how many job applicants that had ever lied in their resumes. This had nothing to do with the brand’s value proposition, but suddenly became very curious about this question.
I had this feeling that most people did lie on their resumes and that most people knew this, but no-one talked about it.
According to the survey, it turns out that 4 in 5 admitted to having lied on their resume to some extent. And it made the news — big time.
This history kept repeating itself, over and over again: Creativity yielded the same results (or better) as solid strategic processes — with less work.
The creative outcomes constantly derived more praise and results than my type of systematic and methodical grind. What made matters worse, was the internal agency brainstorm sessions where I worked. I hated them.
In order to concentrate on getting good ideas, I stopped listening to what my colleagues were saying, and after one hour of blocking out the chatter, then – maybe! – I could come up with at least one usable idea.
At this point, my colleagues had already yelled out tons of various ideas. And I had just been sitting there. Quietly. the whole thing was utterly depressing.
So, I decided to become more creative. But how?
I took the only path I knew to take — I devised a strategic process to solve the problem. I researched information and I developed a testable hypothesis. My first finding was that there are people who constantly produce big ideas.
However, this didn’t mean that they never had bad ideas. On the contrary, it seemed as if “creative people” rather produce lots of ideas (some great, some good, some not so good at all). It seemed more important to focus on producing ideas in general rather than trying to only have good ones pop up in your brain.
This might be an intuitive insight for most creatives, but this principle was news to me:
If you get 100 ideas, chances are at least one of them will be good.
My first hypothesis was that I needed to learn how to have more ideas before I could learn how to have big ideas. But how do you have many creative ideas when you struggle to have just a few?
My findings were that creative people are intuitive and often highly visual. They also seemed to be able to go with their subconscious notions quite more freely than others, as if they knew how to trust their instincts to their work for them.
It was as if creative people were able to turn off parts of their brains tasked with logic and linear thinking.
The next step was to keep reading in order to find scientific explanations to these characteristics. Finding such answers proved easier than I thought.
Before we developed human language and inner dialogue, our minds were visual by nature. It’s only in the later stages of human history we have been forcing ourselves to be linear in our way of thinking. Linear thinking is not by any means without merit, but we shouldn’t underestimate our subconscious mental abilities that we tend to squelch with rational thinking.
I did a lot of reading on the creativity of children and how many geniuses throughout history have been crediting important breakthroughs to visual thinking. My hypothesis was that sparks of ingenuity often comes from lateral subconscious processes that we somehow manage to NOT squelch as they occur. There were no shortage of visualisation practices — and I tried many of them.
Unfortunately, none of these practices seemed to make any noticeable difference on my creative output. I didn’t get better (or more) ideas.
For the time being, I gave up on visualisation and looked for other answers to inform a working hypothesis.
I studied the lives and thinking of quite a few historic geniuses of history and quickly found that they all had a tendency to write things down. They were also highly productive and their initial outcomes seemed to be based on quantity rather than quality. This insight suggested to support the importance of having many ideas as a prerequisite to get to the end result of having big ideas.
And sure, I could start writing ideas down, good and bad ones. But that wouldn’t really solve my basic problem of being able to produce many ideas, period. It would just take me a very long time to produce 100 ideas of any kind.
But then, as luck would have it, I a great idea came to me.
I decided to take a quantitative approach to note-taking. When studying literature on behaviour, a particular theme seemed to be recurring:
For any type of behaviour, you get more of what you reinforce.
The idea I that came to me was simple. What if writing things down is more than just a quantitative effort? What if writing ideas down is literally reinforcing having a steady stream of ideas as a behaviour?
I wanted to learn if there was any scientific support for this, but I was also eager to put it to the test. So I forced myself to write down 10 ideas per day for 3 months. At first, it took a lot of effort and a lot of time. At the end of three months, I was able to jot down 20 ideas in as many minutes — with little effort.
I was surprised, to put it mildly. All those scribblings, notebooks, and ideas — I wanted to know more about how this worked.
I quickly ended up in complicated territory — the human brain.
At this time, there weren’t much literature to be found on the topic. (Please note that I, as a curious amateur, didn’t know where or how to look for such insights.) The emerging evidence for neuroplasticity seemed promising. It stated that the brain has the ability to wire and rewire itself based on external stimuli. It suggested that our brain, in order to adapt and to use energy efficiently, are constantly reinforcing and eliminating natural pathways based on what we seem to be needing.
My hypothesis evolved. Writing ideas down is potentially reinforcing those neural pathways who are supporting this process, resulting in requiring less mental energy to have even more ideas.y writing ideas down seemed to have a productive effect.
This would, at least to some degree, offer an explanation as to why writing ideas down seemed to have a positive effect on creative productiveness. Was this a type of 10,000 hours thing?
Still, my findings so far didn’t explain why the physical act of actually writing ideas down seemed to work much better instead of just thinking about ideas.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find any scientific literature on what type of behaviours seemed to have a bigger impact (and why) on neuroplasticity. This is where I found Project Renaissance and the somewhat obscure writings of Ph.D. Win Wenger. Wenger had developed a hypothesis that I found to be highly interesting for my line of research. He argued that neural pathways were reinforced by physical feedback only. Meaning: Just thinking about things doesn’t reinforce behaviours, only physical action does.
For instance: If you’re thinking of going to the gym without actually going, your brain will interpret this as a waste of energy and literally rewire itself to make it even harder for you to motivate yourself to go to the gym in the future.
This hypothesis, to me, was both thrilling and scary at the same time.
There was an evolutionary argument to Wenger’s line of reasoning. The brains of infants must quickly acquire new skills without having learnt how to learn yet. Therefore, infant brains are “fully wired” right from the start and the infant learns rapidly by the process of reducing neural pathways and only keeping those who produce useful physical responses.
And to some extent, this physical feedback loop keeps going throughout our lives.
Since human language and inner dialogue entered our evolutionary path so late, mental reasoning alone still sits completely outside of this ancient neural feedback system.
If true, this suggests that I, at least to some extent, might have been “sabotaging” myself by spending lots of energy on trying to produce great ideas without physically reinforcing them, i.e. using my hands to manifest them on a piece of paper.
I now had a somewhat informed working hypothesis on how to methodically produce more ideas.
And I had already started the practice of writing more and more ideas down with very satisfactory results. But as I was reading about the at times esoteric findings of Win Wenger, he had more to say on the subject.
What if our language-driven inner dialogue fails to tap into more resources that are otherwise readily available in the brain? He suggested that the subconscious parts of our brains, being evolutionary the oldest parts, doesn’t really “speak” human language. Instead, these part of our brains communicates through visualisations.
To tap into these ancient parts of our brains, we must continuously visualise AND physically reinforce this practice. Wenger suggested a form of meditation, image-streaming, which were then reinforced using pen and paper or a tape recorder.
Okay. Welcome to crazy town, I thought.
For me personally, the results from combining visualisation with note-taking has been nothing but a success. Image streaming is a quite simple methodology. You sit down, close your eyes, and you relax. If you’re familiar with meditation, that will help. instead of letting thoughts pass, you pay attention to any imagery that presents itself mentally.
After a short session, you describe any images you encountered as detailed as you can into a tape recorder or onto a notepad or a word precessing document.
The hypothesis is that the meditative practice will squelch your conscious and rational inner auditor and allow you continuously easier access to the ancient parts of your brain that are more visual in nature. By writing these images down, you reinforce your brains plastic system over time. As you practice, more creative (and sometimes ingenious) ideas will come to you naturally in everyday life.
Now, my anecdotal experiences doesn’t count as scientific evidence to be sure, but I believe the results to be staggeringly positive.
Inspired by the whole process and mostly all the ideas, I started to use these ideas in my work and in my private life. I’m not a scientific researcher and I do realise that most of what I’ve written in this article could be just plain wrong. Personal anecdotes doesn’t constitute evidence without rigorous testing. There are just too many sources for potential errors. And correlation doesn’t equal causation.
But. As a hypotethical framework for increasing creativity, it’s interesting and further testable. And for me personally? Well, I’m getting the type of results that I where initially going after. And to me, that certainly counts for something:
I must physically do something with my ideas directly as they emerge, or otherwise it’s like my brain gets angry with me for not taking its ancient processes seriously. This made me realise, somewhat ironically I agree, that there is no basic contradiction between rationality and creativity, or between process and intuition.
Thinking of it, I better write this down…