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Nick Skillicorn

CEO & Founder, Innovation Coach at Improvides
Voted as the world's #7 Innovation blogger in 2014, I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love.

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Today's interview makes me feel quite honoured. It's with Prof Vincent Walsh of UCL, one of the world's preeminent cognitive neuroscientists with a strong interest in the study of creativity. Here we talk about how your brain generates ideas, how you're aware of less than 1% of your brain's activity, and the science which shows that creativity is not a team sport.

In the video above (shortened interview), we cover a vast range of topics related to the neuroscience of creativity. I have also included the Top 6 most interesting points from the extended interview here (some of which are in addition to what's in the video). I know that some of you may disagree with some of these points (in some cases strongly disagree) and I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments. Just be aware that what is discussed here is with one of the top academic researchers on the subject and is backed up by research and evidence which may be new to you, some of it about to be published. (See Vincent's bibliography). If you like the information here, you can find more in our Online Innovation and Creativity Training

I first came across Professor Walsh's work about a year ago when I was uncovering what actually makes people have ideas. Then a few weeks ago, I found out that he had been referencing one of my own books, 30 Days of Creativity Training [Amazon], in some of his recent public lectures. I jumped at the chance to talk to him about the latest research and evidence on how to help people improve their creativity. Check out the video above, and then get more detail on the Top 6 most interesting points here:

Top 6 most interesting points from the extended interview:

1. You're only aware of less than 1% of your brain activity, and most creativity happens in the other 99%

Professor Walsh's research on cognition indicates that all of your conscious thought, which includes language, problem-solving ability and awareness of your senses, makes up less than 1% of your brain activity. So while the old saying that "you only use 10% of your brain" is not true, it's amazing to see that the vast majority of your brain activity is actually going on without you being aware of it.

Generation of completely new ideas is one thing which happens "behind the wall" as Professor Walsh refers to it. Ideas are generated when your brain takes existing knowledge and memories, and forms a new neural connection which did not previously exist, thereby linking together and building on concepts in a new way, which sometimes generates a solution to a challenge (a new idea).

2. If you want to stimulate an idea, you need to give your brain time to go "off-line"

Much like your heartbeat, your brain works at various activity levels throughout the day. However, the linking of new neural connections and the generation of ideas happens best when your brain is at a lower, more relaxed state, called an "alpha state". If you are extremely focused on something, whether it be a conversation you're in, a piece of work in front of you, listening to something intently or trying to work something out mentally, then these activities actually put your brain in a higher activity level and takes its energy resources, which masks your brain's ability to form new connections and generate ideas. So if you're a workaholic, such as someone working 60+ hours a week, you're really harming you brain's ability to come up with creative ideas and solutions.

To improve your ability to come up with an idea, it is therefore important to give your mind the space to get into a relaxed state. This is evidenced both through thousands of stories of people coming up with breakthrough ideas when they weren't expecting it and when their mind was elsewhere. Science has shown this recently through brain scanning associated with sleep, and the ability to come up with solutions to a challenge after the brain had been given a rest. What simple tricks can you therefore use to generate ideas:

  • Sleep enough
  • Shower
  • Exercise
  • Daydream
  • Do something which lets your mind wander (can include watching to TV if you're not really paying attention)

3. Creativity is not a team sport, and brainstorming is a terrible way to generate good ideas

"Managers cannot manage creative teams. They can only allow their people to be creative themselves". It is extremely difficult to communicate an idea which is in your head. People are limited by the language they can use to describe the idea, how the other person interprets that communication, and by the different associations which exist for the same concept between people. The generation of ideas happens within individuals, and therefore you cannot put individuals or groups together and instruct them how and when to be creative.

Brainstorming sessions and equivalent ideation techniques like Creative Problem Solving have an ever-growing body of evidence showing them to be an ineffective way to generate good ideas. The fact that these sessions are time limited and require the focus of a group means the brain doesn't have the relaxed state needed for creative thought, described in point 2. Yes, these techniques may result in a large number of ideas (that is their purpose), these ideas are often not very creative, and ultimately they are much less likely to result in any change in the business.

4. Execution of ideas is more important than generation, and previous failure helps this

In order for an idea to have an impact, it needs to be executed. More importantly, it needs to be executed in a way that other people value. And one thing which helps individuals execute their ideas is a bank of experience with what to do with ideas, especially when they do not succeed at first.

The quality of ideas which people generate depends on how much knowledge and experience they have on their subject or domain of expertise. But it also depends on how their brain treats the feelings which are produced after an idea is generated, especially if it is not immediately clear if it is perfect. People who have previously failed and are ok with the feeling and keep pushing forward are most often the ones who subsequently come up with the most important, breakthrough ideas. Professor Walsh noted an example of successful Mathematicians (which requires a high level of creativity) usually publishing their best work after they had reached their 40s or 50s.

5. There are no miracle exercises / processes / drugs / brain implants to "turn on creativity" in areas where it didn't previously exist

I was very excited to find out Professor Walsh's view on the cutting edge research into how we can "unlock" all of our creativity, specifically devices or drugs which could either turn on or off various parts of the brain. His response was simple and to the point: "It's bullshit". Since all creativity is based on knowledge and context which someone has accumulated up until that point in their lives, its impossible for them to instantly become able to generate ideas in a domain they did not previously have knowledge in.

But it's not all bad news on people who want to improve their creativity, because:

6. However, creativity can be improved by giving people the right exercises, knowledge, experiences and environment

While it's impossible to become instantly creative in a field you know nothing about, it is however very possible to improve your creativity over a short period of time, even if it is only slightly. There are a number of ways to do this:

  • Get the brain used to the feeling that is associated with generating a new idea, especially the ambiguity about whether it will work or it might fail. This will strengthen it's ability to form ideas more easily down the line, as the brain won't be censoring itself as much (handled by a part of the brain called the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex). This can be done by setting yourself creativity challenges or generating ideas in a group and then discussing, even judging them.
  • Generate a work environment where ambiguity results in further questions being explored, especially if they don't have a correct answer ("Why did that happen?", "How might this trend going to affect our market?"). Curiosity breeds creativity.
  • Gather new knowledge, and knowledge from varied and diverse sources. The broader your knowledge base, the stronger your brain's ability to form new neural connections and associations, leading to creative new ideas.
  • Find ways to transfer aspects of strong habits / talents you have in one area to another area. For example, if you have a passion outside of work, like sport, figure out ways that you can use some aspects of what you're good at with it in the way you work (such as the discipline that comes with doing a minimum amount of "reps" for a workout, and turning your work to-do list into similar "reps").

So what do you think of the points raised here? Are there any which changed your outlook on creativity? Any which you still strongly disagree with? Let us know in the comments below. Don't forget to sign up for our weekly innovation insights newsletter and free innovation ebook.

And as a bonus: Here's another lecture from Vincent Walsh on creativity, held recently at the British Library. Just try and ignore the oddly-flirtatious cardboard puppet in the first 30mins...