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Hacking Creativity

Unlocking the jujitsu of innovation

One of the stranger articles Inc. magazine ever ran was a 2002 piece about the neuroscience of innovation. Actually, it wasn’t really about innovation as much as where and how innovators get their ideas. Only it wasn’t that either. It was really about what kind of peculiar mind-hacks top innovators use to come up with their ideas and—the strange part—it opens with a discussion of inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil’s employment of lucid dreaming to solve vexing engineering problems.

Here’s a bit of the story:

Every evening before bed, Kurzweil plucks out a vexing problem—perhaps a business strategy, a technical conundrum, or even an interpersonal issue. First he posits the characteristics of a potential solution. Take, for example, the extraskeletal walking system for paraplegics that he's considering developing. He wants it to be simple enough for a user to put on without help. Lying in bed, Kurzweil begins to fantasize about such a system, sometimes imagining that he's giving a speech about how he reached his conclusions. "This has the purpose of seeding your subconscious to influence your dreams," he says. Then he drifts off to sleep.

All night, snippets of the solution filter in and out of his dreams. At the first glimmer of consciousness, Kurzweil returns to the problem. It is then, during the brief quasi-conscious state known as "lucid dreaming," that he merges the logic of his conscious thought with the relaxation of inhibition engendered by his dreams to arrive at many of his most startling insights. "The most interesting thing about dreams is that you don't consider it unusual when unusual things happen, like a room floating away," says Kurzweil. "You accept this lack of logic. And that [irrational] faculty is needed for creative thinking. But you also need to be able to apply a critical faculty, because not every idea that's different and out of the box will work."

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There are two things here that I find really interesting. The first is, well, who knew that Kurzweil practiced lucid dreaming? For those who don’t know the term, lucid dreaming is the ability to wake oneself up in a dream and, occasionally, exert some degree of control over its contents.

Over the past few decades, a number of researchers (most famously Stephen LeBarge) have done outstanding work in the field, including pioneering well-validated techniques for learning how to wake oneself up mid-dream. What hasn’t been so well-studied is the other thing that I find curious: the idea of using lucid dreams as a creative problem-solver.

First a little background.

Pattern recognition is the term cognitive neuroscientists use for the brain’s ability to lump like with like—thus helping us make sense of our world. It is a capacity, as NYU professor of neurology points out in The Wisdom Paradox, that is fundamental to our mental world.

Without this ability, every object and every problem would be a totally de novo encounter and we would be unable to bring any of our prior experience to bear on how we deal with these objects or problems. The work of Herbert Simon and others has shown that pattern recognition is among the most powerful, perhaps the foremost mechanism of successful problem solving.

But as was pointed out in this recent blog, the brain actually has two different overarching pattern recognition systems at its disposal: the extrinsic and intrinsic. Here’s my earlier description: 

Human beings have evolved two distinct systems for processing information. The first, the explicit system, is rule-based, can be expressed verbally, and is tied to conscious awareness. When the pre-frontal cortex is fired up, the explicit system is usually turned on. But when the cold calculus of logic is swapped out for the gut-sense of intuition, this is the implicit system at work. This system relies on skill and experience. It is not consciously accessible and cannot be described verbally (i.e.—try to explain a hunch).

The explicit and implicit system are often described as “conscious” versus “unconscious,” but that’s not entirely accurate. What’s really going on comes down to networks. When the explicit system is involved, the neurons that are talking to one another are usually found in close proximity to one another. When the implicit system is at work, far flung corners of the brain are chit-chatting.

Creativity, meanwhile, depends on those broader implicit networks putting together information in new ways. I know this is a big broad statement and I’m not going to bother backing it up here (though if you’re curious Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine or David Eagleman’s Incognito are both great places to start). What’s most important here is that this is not often a conscious process. Certainly, we can use the extrinsic system to reason our way to a novel solution, but for our more significant “Ah-Ha! revelations,” what researchers term “sudden insight,” the broader networks of the intrinsic system are required.

And a lot of people, myself included, use this fact to our advantage. It is pretty easy to ask the intrinsic system a question—simply, like Kurzweil does before sleep (though, I often do this mid-day and wide awake), literally, ask a question. Out loud or silently, doesn’t seem to matter. 

For me it’s usually along the lines of “how do I open this article?” or “what’s the most important thing my readers need to understand first?”, but I know CEO’s who do this when trying to figure out how to boost sales and scientists who do this when they’re trying to solve physics puzzles.

Then do something that makes you forget all about asking the question. Long walks, crossword puzzles, other work… whatever… and sooner or later the answer just shows up.

Sure, it sounds like magic, but it’s just pattern recognition. The secret, if there is one, is just about being able to relax enough for the intrinsic system to do its stuff. This is a pretty simple mind hack used by a lot of creatives.

Yet it has a drawback—there’s a time delay. I’m not sure how much this varies from person to person, but for me it’s usually between 5-48 hours. But Kurzweil has found a way to hack the hack. Lucid dreaming allows himself to directly ask questions and get answers.

This leads me to suspect that there are other hacks possible. I’m on the hunt. If anyone else has figured out a way to speed up this process, please comment here or email:

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Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.


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