Where Does Creativity Come From

And how can you have more of it?

Younes Henni, PhD
5 min readMar 26, 2021
Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash.

It took humanity six thousand years to come up with the rolling suitcase — from the invention of the wheel in Mesopotamia to Bernad Sadow’s patent in 1970.

Why is creativity so hard? And is it possible to have great ideas more easily?

To answer these questions, scientists carried a series of experiments worthy of a Marvel script. They designed electrical helmets to control brain activity, energising certain brain parts and putting other parts to sleep. The results of these experiments — known as transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) — were no less than astounding.

Upon receiving tiny currents to targeted regions of their brains, participants activated higher levels of creativity, solving puzzles in ingenious ways, even faster than expected. This boosted creativity lasted over an hour before subjects fell back to their normal levels.

Don’t get your hopes too high, though. These electric hats are not for sale any time soon. Yet, such a breakthrough begs the question, “is it possible to boost our creativity on demand without turning into Professor X?” Scientists, who are starting to grasp creativity like never before, say yes.

Look at the Familiar in Unfamiliar Ways

Think of candles for a moment. What association springs to your mind? You might think of a birthday cake, a romantic date, or simply a source of light. But can you think of candles outside these circumstances? Strip the candle from its identity for a moment and focus on its features: shape, size, materials. What is a candle? You might say a candle is a cylinder and a string. What’s the cylinder made of? You might say wax. Can you break down the description further? Does your description imply a particular use? This exercise, strange as it is, happens to be extremely helpful for boosting creativity.

That’s because a lack of creativity often comes from associations we fix between objects and their use cases. A wheel belongs to a chariot. A bag belongs in our hands or back. When you see beyond these familiar associations, you can combine objects that seem totally unrelated to create new tools. That’s exactly how Sadow invented the suitcase.

When students at Massachusetts Amherst University solved puzzles before and after doing the “candle exercise,” their creativity shot a staggering 67 %. According to Tony McCaffrey, author of the study, when you describe an object by its shape and size, you become aware of hidden features and use cases that weren’t obvious. You can then take advantage of this enhanced eyesight to solve problems you struggle with. McCaffrey concludes: “Deconstructing the familiar upset our typical way of thinking, which fosters the right mindset for creative problem-solving.”

Stretch Your Space and Time Horizons

When researchers tested a group of students through practice problems, they told some participants their answers would be reviewed by specialists thousands of miles away. The rest were told the local university would review their results. The outcome of this experiment was remarkable: students who thought they were being judged by foreigners solved twice as many problems as everyone else.

Why does distance drive creativity so much? Researchers aren’t sure yet. But Lile Jia, a co-author of the study, suggests a few interesting interpretations. Distance, he says, relates to foreign lands. And from an evolutionary viewpoint, foreigners are either potential enemies or allies. As a result, our drive to impress is stronger. Another interpretation is that our standard behaviour is unknown to strangers, making us more open to trying things we shy from around people we know.

Distancing yourself in time also makes you more creative. Scientists asked participants to imagine themselves either one day or one year in the future. Once they clearly fixed that image in their minds, they were given a series of problems to solve. Surprisingly, those who pictured themselves in the distant future solved more problems than those who did not. Why is that? Probably because we dream of our future selves to have superior skills, experience, and more creativity. Such visualisation powers up our self-esteem and helps us solve problems more creatively.

Deprive Your Senses

When you’re hyper-focused — for instance, drafting an email or reading this article — your brain is flooded with high-frequency waves called beta waves. Beta waves, though ideal for focused work, hinder creative thinking. Instead, creativity fires up when alpha waves are dominant. These alpha waves, which are calmer than their beta counterparts, arise whenever you’re relaxed, your focus is diffuse, or you feel bored.

To prove how boredom nurtures creativity, a team of researchers split participants into two groups. Members of the first group spent 15 minutes copying numbers out of a phone book. Each was then given a plastic cup and asked to think of unusual ways to use it. The second group, however, was given the cup test straight away. Lo and behold, the first group generated more creative ideas than the second group.

Boredom, it turns out, isn’t boring. Because they deprive the senses of stimuli and leave the mind with no other option but to wander, trivial activities such as house chores, solitary walks, and showering are, in fact, the perfect cauldron for aha moments.

Take Away

“Sometimes the difficulty lies, not in having new ideas, but in escaping old ones.” — John Milton Keynes

To think that creativity is the luxury of a select few is a mistake. Because the latest scientific discoveries herald a new message: with the right process, you can boost your creativity beyond normal levels. How can you do this?

  • Look into the familiar. Examine it closely. Novelty often comes from combining familiar things instead of starting from scratch.
  • Collaborate worldwide and visualise your future self more often.
  • Let your mind wander instead of constantly capturing information (phone, tablets, TV). Sometimes for great ideas to come, all you have to do is get bored.

Ideas shape the world, and creativity is the engine of new ideas. Follow these steps, and your creative engine will rush forward.

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Younes Henni, PhD

Physicist • Soft Dev • ☕ Junkie • I bring you the latest in science, tech, health, economics & personal growth. To read all: https://youneshenni.substack.com/