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What is creativity? It’s the combination of originality and purpose. It’s the ability to take existing things and combine them into new solutions. For example, Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb was an act of extraordinary creativity. He conducted thousands of experiments before discovering the winning combination of a carbon filament in an oxygen-free bulb. While Edison’s failed attempts may have been original, they were not creative because they didn’t achieve his purpose.

It’s easier to be original and foolish than original and wise.
-Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

General Knowledge
Creativity combines existing things in new ways. To become more creative, it helps to have a broad base of knowledge. Expand your knowledge base with this exercise:
  1. Every week, read about business, technology, and current events from websites such as Economist.com, NewScientist.com, and BusinessWeek.com.
  2. When you encounter unfamiliar topics or references, use Google.com or Wikipedia.org to look them up.
  3. Save the articles you find interesting.
  4. Do this for a few years and you’ll have a library of information to combine in new ways.

Latent Inhibition
Have you ever noticed that creative people are often eccentric or even a bit crazy? The term “latent inhibition” (LI) refers to the brain’s ability to filter out irrelevant stimuli and prevent them from reaching your awareness. Decreased LI is associated with schizophrenia, but it may also account for differences in creative versus non-creative thinking. Creative people are more open to random information. More random information increases the odds of a creative combination.

In a study from Harvard University and the University of Toronto, researchers found that people with a lifetime of creative achievements were much less inhibited1. In particular, creative types under the age of 21 were seven times more likely to have low LI scores than the average person. When you’re brainstorming new ideas, write down everything that comes to mind, no matter how wild and wacky. Filter the ideas for usefulness only after you’ve finished brainstorming.

Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected.
-William Plomer

Try and Try Again
Dean Keith Simonton is a professor at the University of California, Davis. He’s a leading researcher in the field of creativity and genius. Simonton has observed that creative people often share the characteristics of nonconformity, unconventionality, independence, openness to experience, ego strength, aggressiveness, risk-taking, and introversion2. Also, they tend to have broader interests than their less creative colleagues.

Years of experience do not seem to increase the odds of creative success. The careers of creative people typically consist of a random sequence of successes and failures. A universally-acclaimed masterpiece may be followed by a stink bomb. The only certainty is that the more attempts you make, the better your chances of hitting the jackpot. Reflecting on his light bulb experiments, Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully found 1,000 ways that will not work.”

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.
-Linus Pauling

Sleep On It
Friedrich Kekulé was a German organic chemist. In the mid-1800s, Kekulé and his colleagues believed that organic compounds existed as linear chains of carbon atoms. But this chain theory made it difficult to explain the properties of a compound named benzene. One day, Kekulé fell asleep, and dreamed of a snake seizing its own tail. In a flash of insight, he realized that the carbon atoms in benzene were joined together in a ring, not a chain. This creative discovery launched the field of aromatic ring chemistry. It enabled the development of compounds such as lubricants, plastics, adhesives, and dyes that are used in thousands of products in your everyday life.

Sleeping on a problem lets your unconscious mind figure out winning combinations. At the University of Lübeck, German researchers challenged subjects to solve a series of long math problems3. The task involved transforming a string of eight digits into a new number, by applying two simple rules to each digit. This step-by-step process took a long time. But a hidden rule was built into the problem, which provided a shortcut to the solution. By observing when subjects started solving problems faster, researchers were able to pinpoint the exact moment when the hidden rule was discovered.

All subjects underwent an initial training period where the hidden rule remained undiscovered. After the training period, half of the subjects slept for 8 hours, while the other half stayed awake for 8 hours. When the subjects were re-tested, 59 percent of the sleep group discovered the hidden rule, compared to 23 percent of the no-sleep group.

Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different.
-Albert Szent-Györgi

Deep Knowledge
Books provide more in-depth information than reading articles in newspapers or magazines. Develop your base of deep knowledge with this exercise:
  1. Visit your local library.
  2. Go to a random shelf and select the most interesting book you find there.
  3. Borrow the book and read it.
  4. Write down any new thoughts that come to mind while you’re reading the book.
  5. When you’re finished the book, go back to the library and randomly select another interesting one.

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
-Richard Steele

  1. Carson SH, Peterson JB, Higgins DM. (2003). Decreased latent inhibition is associated with increased creative achievement in high-functioning individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 85(3):499–506.
  2. Simonton DK. (2000). Creative development as acquired expertise: theoretical issues and an empirical test. Developmental Review. 20:283–318.
  3. Wagner U et al. (2004). Sleep inspires insight. Nature. 427:352–355.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
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