The secret to creativity – according to science

[PBS] Whether you get mesmerised by Vincent van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night or Albert Einstein’s theories about spacetime, you’ll probably agree that both pieces of work are products of mindblowing creativity. Imagination is what propels us forward as a species – it expands our worlds and brings us new ideas, inventions and discoveries.
But why do we seem to differ so dramatically in our ability to imagine? And can you train yourself to become more imaginative? Science has come up with some answers, based on three different but interlinked types of imagination.
Creative imagination” is what we normally consider to be creativity with a large C – composing an opera or discovering something groundbreaking. This is different from everyday creativity, such as coming up with imaginative solutions to household problems or making crafts.
Creative inspiration is notoriously elusive. Being able to train creativity or induce a state of creativity has therefore long been the aim of many artists and scientists.
But is it possible? We know that some individuals have a more creative personality than others. Yet research has suggested that creative imagination can also be boosted through our environment or simply putting in lots of hard work. For example, experimental studies have shown that when children engage with creative content or watch others be highly creative, they become more creative themselves.
There are two phases to creative imagination. “Divergent thinking” is the ability to think of a wide variety of ideas, all somehow connected to a main problem or topic. It tends to be supported by intuitive thinking, which is fast and automatic. You then need “convergent thinking” to help you evaluate the ideas for usefulness within the main problem or topic. This process is supported by analytical thinking – which is slow and deliberate – allowing us to select the right idea.
So if you want to write that masterpiece, having lots of brainstorming sessions with friends or taking a course in creative thinking or writing may help you come up with new ideas.
However, that doesn’t necessarily help you select a good one. For that, research suggests that the first requirement is actually exposure and experience. The longer you have worked and thought in a field and learned about a matter – and importantly, dared to make many mistakes – the better you are at intuitively coming up with ideas and analytically selecting the right one.
Creative success is therefore not so much about finding a muse. As microbiologist Louis Pasteur said: “Fortune favours the prepared mind.” This also applies to art, with Pablo Picasso advising: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Read More

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