Understanding Creative Thinking

See also: Positive Thinking

We have all met people who seem to fizz with creative energy, throwing out new ideas all the time. We have also all met people who are very rigid in their thinking. If this is you, this page may help to move you towards being able to think more flexibly.

Understanding more about how our brains work can help you to get to grips with how to think more flexibly and creatively. It may also help you to understand why you are finding it difficult to think creatively, and uncover some of the myths behind creative thinking.

Understanding The Brain

From large amounts of scientific research over many years, we understand quite a lot about how the brain works.

For example:

  • We know that our brains like complexity and change

    Tiny babies will spend much longer looking at something complex and changing (for example, a mobile that moves above them, or the leaves of a tree gently rustling in the breeze), than they will looking at something simple or unmoving. We are programmed to be interested in complexity.

  • Learning breeds learning

    The more you learn, the easier it is to learn more. This is particularly true when you are learning more and more about the same subject, because your brain has more information to help it build up a picture. Our brains like patterns and organisation, and they like to be able to slot information in and connect it with other pieces of information.

  • Our brains are prone to making assumptions based on existing knowledge

    Some people call this taking ‘short cuts’. Effectively, if your brain thinks that it knows what is happening, it simply turns to its mental models for an explanation, rather than looking for an explanation in what it sees or hears. This is useful, because it enables you to generalise from experience, but it can also hold you rather rigidly in the grip of your previous experience.

  • We tend to search for meaning and connections

    For all that we like complexity and change, our brains also love patterns and connections. It is, for example, much easier to learn a poem if it has a rhyme scheme than if it is in blank verse. Generally, our brains examine anything new for a pattern to help us to both remember it, and slot it into existing knowledge. It is often tempting to see patterns when they do not exist, too, which is why conspiracy theories exist.

  • Our brains like to play

    This is part of what searching for patterns is all about, as anyone who likes crosswords and similar puzzles will confirm. Children play quite naturally, as do adults, with word play, puns and games of that kind. However, many people need to be encouraged to allow their brains to play games with ideas at work. Although play is natural, conditioning may prevent us from feeling that we have permission to do it under certain circumstances.

  • You need to look after your brain

    Your brain will not function well if you are tired, hungry or thirsty. It will be too busy trying to satisfy your physical needs to worry about thinking over complex problems. It will also not function well if you are frightened or stressed: just think how difficult it is to think of an answer to a question under time pressure, or in an exam. The brain works best if you exercise regularly, eat well, and get enough sleep, and engage it effectively in fun activities. If you do so, it will reward you by continuing to work on problems long after you thought you had moved on, or even when you are asleep.

Thinking Creatively, Thinking Differently

We are all creative in some way, even if it does not involve art, music, or literature. Creativity can be thought of as approaching a problem in a different way. Looked at like this, each of us has something we can do better than others we know. These are the areas where we use creativity.

Stifling Creative Thinking

It can be helpful to think about what stifles creative thinking, as this will assist you in avoiding these behaviours and ways of thinking.

They include:

  • Believing that you are right

    ‘Clever’ people often find it difficult to think creatively. This may be because they have got into a habit of believing that they are right, perhaps because in the past they have been able to come up with the ‘correct’ answer readily. At school this may work, but in the workplace and wider world, there is often no right answer.

    It is easy to get behind one solution, and spend a lot of time and energy arguing about why it is ‘right’. It is, however, usually much more productive to think of more options, and then decide together which is best.

  • Being negative and criticising others’ ideas

    Thinking creatively often requires thinking ‘the unthinkable’. This, in turn, often means coming up with ideas that sound and even are completely unworkable. But from the unworkable, other, better ideas may grow, provided that they are allowed to do so. Being negative, and criticising ideas, is often easier than trying to build on them.

    This is one of the reasons why brainstorming often starts with a round of ‘anything goes’, where nobody is allowed to comment or criticise any ideas when they are first put forward.

  • Believing that you are not creative

    Our page on Mindset explains that your attitude is often more important than your raw ability. If you believe that you are not creative, then you are unlikely to be able to think creatively. On the other hand, if you take the view that anyone can think creatively with a little encouragement, then you are far more likely to be able to do so.

Techniques for Creative Thinking

There are a wide variety of techniques available for creative thinking. Some of these are set out in our page on Creative Thinking Techniques.

A Way of Thinking and a Way of Improving Thinking

Creative thinking is both a way of thinking, and also a way to improve the way that you think. If you are getting a bit stuck in a rut, it could be worth trying some creative thinking techniques, to see if you can break yourself out.