Where do new ideas come from?

22 August 2016

Interview with

Dr Anna Abraham, Leeds Beckett University

Creative brainsWhen making a movie; before the script, before the storyboard, before the very first meeting - a film needs to come from an idea. So where and why does inspiration hit, and what's going on in the brain? Dr Anna Abraham is a neuropsychologist from the Leeds Beckett University, and she explained the inner workings of inspiration to Georgia Mills...

Anna - The first idea is to try and understand what was going on in the brain was to look at single regions to try and see whether one part of the brain (the right brain) was more creative than the left brain and so on.

Georgia - I remember seeing online like  - are you right brained or are you left brained (one's maths, one's creativity) - is it as simple as that?

Anna - It's not, unfortunately for us, because it makes things more complicated. For a long time it was thought to be true and it's not completely illogical why they assumed that.  Its because most of the tasks they were comparing it to were sort of logical tasks so it's "how do you tie your shoelace" or something like that. And if you compare something like a logical task to a creative task, then the right brain would be more involved because the right brain is a more spontaneous, generative. But, in the meantime, we know that both modes of operation are equally important. It's important to have this spontaneous generative aspect in order to generate many ideas but it's as important to have a controlled, reflective mode as well in order to pick the best ideas. To truly pick the most original idea to be as creative as you can.

Georgia - So different regions are sort of better at doing different things but all the regions need to kind of talk to each other and work together to get this whole creative process going?

Anna - Exactly - it seems to be the case and in most other non-creative aspects of thinking you would need only one or the other network of brain regions. But in terms of creative thinking, you actually need this very sort of dynamic interplay between quite different networks of brain regions that are either being very spontaneous or very deliberate and it needs to be working in unison together.

Georgia - OK. And in terms of when someone comes up with the new idea - where is that coming from and how is the brain sort of generating this new, never-before-seen thing?

Anna - Our ideas come from our own minds. Our minds are very powerful things though, and we're not really quite sure exactly how ideas come about but we're getting closer to these answers. We take in a lot of information everyday through our senses, consciously, unconsciously. A lot more goes in than we are even aware of.

But then the true magic begins after that because all of this information, once it's stored, is weakly or strongly associated with every other piece of information in the brain and, when we're trying to generate new ideas, it's all about how these different pieces of information can be combined in novel ways. And some of us are better at getting at these original, novel combinations than others.

Georgia - I see. So it doesn't come from nothing, you're just taking different parts of your experiences and combining them in new ways?

Anna - That's exactly it. So you take in a lot of information from different sources. So let's say I go to the bakery in the morning and I pick up my croissant and later on I see a child drawing on a pavement, and at night I might have a dream that the child was drawing a croissant. I didn't actually see the child do that, but in my dreaming mind, all of these things that were not previously connected in my real experience, are being combined in my mind. It's almost like the puzzle pieces can be taken, although you acquire them in certain separate boxes, once it's in there you can just combine the puzzle pieces in any way possible. The limitations are only kind of in your own mind.

Georgia - I see. So creativity is basically just stealing with style, isn't it?

Anna - Absolutely, yes.

Georgia - And a lot of people say oh, I'm not very creative, I can't do that. Are some people just not creative and are there ways you can get better at it?

Anna - A lot of people feel that they are not creative and that's because they have certain notions about what it means to be creative. So they only see people who practise the visual arts or music and so on as being creative. In truth, we're being creative in every sphere of our lives all the time: when we speak, when we're cooking in the kitchen, and when we think about new ways to solve problems, and we're a very, very creative species. Some of us are easily more creative than other people but it doesn't mean that in any way we are set in our talents, whether it's an Olympic sport, or whether it's trying to improve your memory, creativity is the same thing. You can improve with practise, and you can improve it in very, very deliberate ways...

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