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A. By using many cleverly designed experiments. Some psychologists set up video cameras to watch creative people work, asking them to describe their thought processes out loud or interrupting them frequently to ask how close they were to a solution. Invariably, they were closer than they realized. In other experiments, subjects worked on problems that, when solved, tend to result in the sensation of sudden insight. In one experiment, they were asked to look at words that came up one at a time on a computer screen and to think of the one word that was associated with all of them. After each word—red, nut, bowl, loom, cup, basket, jelly, fresh, cocktail, candy, pie, baking, salad, tree, fly, etc.—they had to give their best guess. Although many swore they had no idea until a sudden burst of insight at about the 12th word, their guesses got progressively closer to the solution: fruit. Even when an idea seems sudden, our minds have actually been working on it all along.
Q. Has brain imaging illuminated the creative process?
A. The first such study was done this year but was inconclusive. In the next five to 10 years, cognitive neuroscience will be able to tell us more.
Q. What has been learned from historical research?
A. Studying notebooks, manuscripts and historical records, we've dissected the creative process of people like the Wright brothers, Charles Darwin, T.S. Eliot, Jackson Pollock, even business innovators like Citigroup's John Reed. We find that creativity happens not with one brilliant flash but in a chain reaction of many tiny sparks while executing an idea.
Q. But isn't it the original creative flash that's critical?
A. Not at all. Take the first airplane. On Dec. 8, 1903, Samuel Pierpont Langley, a leading government-funded scientist, launched with much fanfare his flying machine on the Potomac. It plummeted into the river. Nine days later, Orville and Wilbur Wright got the first plane off the ground. Why did these bicycle mechanics succeed when a famous scientist failed? Because Langley hired other people to execute his concept. Studying the Wrights' diaries, you see that insight and execution are inextricably woven together. Over years, as they solved problems like wing shape and wing warping, each adjustment involved a small spark of insight that led to others.
Q. Are there other generalizations you can make about creative people?
A. Yes. They have tons of ideas, many of them bad. The trick is to evaluate them and mercilessly purge the bad ones. But even bad ideas can be useful. Darwin's notebooks, for example, show us that he went down many dead ends—like his theory of monads. These were tiny hypothetical life forms that sprang spontaneously from inanimate matter. If they died, they took with them all the species into which they had evolved. Darwin spent years refining this bizarre theory before ultimately rejecting it. But it was a critical link in the chain that led to his branching model of evolution. Sometimes you don't know which sparks are important until later, but the more ideas you have, the better.
Q. So how can the average person get more ideas?