Seeking an epiphany in the wrong places

27th July 2012 at 01:00
Studies of the brain show that creativity is not a random gift from the Muses; from having a bath to painting the walls blue, there are ways we can harness it, says Martin Spice

Creativity is one of those qualities that everyone seems to want but nobody understands. Industry wants it because new ideas are its lifeblood; governments desire it because it's good for the economy and teachers want it because. well, because they think it's a good thing. But, until now, nobody seems to have been sure about where it comes from or how to get it.

Enter Jonah Lehrer: journalist, Oxford Rhodes scholar and author of Imagine: how creativity works, a book whose reliance on neuroscientific discoveries and exhaustive studies in industry and the arts seems set to change the way we think about this most nebulous of subjects. Sifting tranches of highly respectable research, Lehrer aims to debunk the myth that creativity is a moment of inspiration or a gift from the gods. Instead, he offers a convincing deconstruction of the brain processes that characterise creative thinking, arguing that there is overwhelming evidence that they can be enhanced by social and environmental factors. Teachers take note: these factors do not involve self-selected classroom groupings, brainstorming or the repeated instruction to "concentrate". Nor do they recommend a restrictive examination syllabus. They might, however, involve other things, such as painting the walls blue.

Most controversially, Lehrer suggests binning the politically correct stance of never criticising the ideas offered by other people in creative meetings. He is not suggesting a collegiate punch-up, but insists it's far more productive to disagree vigorously.

"We naturally assume . that negative feedback stifles the sensitive imagination," Lehrer says. "But it turns out we are tougher than we thought. The imagination is not meek - it doesn't wilt in the face of conflict. Instead it is drawn out, pulled from its usual hiding place." Far better, then, is "plussing" - criticism followed by a new idea that moves the work on.

fMRI scans (functional magnetic resonance imaging scans, which detect changes in blood flow to measure brain activity) and EEG (electroencephalography, which measures the waves of electricity produced by the brain) have contributed extensive information about how the brain works that already guides good practice in the classroom. Mark Jung- Beeman, a research scientist, and John Kounios, a psychologist, used these tools to deconstruct the moment of insight, or epiphany, shown by people working on problems that require creative solutions.

Their extensive and complex experiment-based work over the past decade suggests that, when presented with a problem, the left side of the brain searches for answers and, if it doesn't find one, gives up. The mind meets a brick wall, at which point most people dismiss the problem as unsolvable. They shouldn't. If they persevere, the right side of the brain will kick in and explore alternatives by seeking previously obscured connections and associations. The end result is insight - or an epiphany. (This is discernible through enhanced electrical activity in the anterior superior temporal gyrus, situated just above the ear.)

But for this to occur, the brain (or the right hemisphere, at least) has to produce alpha waves that result from being in a relaxed state of mind. That is why we often find sudden solutions to long-term problems when we're in the bath, and why the global technology manufacturer 3M, one of the most innovative companies in the world, allows its researchers to give over 15 per cent of their workday to pursuing speculative new ideas. It is also why trying to force an insight can actually prevent one. This discovery alone has significant implications for classroom practice and school management. It is clearly no use urging pupils (or teachers) to stay on task when having a timeout may actually result in the elusive breakthrough.

It is now generally accepted that in many fields teamwork produces better results than individual endeavour. After all, our brains are stimulated by our social and cultural context. But unpredictable meetings can prove the most productive. When Steve Jobs redesigned the headquarters of film studio Pixar, he put all the mailboxes in the central atrium, shifted the meeting rooms to the centre of the building and moved the cafeteria and coffee shop nearby, together with the only bathrooms. People who would not usually encounter each other were therefore forced to meet. What Jobs knew was that the most important factor in a creative company is the random interaction of employees - not the regulated interaction of designated teams. The message is clear: groups need to be mixed up as much as possible.

Imagine: how creativity works was not written specifically for schools, although Lehrer quotes with approval the experiences of High Tech High in San Diego, US, where pupils spend a large proportion of their time working on creative projects. His rationale is clear: "When children are allowed to create they're able to develop the sophisticated talents that are required for success in the real world. Instead of learning how to pass a standardised test, they learn how to cope with complexity and connect ideas, how to bridge disciplines and improve their first drafts."

From Bob Dylan to Keith Richards, from 3M to Pixar, from Broadway musicals to a world-class cocktail maker, Lehrer pulls together a startling array of research and creative practice that challenges much of our current teaching methods, school organisation and even national educational policy.

And the significance of blue walls? Well, research suggests that they encourage creative thinking. It is doubtful whether a lick of paint alone will be able to transform our approach to this most elusive and mysterious of subjects. But knowing "how creativity works" just might.

Martin Spice was head of an international school in Borneo before becoming a freelance writer and author. Imagine: how creativity works by Jonah Lehrer is published by Canongate

What else?

Key stage 1: Use your imagination

Add some sparkle to your teaching with five top tips from NLTP.

Key stage 2: Individual learners

Find out which learning style suits each of your pupils with a questionnaire from HughMorrison.

Key stage 3: Inspiring numbers

Get creative in the maths classroom with DaveGale's guide.

Key stage 4: Get creative

See hints and tips from other teachers on creative teaching in a resource from ukedchat.

Find all links and resources at


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