A More Innovative Self: four ways to think more creatively

The brain has a function known as a 'self-organising mechanism.' It automagically sorts everything it encounters and puts it away in it's own make-shift library of stuff. Like a library, the brain has a way of indexing all of this information in a way that makes it easy to retrieve when it's needed. New information, experiences, conversations and alike are then added to the library by mapping together similarities between the stuff it already knows and the new stuff. Kind of like when you're trying to put a book back on a shelf in the right place.

Innovative or creative thinking is inherently hindered by the way the brain naturally wants to work. The pathways that are formed between things our brains already know paralyse the creation of new ideas and stifle innovative thinking. For example, if challenged to come up with ideas about a new flavour of ice cream, the brain would instinctively follow the pathways it understands about ice cream and retrieve the stuff it already knows; sweet, cold, made of cream. New ideas are then based on the brains existing understanding which is of course not exactly a recipe for innovation.

There's a direct correlation to the stimulus supplied to a brain and the uniqueness of the ideas it outputs. Chinese thinkers have studied this concept for much longer than I have (suprising I know) and consider true creativity to come from a place of pure awareness, effectively skipping the brains predetermined pathways altogther. It stands to reason that if we're reliant on past experience to give us new ideas, most people will come up with pretty similar things, therefore, not so 'new'.

There are many techniques to get around this kind of laboured thinking and the innovation company WhatIf? split them quite cleverly into four pretty easy concepts;

Re-expression

Our minds have thousands of learned associations which are great for remembering things and forming connections but terrible for independant creative thinking. By re-expressing a problem it's possible to take a leap into a new way of thinking and improve the variety of information the brain is using to come up with ideas.

The simplest kinds of re-expression can be done by describing a problem using another medium, using another sense or another context. Try drawing a problem, describing what it would taste or smell like or even acting it out. Alternative words and audiences can work too. Describing complex topics as if you were speaking to a child or across language barriers can really open up the types of language and associations used to think about a problem.

Relatedness

Ever wonder how some deodorants ended up in roll-on bottles? Here's a hint, Bic ballpoint pens. This is relatedness in action, an approach that actively encourages seeking out related problems in an effort to find new solutions.

Revolution

As each pathway a brain follows limits the potential for new thought, revolution is a way of challenging each part of our existing understanding to find new and interesting combinations.

Using the idea of ice cream to keep with a theme, we spell out the rules behind the thing and list alternatives to each;

Rule Revolution
solid could be liquid or gas
cold warm, below freezing, hot etc
sweet salty, sour, bitter or umami
served in bowls or cones cone made of ice cream, doesn't melt so doesn't need a container
unhealthy good for you, a super food, really bad for you so served in small amounts

The mini revolutions throw up combinations that wouldn't normally be seen and can be combined into new and exciting suggestions.

Random

On long journeys, me and my girlfriend often play a game where each of us picks an actor and then we have to get from one actor to another by making links through other actors and the films they've appear in together, a bit like the Bacon Number but not necessarily involving Kevin Bacon.

For example, if it was and Emily Blunt and Hugh Jackman, Emily Blunt was in The Devil wears Prada with Anne Hathaway, Anne Hathaway was in Les Miserables with Hugh Jackman.

It's actually quite difficult to pick two actors that are far enough apart to make it challenge, especially when you know each other or have similar interests.

The same is to be said for the random connection technique. Possibly the most challenging of the four techniques it also feels the most creative and forming connections between random things can lead to some interesting results. The trick is making sure the things you're trying to form a link between are different enough to start with so try picking articles from a newspaper or ask someone unrelated to your discussion what they had for breakfast, what they did at the weekend or what their favourite thing is.

Innovation is a process and unfortunately our brains are hard-wired to make that process difficult. Using these four techniques I've found it much easier to think differently, be more creative and find ideas that can inspire new ways of doing things, I hope you find them as useful as I have done.

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Dan with his hands over his eyes

Hi, I’m Dan and I am a developer, designer, drummer and snowboarder based in Northampton, UK.