The Hidden Secrets of the Creative Mind

Innovation requires no special thought processes, says an expert. Creative people just work harder at it

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What is creativity? Where does it come from? The workings of the creative mind have been subjected to intense scrutiny over the past 25 years by an army of researchers in psychology, sociology, anthropology and neuroscience. But no one has a better overview of this mysterious mental process than Washington University psychologist R. Keith Sawyer, author of the new book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation (Oxford; 336 pages). He's working on a version for the lay reader, due out in 2007 from Basic Books. In an interview with Francine Russo, Sawyer shares some of his findings and suggests ways in which we can enhance our creativity not just in art, science or business but in everyday life.

Q. Has the new wave of research upended any of our popular notions about creativity?

A. Virtually all of them. Many people believe creativity comes in a sudden moment of insight and that this "magical" burst of an idea is a different mental process from our everyday thinking. But extensive research has shown that when you're creative, your brain is using the same mental building blocks you use every day—like when you figure out a way around a traffic jam.

Q. Then how do you explain the "aha!" moment we've all had in the shower or the gym—or anywhere but at work?

A. In creativity research, we refer to the three Bs—for the bathtub, the bed and the bus—places where ideas have famously and suddenly emerged. When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we're doing and our context, and that can activate different areas of our brain. If the answer wasn't in the part of the brain we were using, it might be in another. If we're lucky, in the next context we may hear or see something that relates—distantly—to the problem that we had temporarily put aside.

Q. Can you give us an example of that?

A. In 1990 a team of NASA scientists was trying to fix the distorted lenses in the Hubble telescope, which was already in orbit. An expert in optics suggested that tiny inversely distorted mirrors could correct the images, but nobody could figure out how to fit them into the hard-to-reach space inside. Then engineer Jim Crocker, taking a shower in a German hotel, noticed the European-style showerhead mounted on adjustable rods. He realized the Hubble's little mirrors could be extended into the telescope by mounting them on similar folding arms. And this flash was the key to fixing the problem.

Q. How have researchers studied this creative flash?

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