How Neuro-Science Can Teach us to ‘Think Outside the Box’

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Being asked to ’think outside the box’ is nothing new to those of us in the insight and creative industries, but the ability to do it seems to come more easily to some than to others.

Is creative talent something one is born with, or is it possible to optimise the brain’s ability to create and imagine something new? Neuro-Insight’s founder and Chief Scientist, Professor Emeritus Richard Silberstein recently presented the results of new work that has been done in this area, which shed new light on the way that creativity actually works in the brain.

A number of influences impact the brain’s ability to think creatively. The stimulus presented, immediate environment and neuro-biology of the individual in question can all have an effect but, more fundamentally, creative thinking involves two distinct sets of processes in the brain. The first, which we call the ’creation network’, is responsible for surfacing original ideas and often works by weaving multiple concepts together at varying degrees of randomness – much like you’d expect to happen in a typical brainstorming session.

But there is also a fascinating second factor at play – a ’judging’ or ’retention’ network – where the brain subconsciously assesses each idea and determines its value based on its suitability to solve a problem.  This judgmental network tends to apply strict criteria for the acceptance of ideas, and the net effect can be that ideas with great creative potential are dismissed by the brain before ever being articulated.

Crucially, each network functions best in different environments. The creation network, for example, thrives on relaxation and we are often at our most creative when we stop directly trying to solve a problem and do something different instead. The judging network tends to be more active when we are consciously addressing a problem or when external scrutiny comes into play, as we use it to test and compare our ideas for viability.

So how does what’s been discovered about the neuroscience of creativity translate to the work place?

Well first, it proves that creative thinking thrives in a judgement-free atmosphere, away from the intermittent stresses of external stimulus – like social media for example – substantiating the demands of moderators who say phones should remain outside the room whilst creative development is going on.

But there’s also something to be said for shifting roles, teams and even disciplines during one’s working life.  In addition to constantly embracing new concepts, both in and out the workplace, a willingness to adapt and test oneself can also boost creativity levels.

The work presented by Professor Silberstein suggests that age can impact creativity levels – just not in the way we might expect. Creative agency demographics skew towards the young-guns – the average age of IPA members is 33.7, for example – but the evidence indicates that creativity levels actually reach their peak around the much older age of 40-50, and can be maintained at this high levels by individuals who continue to do new and different things as they get older.

With this in mind, alongside continuing to strive for greater diversity of talent across the industry in terms of ethnicity and gender, for example, pushing for a wider age range within creative teams, and encouraging and maintaining diverse experiences could well pay off for agencies and others where creativity is a key driver of success.

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