Sunday, June 30, 2013

What can we do to think more creatively?

This week I had the pleasure of reading a wonderful article about the creative process according to Vladimir Nabokov (to read the article, click here). Essentially the article considers the question of whether a writer ought to wait for creativity to strike before composing, or sit down to compose until the creativity is flowing. While I see the merit of waiting for creativity to strike, some of us have professions where we have to produce writing and ideas on a more regular and predictable schedule. So, while in theory I align with Nabokov, in practice they fall short of reality. Fortunately, psychology has quite a bit to say about how creativity works and, more importantly, how it can be harnessed.  So this week I will share with you just one recent finding study on:

What can we do to think more creatively?

In this study, Drs. Carine Lewis and Peter Lovatt of the University of Hertfordshire were interested in how improvisation as a practice helps to promote divergent thinking. In this study, improvisation was defined as a form of creativity where words, music or ideas are formed spontaneously with no opportunity for preparation or correction. The outcome in this study, divergent thinking, was defined as a critical component of problem solving which involves generating a range of possible solutions for a particular task or problem. This would be compared with convergent thinking which requires a single definitive answer to a task or problem, as in simple arithmetic.

To test this relationship, the researchers recruited 41 undergraduate students and randomized them into two conditions. In the first condition, participants participated in 20 minutes of improvisation activities of different levels of difficulty, such as generating a story or speech or having a conversation with a stranger on a random topic. The second condition was a control condition where participants completed similar tasks where preparation was allowed. Following the two conditions, all participants completed the Alternative Uses Task (AUT) where they were given the names of common objects (e.g., a paper clip, remote control) and asked to generate as many uses for the object as possible. Their answers were then scored by 3 independent raters for number of responses, originality, level of detail, and number of different categories of uses.

The researchers found that participants in the improvisation condition generated more responses, in more categories, that were more original than those in the control condition.

To follow up on this study, they were interested in whether musical improvisation had the same benefits as verbal improvisation. To do this, they recruited 36 undergraduate musicians and randomized them to an improvisation or a control condition. In the improvisation condition, the musicians completed two musical tasks. In the first, they heard a unique 10-15 second clip of music and were required to “respond” with their own instrument to that clip. In the second, they were shown emotional images and were asked to generate a response to each image with their instrument. Participants in the control condition were asked to practice and perform a known piece of music. After these two conditions, the participants completed the AUT.

Again, the researchers found that musicians who had completed the improvisation condition generated more responses, in more categories, and with more originality than their musician peers in the control condition.

Taken together, these two studies suggest that practicing improvisation in either music or words helps us to think “outside the box” in other situations. Another important contribution this study has made is that previous research would suggest that the best facilitator of creative thinking is positive mood, however mood was controlled for in both studies, and thus practicing improvisation has these effects on creative thinking above and beyond the impact your mood has. In other words, you gain something from improvisation even if you don’t enjoy it.

But why does practicing improvisation help us with divergent thinking? This process occurs because of the way information is organized in our brains. When we learn new information, we also incorporate it into networks of information that are deemed “related.” For example, when you learn about the Revolutionary War in grade school, information about “red coats”, the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere and the year 1776 all become connected information in your memory. Under most circumstances, this information would not be connected to the information on how to bake banana bread. However, each time you practice improvisation, you are connecting unrelated stores of information, and therefore creating pathways in your memory between previously unrelated stores of information.



One question I still have is how the timing of improvisation plays a role here. In both of the above experiments, the participants completed the improvisation tasks immediately before the AUT. I wonder whether the effect on divergent thinking would have been greater or smaller had the AUT been the following day, or if the improvisation tasks had occurred every day for a week, or even once a week for a month. What dose of improvisation should we be giving ourselves? Also, I wonder about the developmental nature of creative thinking in general. Are the benefits of improvisation greater among children or is this unique to adults? Is this something that could be incorporated into curricula to promote a new generation of creative thinkers?

So what does this mean for us? To me, this means that for all of my students who complain that “they just aren’t creative,” I can show them evidence that they can be with practice. Many people hold the belief that creativity is one of those traits that you are either born with or you are not. This study shows us that while the inclination towards creative projects may be inherent, anyone can be more creative with practice. Lucky for us, there are many ways to practice improvisation to gain some of these benefits. My personal favorite is playing Taboo.


Lewis, C., & Lovatt, P. (2013). Breaking Away from Set Patterns of Thinking: Improvisation and Divergent Thinking. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 9, 46-58. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Get the next post via email:

Believe in our mission too?