It's easy to spend lots of time working, but hard to come up with something new. Creativity may be necessary in a wide variety of realms—you're looking to develop a new product, to find a new research idea, to solve an intractable problem, or simply to find a structure that unites diverse pieces of information for a memo or a report.
Where does that aha! moment come from? In a recent episode of "The Writer's Almanac," Garrison Keillor quoted an interview with J.K. Rowling on how she got the idea to write a novel about Harry Potter:
She was on a train coming home to London from a weekend looking at flats in Manchester in 1990, when she suddenly got the idea for a novel. "I was looking out of the window at some cows, I believe and I just thought: ‘Boy doesn't know he's a wizard—goes off to wizard school.' . . . I have no idea where it came from. I think the idea was floating along the train and looking for someone, and my mind was vacant enough, so it decided to zoom in there."
Rowling is partial to magic, so she says the idea was out there in the ether, trying to find a place to land. My take on it is that this was her idea alone to grasp. She probably had wizard ideas and boy-who-doesn't-know-he's-adopted ideas stored somewhere in her brain, and suddenly—those two ideas met up, and the creative leap was made!
I've recently blogged about the necessity of having some time when you're not getting new information, so that your mind is "vacant enough," and insights like this can occur. This is very important. But Rowling's aha! moment also relates to something else—what neuroscientists are discovering when they look inside the brain as people have sudden insights.
After studying the brain activity of people solving problems, Kounios and Beeman (1) observed that when people solved problems with sudden insight, their brain activity suggested that they were directing their attention inwardly, to detect weakly activated potential solutions. What they seem to be saying is, rather than systematically focusing their attention outwardly at the given problem, people are allowing their brain to bring up options stored in unexpected places. After all, creative solutions don't pop up where you'd expect to find them.
What advice does this suggest for jump-starting your creativity?
1) Get lots of information, but when you get stuck, break away to a low-information environment (no TV, no smartphone, no computer) to let your brain ruminate on its own, subconsciously searching for connections that are not obvious.
2) Move to a different location; a different outlook might well give you a different perspective.
3) Observe the world around you when you're out among people (rather than focusing on your gadgets). What you see might be more closely related to your problem than you think. You never know what will shake loose an old memory that's related to your new problem.
4) Talk about your problem with other people. Seeing it from their perspective might help dislodge remotely associated ideas.
Remember: Your brain contains a mother-lode of memories and ideas. Keep mining it.
(1) Kounios, J., & Beeman, M. (2009). The Aha! Moment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 210-216.