I am sure everyone has had an ‘aha’ moment. It is when something becomes obvious and we know this is the best way forward or the best solution to a problem.
These moments often happen suddenly when we do not expect them. For example, when we drive, walk, shower and daydream not thinking about anything in particular.
On the other hand, many people say that the harder they try the less likely they come up with a new, fresh idea. Say, in a meeting at work when you want to impress others and suggest something particularly clever, and you just can’t.
In this article I will explain you what creativity really is and how you can let it happen to you.
What Is Creativity?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, creativity is the ability to use skill and imagination to produce something new or to produce art; the act of doing this.
I would suggest simplifying it a bit and say that creativity is when we invent something new by connecting many elements of reality together in one piece. These elements could be shapes, colours, notes, thoughts, words, ideas, needs, feelings, beliefs, etc.
Say, if we connect
✓ a need – ‘to pour a liquid into a hardly accessible container,’
✓ a shape – ‘funnel,’
✓ a material – ‘silicon,’
✓ a colour – ‘green,’ and
✓ a ‘mechanism of folding,’
we can create a cool looking mini collapsible silicone funnel like the one you see below.
This is the essence of a creative idea. It forms by merging a few already existing elements of reality in a new way. They become connected and then together they become something new.
Where Do ‘Elements of Reality’ Connect?
Another fact is that the brain operates by using small electric currents. The brain itself does not see, hear, or smell. It understands the world only after it is translated into electricity. It is because everything that we see, hear, smell or touch; once detected by receptors in our eyes, ears and nose, becomes an electric current traveling along our nerves towards the brain.1
Then this current starts oscillating along brain cells and starts representing an element of our reality. There are billions of them forming in our brains every second. Billions more are stored in our memory. We still do not completely understand how the brain builds the whole impression of reality that we perceive, but we can say that two or more elements of reality (represented by oscillating electrical currents) become connected when they are in synchrony. 2, 3, 4
How Do They Connect?
You may remember the model of synchronizing metronomes placed on a board I presented in the previous article. Please, watch a You Tube clip.
In the video above all metronomes eventually synchronise thanks to gentle movements of the board they sit on. Yet, before it happens they start clicking together in groups (see 1m10s) as if some of them found ‘agreement’ or ‘common ground’ easier than others. We can say that they are synchronised between themselves. This is how a new connection between oscillators is established.
Now, imagine that every metronome represents an electric current oscillating along the brain cell and codes an element of reality. For example,
✓ one represents ‘a feeling of frustration when you look for something and you cannot find it’,
✓ one represents ‘the shape of a little, plastic, transparent jar’,
✓ and one stores information of ‘unused free space in your garage’
The moment when they start clicking together you have sudden realisation that you can attach a little jar under the shelves to keep little screws and nails where you can easily find them. See the picture below.
But what is a medium? What represents a board which helps electric charges (elements of reality) to communicate?
When our attention is diffused we become simultaneously aware of everything that we hear, touch smell, taste, think and feel, together with space between and inside solid objects. It is related to relaxation and letting go efforts to focus on anything in particular or any specific issue.
Diffused attention is a term coined by Dr Lester Fehmi, neuroscientist and psychologist from Princeton, US. According to Dr Fehmi when we diffuse our attention the brain generates synchronous waves in alpha frequency oscillating across the whole brain.4
There are many reports documenting that alpha brain waves are generated by the brain during creative thinking. 6, 7, 8
Dr Fehmi designed a series of mind exercises which help to practice diffusing attention. They sound gentle and soft, rather like guided meditation, but they are backed up by his neuro-feedback research conducted over the last forty years. I am a great enthusiast of his approach and I promote his work on my website. I have designed many diffusing attention exercises myself and the last one you can see here.
So, What Are The Main Rules of Connecting?
If we assume that a process of generating a new idea is represented by synchronisation it should fulfil ‘the conditions of successful synchronisation’ I explained in the previous article.
Firstly, a new idea should connect ‘elements of reality’ – represented by electric charges – which initially oscillate independently from each other. For example ‘a funnel, ‘a colour green’ and ‘a mechanism of folding’ can be a part of many other ideas.
Secondly, it requires a medium. These mediums are synchronous waves in alpha frequency oscillating across the whole brain when your attention is diffused.
Thirdly, it happens on its own when we relax and we stop trying.
Fourthly, it needs time to emerge. After some time the mechanism of cross-frequency synchronization allows some of the electric charges to click together in sync bringing a feeling of sudden insight or realisation. 9, 10
I hope is clear for you now that creativity is based on synchrony and this is a reason why, we feel pleasure, joy, sometimes even excitement and a surge of energy when we have a brilliant idea.
How Can You Create A New Idea?
First, do some research. Collect information about a problem. This will become elements of reality (electric currents oscillating in your brain in fast frequency) which will possibly connect. Then do one of the diffusing attention exercises and just let it happen to you. When your attention is diffused you will produce synchronous, slow brain waves across your brain, which will work like a board for metronomes. You will feel very relaxed.
The better you are at diffusing your attention the easier it becomes. You may notice an idea or solution directly during an exercise but it may happen even a few hours after the exercise is finished.
When I discovered this process for myself I was shocked to see how effective it is. I make some preparations (envisioning what I would like to do, making notes, doing research, sketching the plan) and then I do an exercise. After a few minutes I start noticing new ideas. They pop into my mind one after another. I used to be nervous about forgetting them and I was taking breaks to make notes. Now I know that sooner or later they come back to me. Good luck!
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2. Oscillatory synchronization in large-scale cortical networks predicts perception.
. Hipp JF, Engel AK, Siegel M
. Neuron. 2011 Jan 27;69(2):387-96
3. Functions of gamma-band synchronization in cognition: from single circuits to functional diversity across cortical and subcortical systems.
. Bosman CA, Lansink CS, Pennartz CM
. Eur J Neurosci. 2014 Jun;39(11):1982-99
4. Neuronal gamma-band synchronization as a fundamental process in cortical computation.
. Fries P
. Annu Rev Neurosci. 2009;32:209-24.
5. Attention and Neurofeedback Synchrony Training: Clinical Results and Their Significance.
. J. T. McKnight, PhD L. G. Fehmi, PhD
. Journal of Neurotherapy, Vol. 5(1/2) 2001
6. EEG alpha power and creative ideation.
. Andreas Fink, Mathias Benedek
. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2014 Jul; 44(100): 111–123
7. The time-course of EEG alpha power changes in creative ideation.
. Schwab D, Benedek M, Papousek I, Weiss EM, Fink A
. Front Hum Neurosci. 2014 May 13;8:310
8. EEG alpha synchronization is related to top-down processing in convergent and divergent
. Mathias Benedek, Sabine Bergner, Tanja Könen, Andreas Fink, Aljoscha C. Neubauera
. Neuropsychologia. 2011 Oct; 49(12)
9. Different frequencies for different scales of cortical integration: from local gamma to long range alpha/theta synchronization.
. von Stein A, Sarnthein J
. Int J Psychophysiol. 2000 Dec 1;38(3):301-13
10. Deconstructing insight: EEG correlates of insightful problem solving.
. Sandkühler S, Bhattacharya J
. PLoS One. 2008 Jan 23
Art by Martin Roller
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