TED has just uploaded the video of my recent speech at TEDx Durham University

In it, I go through evidence from recent academic studies which shows how everyone has the ability to improve their creativity over time, and what sort of things can help achieve that aim.

For those of you who want to know the references, here is the outline of the talk:


Today I want to talk about you. About how you generate ideas, and how you are sabotaging yourself without even knowing it. Each of you has the capability to come up with ideas which could fundamentally change both your own lives and the lives of many others. And without realising it, you are preventing this from happening. I want to share with you the insight on how all of you can enhance your ability to generate truly special ideas.

Who here is creative? Raise your hands, I want to see. And who here doesn’t consider themselves that creative? Finally, who here wishes that they could be more creative?

We are all creative. This whole notion that some people are creative while others are not is in fact a complete myth. There is no such thing a “left-brained analytical person” or a “right-brained creative person”. And I’m going to show you how everyone, no matter how creative you feel you are, can improve their capability to generate amazing new ideas

So what is creativity? Producing a new idea which has value to someone

In the brain, ideas are new connections between separate pieces of Existing knowledge and context in the brain. Every idea builds on your experiences, memories and current mental activity, even if you are not aware of it. The life of an idea being generated in the brain goes approximately like this [ (Walsh, 2011)]:

  1. Preparation: Absorbing knowledge, experience, insight and context, as well as understanding a specific challenge which requires an idea
  2. Incubation: time required for your mind to form new connections
  3. Inspiration: The moment of insight when your mind finds a potential solution and makes you aware of it. The “eureka” moment that seems to come out of nowhere
  4. Verification: A quick mental check to see if the solution should be investigated further

However, not all ideas are created equally. In fact, when people are asked to come up with ideas for a challenge, most people’s minds will provide solutions in the following order:

  • Memory – The first set of “ideas” that are produced are in fact just memories, which the brain knows are a correct solution which will work for the challenge. This is the easiest answer for the brain to produce, and also the one which it has been encouraged to give as it is a known “right” answer. These solutions add very little value, like someone always suggesting the same place to go for dinner.
  • Ordinary ideas – If asked to push past memories, the brain will begin to produce ideas which are as close to memories as possible. Usually, these will be small adjustments to a memory, such as a different colour, flavour, size etc. These are the vast majority of ideas produced, and are still quite safe, since the brain is relating them to something which has worked in the past. But they are unlikely to have a large impact, such as making some features on a product faster each year.
  • Special ideas – It is only after most people are forced to go past the ordinary and safe ideas when the special ideas can come to the forefront. They still build on previous knowledge and context, but push it into directions where the result is unknown. This can be outside of the comfort zone for a lot of people who have been brought up to give the right answer, but these are the sorts of ideas which ultimately have a big impact and change society and businesses. They are the truly creative ideas, like the development of abstract art, electronic music or the theory of relativity.

So why do some people consider themselves to not be creative?

In a test of 117 pairs of identical and fraternal twins (Marvin Reznikoff, 1973), it was determined that 80% of a person’s intelligence as measured by IQ was based on their genetics. However, only 30% of their creativity was genetic. This means that the vast majority of a person’s creativity is based on their upbringing and surroundings, like what they were taught was important at school.

And this also means that by giving people the right environment, training and context, they can dramatically improve their creativity over time, no matter what level they are at now

The biggest change seems to be happening while people are going through school. A study of schoolchildren showed that when asked “Are you creative?”, over 90% of 2nd graders said they were. By the time they had reached high school, that figure had dropped to below 10%.

Why is this? One reason is that throughout school, children are taught the importance of giving the correct answer to questions, This is what they are graded on, which will determine whether they pass or fail. This teaches the brain to associate safety with doing things correctly or properly, and danger with going outside of the “norms”. New ideas are also rough and unfinished when initially generated, which makes them much more susceptible to criticism. Fear of this criticism makes the discussion of new ideas an unpleasant experience for many people.

So the next question becomes: Well, what changes to the environment and context are actually going to help improve your creativity?

Many schools appear to be putting less emphasis on the arts, and many people consider this one of the main reasons for a drop in creativity throughout school. They believe that in order to improve a society’s ability to innovate, it needs more painters, musicians and dancers. Countries like China are in fact investing heavily in programmes to support this. And I think that investment in the arts is fantastic. But it won’t necessarily make people more creative.

Not all artists are in fact creative. This is often a very controversial insight when I speak with people in the artistic community, and of course there are many artists who are extremely creative. What I want you to consider is the difference between skill and creativity.

Many artists are considered as talented because they have a very high level of artistic skill, honed by years of practice. However, some artists are much better at performing other people’s work than they are at generating their own. Think of the difference between a talented pianist, and a composer, or between a talented dancer and a choreographer, even an actor and a scriptwriter. Performing someone else’s work doesn’t necessarily make you a creative person. So practising the arts is not guaranteed to improve your creativity.

So if creativity isn’t about art, then what is it? Can you even be objective about whether one person is more creative than another? The answer is yes, by measuring people’s ability to generate new ideas.

To demonstrate, I’d like a volunteer from the audience, preferably someone who earlier raised their hand saying they’d like to improve their creativity. [Get someone from audience]

Ok, I would like you to give me as many uses you can think of for this [pull object out of pocket, maybe a paperclip or razor].

If you listen carefully to the answers that this person gave you can analyse the patterns of them. Patterns like:

  • The number of ideas they came up with in the timeframe (the rough average is about 4 unique ideas a minute)
  • How similar the ideas were to one another
  • When you begin to compare the answers amongst large groups of people, whether there were original ideas which nobody else thought of

Tests like these have been analysed over time, and have been shown to directly correlate with a person’s likelihood of developing truly special ideas over their lifetime (Kim, 2011)

In the past decade, there has been an explosion of new insight from cognitive neuroscience into what is happening in your mind when you generate new ideas. One of the most important insights is that your brain operates differently depending on how active or stressed it is. Much like your pulse, your brain can be operating at different frequencies. When you’re asleep, it is at a very low activity level, which becomes more active as you wake up, and gets even more active as you begin to do activities which require focus or are stressful. In fact, in today’s workplace you’ll be spending a lot more time at higher mental activity levels than other mental states

Neuroscientists have also recently estimated that all of your brain activity that you are consciously aware of, everything that engages your focus, accounts for around 1% of your total mental activity level. Of the 99%, some it goes to basic bodily processes like controlling breathing and heartbeats. However, some of it is also is your brain forming temporary new connections between various memories and challenges, without you being aware of it. Effectively, your brain is still doing work “offline”, which sometimes results in a new idea. This is what creates the “eureka moments” which appear to come out of nowhere, often when you’re in a relaxed mental state like the shower, exercising or after waking up. You just weren’t aware that your mind was working on them. This is generating ideas / divergent thinking.

Once you have generated an idea like this, it then needs to be focused on in working memory to refine it from its rough form into something which is ready to be presented to tested. This can be considered refining ideas / convergent thinking.

One thing that you might not be aware of though is that these two processes happen at different mental activity levels. There is growing evidence that divergent thinking happens best at lower mental activity levels, whereas convergent thinking in working memory requires a higher mental activity level. And these higher activity levels in fact mask the brain’s ability to form these unconscious new connections, preventing you from getting these new insights at all.

Therefore, you need to be able to go through cycles of brain activity levels. Lower levels to help you form the new connections, followed by more focussed levels to work on refining those ideas.

Another part of the brain with a distinct impact on creativity is called the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex. While it is heavily involved in working memory tasks, it can also be thought of as the impulse control centre of the brain. Essentially, when it is active it is constantly assessing what the brain is thinking of and helps to filter out inappropriate or incorrect information and ideas. While this is extremely important in certain situations, such as controlling what you say at a job interview or when meeting your in-laws, it also inhibits new ideas from coming into consciousness.

This was proved by brain scans on jazz musicians and rappers (Limb, 2008)when they were asked to improvise, a skill which requires a high degree of spontaneity. When these subjects began improvising, they actually managed to reduce the activity of the DLPFC, enabling them to generate relevant ideas instantly.

By understanding all of these factors, it becomes clear that it is actually possible to enhance your creativity, both temporarily and permanently.

Temporary improvements to creativity can be achieved by putting your brain into the alpha mental state for divergent thinking. How can you achieve this?

  • Some simple and quick tips are by taking a walk, exercising, having a shower or allowing yourself to daydream. Even if ideas don’t appear immediately, this alpha state gives your mind time to form new connections, making it more likely an idea will appear sooner.
  • Your physical surroundings can also affect your mental state, especially at work where distractions and stress are more likely to keep you in a higher mental activity state. Take a walk at lunchtime or chat to someone you don’t know.
  • Finally, another great short-term fix is to make sure you constantly change your routine. When the mind gets into a habit, it is actually very efficient at working on autopilot based on memory. If you provide new sensory input and make new decisions, such as by taking a new route to work or going somewhere new for lunch, studies have shown you will have a short term boost to your creativity.

But it is also important to realise that you can achieve permanent enhancements to your creativity. The brain has an innate ability to continue developing throughout life, even into adulthood. One thing you can do is to do little daily creativity training exercises to push your brain to become comfortable thinking of ambiguous solutions without worrying about whether they are correct or not. For anyone who wants to try, I have several hundred on my website.

More potent results can be achieved by training using some improvisation techniques. This will not only enhance your speed and variety of creativity, it is an extremely effective way to gain control of your Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex. This is one of the secret weapons when it comes to making long term, noticeable enhancements to your creativity no matter what subject it is.

Finally, continue to gain knowledge and context in a wide variety of fields. All ideas are built on knowledge and experience, and the more varied this experience is, the more diverse the connections your mind will be able to find.

I hope you’ve seen how everyone has the capability to improve their creativity, sometimes with something as simple as an insight into what’s causing them to have an idea in the first place. But remember one last thing: Ideas themselves are worthless if you never do anything with them. I hope that once you’ve given yourself the opportunity to have an idea, you then have the ambition to actually go and execute on it. This is what takes an idea and turns it into something that changes the way we live.

Thank you


Kim, K. H. (2011). The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal.

Lehrer, J. (2012). Imagine: How creativity works. Houghton Mifflin.

Limb, C. (2008). Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE.

Marvin Reznikoff, G. D. (1973). Creative abilities in identical and fraternal twins. Behavior Genetics, 365-377.

Walsh, V. (2011, Dec 7). TEDxAldeburgh – Vincent Walsh – Neuroscience and Creativity. Retrieved from Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyU-AbYiEd0

Do you believe it’s possible to improve your creativity? Let me know in the comments below, then Click here to get my free insights into improving your creativity today.