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The Science of Inspiration

Jonah Lehrer, science-writer extraordinaire, walks us through recent research shedding light on how we can become more creative people.

He begins by breaking creative "revelations" into two different categories; inspiration from relaxation and inspiration from perspiration.

Some ideas will only come when you're not focused on the problem. Researchers found that watching stand up comedy clips or having a beer before trying to solve creative association tasks increased performance by 20-30% over the control group.
What explains the creative benefits of relaxation and booze? The answer involves the surprising advantage of not paying attention. Although we live in an age that worships focus—we are always forcing ourselves to concentrate, chugging caffeine—this approach can inhibit the imagination. We might be focused, but we're probably focused on the wrong answer.
And this is why relaxation helps: It isn't until we're soothed in the shower or distracted by the stand-up comic that we're able to turn the spotlight of attention inward, eavesdropping on all those random associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain's right hemisphere. When we need an insight, those associations are often the source of the answer.
This research also explains why so many major breakthroughs happen in the unlikeliest of places, whether it's Archimedes in the bathtub or the physicist Richard Feynman scribbling equations in a strip club, as he was known to do. It reveals the wisdom of Google putting ping-pong tables in the lobby and confirms the practical benefits of daydreaming. As Einstein once declared, "Creativity is the residue of time wasted."
The other type of creative task involves a long, steady grind on the problem. We know this as the "two measures that took fifteen hours to write." They're nasty beasts, yes, but ones worth fighting.

But wait, aren't those two methods completely opposite one another? How do we know which way we should try to solve our problem?
The good news is that the human mind has a surprising natural ability to assess the kind of creativity we need. Researchers call these intuitions "feelings of knowing," and they occur when we suspect that we can find the answer, if only we keep on thinking. Numerous studies have demonstrated that, when it comes to problems that don't require insights, the mind is remarkably adept at assessing the likelihood that a problem can be solved—knowing whether we're getting "warmer" or not, without knowing the solution.
This ability to calculate progress is an important part of the creative process. When we don't feel that we're getting closer to the answer—we've hit the wall, so to speak—we probably need an insight. If there is no feeling of knowing, the most productive thing we can do is forget about work for a while. But when those feelings of knowing are telling us that we're getting close, we need to keep on struggling.
And there's even more insight within the article as Jonah walks us through important factors for kick starting our creativity.

One of the keys to being more creative is immersing yourself in new and diverse experiences.
Steve Jobs famously declared that "creativity is just connecting things." Although we think of inventors as dreaming up breakthroughs out of thin air, Mr. Jobs was pointing out that even the most far-fetched concepts are usually just new combinations of stuff that already exists. Under Mr. Jobs' leadership, for instance, Apple didn't invent MP3 players or tablet computers—the company just made them better, adding design features that were new to the product category. 
And it isn't just Apple. The history of innovation bears out Mr. Jobs's theory. The Wright Brothers transferred their background as bicycle manufacturers to the invention of the airplane; their first flying craft was, in many respects, just a bicycle with wings. Johannes Gutenberg transformed his knowledge of wine presses into a printing machine capable of mass-producing words. Or look at Google: Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with their famous search algorithm by applying the ranking method used for academic articles (more citations equals more influence) to the sprawl of the Internet.
By seeking out new experiences, our status as an outsider may even allow us to solve someone else's unsolvable problem.
At 3M, engineers are typically rotated to a new division every few years. Sometimes, these rotations bring big payoffs, such as when 3M realized that the problem of laptop battery life was really a problem of energy used up too quickly for illuminating the screen. 3M researchers applied their knowledge of see-through adhesives to create an optical film that focuses light outward, producing a screen that was 40% more efficient.

Such solutions are known as "mental restructurings," since the problem is only solved after someone asks a completely new kind of question. What's interesting is that expertise can inhibit such restructurings, making it harder to find the breakthrough. That's why it's important not just to bring new ideas back to your own field, but to actually try to solve problems in other fields—where your status as an outsider, and ability to ask naive questions, can be a tremendous advantage.
Finally, we can embrace the Buddhist concept of the beginner's mind to discover new islands of thought. The beginner's mind is a way of approaching a problem not as a seasoned expert but as a fresh apprentice, eager to learn and willing to ask "stupid" questions that challenge assumptions. When composer Bruce Adolphe wrote his first cello piece, the piece was deemed unplayable because of an "impossible" chord written into the piece. But famous cellist Yo Yo Ma sight read the piece and nailed it.
Mr. Adolphe told Mr. Ma what the professor had said and asked how he had managed to play the impossible chord. They went through the piece again, and when Mr. Ma came to the impossible chord, Mr. Adolphe yelled "Stop!" They looked at Mr. Ma's left hand—it was contorted on the fingerboard, in a position that was nearly impossible to hold. "You're right," said Mr. Ma, "you really can't play that!" Yet, somehow, he did. 
Other recent research describes how to jump into the beginner's mind using a method called the Generic Parts Technique.
Here's how GPT works: "For each object in your problem, you break it into parts and ask two questions," explains McCaffrey, who is now a post-doctoral fellow in UMass's engineering department.
"1. Can it be broken down further? and 2. -- this is the one that's been overlooked -- Does my description of the part imply a use?" So you're given two steel rings and told to make a figure-8 out of them. Your tools? A candle and a match. Melted wax is sticky, but the wax isn't strong enough to hold the rings together. What about the other part of the candle? The wick. The word implies a use: Wicks are set afire to give light. "That tends to hinder people's ability to think of alternative uses for this part," says McCaffrey. Think of the wick more generically as a piece of string and the string as strands of cotton and you're liberated. Now you can remove the wick and tie the two rings together. Or, if you like, shred the string and make a wig for your hamster.

It's truely wonderful to be alive in a time when we're beginning to unravel the mysteries of creativity so that we can become more creative, enlightened versions of ourselves.

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