Creativity is the subconscious mind combined with intuition and rationality

Creativity takes places equally in the conscious and subconscious mind, and while popular definitions often emphasize intuition over rationality, you won't have breakthroughs without both.

Scott Barry Kaufman:  Implicit learning is this ability to subconsciously soak up the probabilistic structure of the universe to put it in a very technical term. Basically it's our ability, you know, there's constantly patterns going on in our environment, even social situations there's constant patterns of people were talking to, just in nature there are patterns. And I found this ability to subconsciously implicitly learn these things without our awareness was related to a very important part of creativity, which is called openness experience.

People who are more open to their experiences tended to do better on these implicit learning tasks where they've had to subconsciously learn the rule structure or learn the pattern without their awareness. They were learning the pattern. So intuition is an important part of the creative process. I don't believe that - there's this kind of false dichotomy we've made between rationality and intuition. So again, the common theme today is the middle way because you go to a bookstore, you look at different sections of the bookstore, you look at like the rationality section and it's like Dawkins and everyone, "God is dead," blah, blah, blah and you're like whatever you do don't rely your intuition; intuition is BS.

And then you go to like the spirituality section of the bookstore and it's like every thing is like intuition, intuition, intuition, rational people don't know they're talking about; they're not in touch with spirituality, et cetera, et cetera. And I think there needs to be a middle section of the bookstore which says that for optimal truth in the universe, not just discovering the truth but also optimal creativity, we need to listen to our intuition but not be ruled by our intuition. We need to be rational but we need not be hyper rational. And I think that that middle way is really critical for creativity.

The non-conscious mind computes so many things outside of our level of awareness that are related to creativity that if we don't give our subconscious mind the time to really reflect and to fill in all the gaps between all these things we are actually reducing the chances we're going to have a great insight. Great creativity doesn't come when we're just solely rationally consciously focusing on solving a creative problem. That's helpful for solving a non-insightful problem, but when we're trying to solve an insightful problem, something that requires a leap to come to an answer, we rarely get to that answer when we're consciously deliberately focusing on the answer. We need to go do something else and let the subconscious mind work.

And then when we feel that intuition what William James refers to the fringe of consciousness where we start to feel it bubbling up in our soul that there's an answer coming and it's a very exciting feeling, that fringe of consciousness, eventually when it reaches the threshold of awareness that's what the ah-ha moment is. So we can sort of – the research shows we start to feel that an ah-ha moment is coming and then when an ah-ha moment comes it pops into consciousness as one gestalt, as one whole piece. Because that's what our subconscious has been doing is trying to fill in all those little missing pieces so that finally when it enters our consciousness we only see it as one big gestalt. Now it doesn't mean it's always right however. The feeling that we get on the ah-ha moment is that feeling of completeness, but it might not be right so we still have to do the hard work of rationality to flesh it out.

Thanks to advances in neuroscience, we are closer to a true definition of creativity — those seemingly inexplicable moments of clarity and invention — than ever before. Creativity is a quality of the mind, not an inherent characteristic or specific activity. Put differently, there are some very creative accountants just as there are some very uncreative painters — it all depends on the person doing the work. So what does it take to be creative? At the very least, it takes an openness to overcoming popular notions of creativity which are too restrictive, says Scott Barry Kaufman.


Indeed, being open to new experiences and ideas is an essential quality of creative individuals. This is because in order to arrive at new conclusions and new ways of doing things, we must learn new things. But how we learn new things isn't entirely straightforward, and integrating them into the field of things we already know is a complicated process requiring both the conscious and subconscious mind. A great deal of information processing happens in the subconscious mind, says Kaufman, and to emphasize conscious thinking at the expense of subconscious processing is a mistake.

In the conscious mind, we typically divide activity into intuitive thinking (emotions and subjective truth) and rational thinking (logic and objective truth). But this distinction is a false one, argues Kaufman, and we need to embrace what he calls "the middle way."

Sign of the times: School designed to limit impact of mass shootings

With little progress on other avenues to preventing mass shootings, one firm has employed architecture to save students.

Image source: TowerPinkster
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A school in Michigan is being remodeled in a way to minimize the effect of a shooter should the worst happen.
  • It features limited sight lines, bullet proof windows, and doors that can be locked at the push of a button.
  • Some research casts doubt on how effective the plans will actually be.
Keep reading Show less

How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


Without academic freedom, we might never see the truth. Here’s why.

Sometimes, academic expression can make people uncomfortable. But this tension is a feature, not a bug.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The way we communicate is dictated in part by the setting that that communication takes place in. You're supposed to tell your doctor everything; on the other hand, you wouldn't tell your business competitor much at all.
  • In academia, communication is supposed to be somewhat provocative. The reaction to a provocative idea can't be to silence the one expressing it, but to approach it from the other side of the argument. One way to think about this is that if you don't understand the other side of an issue, then you can't claim to understand the issue.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less