Creativity and The Flash of Insight

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During the winter of 1974, Sheldon Silver a 3M engineer began sharing a formula he’d recently designed for a new kind of glue—a very weak one. Actually, it was the opposite of what glue was supposed to be. It could barely even hold two pieces of paper together.

One day, a colleague by the name of Arthur Fry attended one of Silver’s presentations. He listened patiently and politely, but he left without a clue about how to use the stuff. Who can blame him? What good is glue that won’t stick?

Not long after that, Fry, who sang in the church choir, was preparing for a service (as he often did) by marking the hymns he would be singing with little scraps of paper. The problem was that the paper often fell out, leaving Fry to frantically flip through the hymnal in search of the right page. It was a hassle.

And then it hit him.

Fry realized that, applied to paper, Silver’s feeble glue would be perfect for bookmarking. The paper would stick, but not so much that it might tear anything after it was removed, and the Post-It note was born.

Looking back, Fry’s inspiration–a classic creative moment of insight–may seem unremarkable. Connecting random bits of information in real time, however, is far from easy. So where does creativity come from? Until recently “creativity” was thought to be something over which we have little control—something that comes from outside of us—a gift from an angel or muse perhaps. Indeed, the word “inspiration” literally means to be “breathed upon.”

Recent research however, is beginning to learn a bit about our mysterious engines of imagination. While not quite machine, neither is creativity magic, and we can even learn to increase our creativity in order to better solve our every-day conundrums.

By giving subjects “insight” puzzles and then watching their brain activity, Mark Beeman, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University, has actually discovered where Fry’s sudden flash of insight came from—an area in the upper right hemisphere of the brain called the superior anterior temporal gyrus (or aSTG for short). Consider the following riddle:

A man has married 20 women in a small town. All of the women are still alive and none divorced. The man has broken no laws. Who is the man?

If you solved this puzzle, it probably came to you in a flash of insight. Beeman found, that just before solving these types of puzzles, there is a sudden spike of activity in the aSTG—the part of your brain designed to connect weakly related bits of information. This is exactly the type of thinking needed to connect non-sticky glue to bookmarks or realize that a priest can marry large numbers of women.

Beeman also discovered how a person can gain better access to this part of the brain. Interestingly, it doesn’t have anything to do with increasing focus or attention on the problem. In fact, just the opposite is true. For example, when Beeman showed short humorous video clips (like a Robin Williams standup routine) people’s success rates jumped 20%. Relaxation also helped.

Why? When we are distracted by the comic, or soothed by a warm shower, we’re better able to turn our attention to the part of our brain connecting all the dots. When we need insight, the answer is there—inside our aSTG. We just need to relax enough to reach consciously into this often unconscious part of us.

Einstein once said, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.” Now we know why.

Image Credit: Davi Ozolin via Compfight


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