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
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
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.