Unconscious Creativity: Step Back To Step Forward

It’s easy to see why, for most of human history, a creative insight was thought of as a divine spirit that came from “some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reason,” as Elizabeth Gilbert notes. In an instant, impasse gives way to revelation. And is it not peculiar that solutions come to us as a whole and not in pieces? But this is what defines a moment of insight: its unforeseen completeness.   

To make sense of the mystery, psychologists as recent as the 1980s began studying moments of insight empirically. A key finding was that the unconscious mind, contrary to the Freudian picture, was an effective problem solver. Since then, research has confirmed ancient wisdom: when it comes to creative breakthroughs, it’s better to relax and let the unconscious mind do the work.

Consider a series of experiments carried out in 2006 by Dutch researchers Ap Dijksterhuis and Teun Meurs. The scientists wanted to explore how the cognitive unconscious works during periods of incubation. Does “taking a step back” from a problem have scientific merit?

In one experiment the team asked participants to generate a list of “things one can do with a brick.” There were three groups that generating a list either immediately upon request, after three minutes of conscious deliberation, or after engaging a distracter task for three minutes. The purpose of this delay was to give the participants’ unconscious minds a chance to marinate the problem, to prevent the conscious mind from getting in the way.

Dijksterhuis and Meurs found no difference in the number of items each group generated. However, their data showed that participants engaged in a distracter task were more divergent and creative with their lists – their unconscious minds had time to be creative! The authors concluded that, “upon being confronted with a task that requires a certain degree of creativity, it pays off to delegate the labor of thinking to the unconscious mind.”

In a related study out of the Radboud University in the Netherlands Simone Ritter (who is part of Dijksterhuis’ lab) gave 112 university students two minutes to generate creative solutions that could improve the experience of waiting in line at a cash register. Ritter created two groups: half tackled the problem right away, while the others played a video game for two minutes (again, to give their unconscious minds a chance to think about it).

Next, she asked both groups to choose which of their ideas were the most creative. Ritter found that both groups generated the same number of new ideas. But she also discovered, in congruence with the previous study, that the group that played videogames was much better at identifying their best ideas: “While those in the conscious condition only picked their most innovative concepts about 20 percent of the time — they confused their genius with their mediocrity — those who had been distracted located their best ideas about 55 percent of the time. In other words, they were twice as good at figuring out which concepts deserved more attention.”

Additional research by Dijksterhuis and his collaborators demonstrates similar results: the cognitive unconscious is not only intelligent and highly active; it’s surprisingly effective at generating creative solutions to difficult problems. When we’re stuck, then, consciously thinking about solutions might be counterproductive. Sometimes the best thing to do is ignore your mental stalemate.

This brings me to a new study conducted by Azurji K. Collier and Mark Beeman released in the Journal of Problem Solving. The researchers gathered 57 Northwestern undergraduates and asked them to solve 96 Compound Remote Associate problems. For example, the students viewed three words (crab, pine, sauce) and tried to generate a word (apple) that formed a compound word with each of them (crabapple, pineapple, applesauce). If the students were unable to generate a solution they indicated if they experienced a strong TOT (Tip-of-the-Tongue experience), a weak TOT or no TOT. They also indicated how difficult each CRA problem was. (Collier and Beeman combined strong TOTs with weak TOTs later in the study)

The experiment took place over two days. At the end of the first day – after the students tackled the 96 CRA problems - Collier and Beeman told the students they would receive a new set of problems the next day and to not think about problems from the first day anymore. On the second day (24 hours later +/- 2 hours), Collier and Beeman gave the students 48 new problems and all of the unsolved problems from day one. Interestingly, they found that students solved a greater percentage of problems from day one that produced a strong TOT experience than problems from day one that produced a weak or no TOT experience.

Here are the scientists:

When individuals were unable to generate the solution to a remote associate problem, but experienced a TOT (a sense that they were close, or that they had some solution related information in the back of their mind), they were more likely to solve those problems (compared to problems when they did not experience a TOT) after an overnight incubation period.

What’s particularly interesting is that when the undergrads arrived for the second round of testing none of them reported thinking about the problems over night:

It is unlikely that our TOT specific incubation effect was based on continued conscious work that was carried out on problems that elicited TOT experiences. Clearly, failure to solve any problem indicates a need for continued effort, but no participant reported consciously working on or solving any problems (No-TOT or Yes-TOT) during the incubation delay.

It should be noted that Collier and Beeman did not find the same effect for easy CRA problems. “Unsolved Day 1 problems that were rated as easy were no more likely to be solved on Day 2 compared to problems that were rated as hard.”

What does this research tell us? When it comes to insight-based solutions the best strategy is to let your unconscious mind do the work. The neuroscience legend Eric Kandel explains this notion his latest book The Age of Insight: “When we take the wrong approach to a problem, which happens often, we get nowhere by continuing to think about it. But if we refrain from thinking about the problem and distract ourselves… [we] transition from a rigid, convergent perspective to an associative, divergent perspective.”


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