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Lateral Thinking

Creative Insight

What makes it more likely that you'll have creative and useful insights into a problem? What gets in the way of that potential flash of inspiration? As subscribers to my Brainpower Newsletter know, I find questions like these more interesting than the issues of brain chemistry or the physical structure of the brain.

I've written often about the first question, covering it on pages about creative imagination and how to have new ideas. I have a page on how to be more creative that suggests developing the ability to shift your perspective easily makes for more creative thought.

Most of these writings are about the positive steps you can take toward greater creativity. But I've always been interested in the things that get in the way of creative insight as well. Too much critical judgment early in the problem-solving process can discourage new ideas, for example. Arrogance closes one's mind to the possibility of being wrong, and so excludes many creative insights.

I just read about some research related to this. Psychologist Jonathan W. Schooler did a series of experiments in which he had participants do many "insight puzzles" (what others might call lateral thinking puzzles). Here's one, for example:

A giant inverted steel pyramid is perfectly balanced upside down on its point. If it is disturbed it will topple over. Pinned underneath it is a $100 bill. How can you remove the bill without toppling the pyramid?

Some participants (the control group) simply worked through the puzzles and looked for solutions. Others were asked - during or after each puzzle - to explain in writing how they were solving the problems; what method they used, what solutions came to mind, why they thought these might work, and so on. The people who had to explain their thinking solved 30% fewer puzzles than the control group.

This effect is not apparent with math problems or problems of logic. Explanation may even help with these (we'll have to wait for more research on that). But it seems that problems which require a flash of creative insight can be over-analyzed.

By the way, the best solutions to the pyramid puzzle involve destroying the bill in some way. You could burn it, for example, or dissolve it with acid. The puzzle doesn't specify that you have to remove the bill in one piece or that it be spendable when you are done.

What seems to be happening here (my speculation) is that by explaining you get mentally trapped in your explanation, limiting your ability to think in other directions. I have read about a related phenomenon with eyewitnesses to crimes. If a witness describes the face of a criminal he or she is less likely to be able to pick the criminal out of a police lineup. The describing has affected the memory of the face, in effect inventing a new memory that gets in the way of a more natural recognition.

You may recall that I have written about being too argumentative as well. In arguing too much we become attached to our ideas, making it more difficult to open our minds to new ones. It just isn't easy for our egos to allow any thoughts in that challenge what has become important to us.

Exposing yourself to too much criticism is another barrier to creativity. It is a nice thought that we could learn to take any and all criticism of our ideas without it affecting us, but the reality is that with harsh judgments from others we all tend to limit the "wildness" of our thoughts. Soon we are dismissing our wilder or more creative insights.

Lessons? If you want to develop a more creative mind, use the exercises and methods I regularly present in the newsletter - but also avoid over-explaining, arguing for ego purposes, and clinging too tightly to your preconceived ideas.

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