When most of us need to come up with a new idea, or solve a problem, we will consult our conscious mind and rely on it to provide us with the answers we’re looking for. As such we will probably sit down with a pen and paper and start writing down the issues and challenges surrounding the problem.
Research suggest though that this may not be the very best way to incite our creativity; the reason being that our unconscious mind may actually be more useful when it comes to creativity and out-the-box thinking as it is less restrained by societal norms, habit and thinking structures.
How Do We Know Our Unconscious Mind Is Good at Creativity?
There are many studies that seem to support this theory. One study into the ‘adaptive unconscious’ for instance challenged participants to guess whether the next card to be drawn on a computer screen would be higher or lower than the one preceding it. They were told that there was no pattern and that it was completely random, though in reality there was a very complex pattern that they wouldn’t be able to work out that was dictating which card showed next. What made the study really interesting though, was that some of the participants were unable to experience emotion as a result of brain injuries.
What was found from this study was that the participants who had no way to register emotion ended up performing worse than those whose emotions were intact. The explanation given was that the participants who were able to feel emotion had a ‘gut feeling’ that told them which response to go for. On some level their unconscious brain was working out the pattern to a sufficient degree that it could guess more accurately.
In another study, participants were asked to spend some time coming up with names for an imaginary brand of pasta after being presented with five examples (each ending in ‘I’). In one condition, the participants were given the entire time to come up with names, while in another they were first asked to do a complicated task and then asked to come up with the names only right at the end without much time to think.
The answers were rated for their creativity by looking at how different they were from other existing pasta names, and surprisingly the group who had no time to think were actually the ones who were most imaginative.
How to Tap Into That Creativity
So there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that our unconscious mind is highly creative. Now how do we go about making use of that?
Well one easy solution is to use the method described above – by distracting yourself from the task and then challenging yourself to come up with a solution quickly. At the same time though there are plenty of other methods, some of which draw on the work of psychodynamic psychology – which is all about seeing what’s going on inside the human mind.
Salvador Dali’s Technique: Salvador Dali was a surrealist painter who recognized the power of the unconscious mind when it comes to coming up with unique and creative ideas and a big fan of Freud’s work. To this end he came up with a novel way to tap into his unconscious ideas – by falling asleep holding a spoon over a glass of water. When he eventually nodded off the spoon would drop into the water and he would sketch the images from his dreams that were fresh in his mind. Freud called dreams the ‘royal road’ to the unconscious after all…
Meanwhile you might also be able to benefit from dreams without the interruption – or at least sleep. ‘Sleeping on it’ is a term we often use, but studies suggest that it genuinely might be useful. Try thinking about your problem for a bit during the day, forgetting about it, then waking up in the morning to see if you have a new perspective. While you were sleeping your unconscious mind may just have been working on a solution.
Psychodynamic Techniques: Freud also had a few other tricks up his sleeve, and a number of ways of getting to the unconscious which may be applicable here. Free association for instance is the process of responding to a word by saying the first thing that comes into your head in response. Try starting with some words surrounding your project then use free association to find related concepts.
The inkblot test meanwhile uses the concept of ‘projection’ – the idea being that you project your feelings and unconscious thoughts onto seemingly abstract shapes. Try staring at patterns in the wall or carpet and seeing what emerges from them.
Relaxation: Studies have shown that we’re more likely to think creatively and outside the box when we’re relaxed. Stress and anxiety cause us to think more within the ‘norm’ and to fixate on smaller details rather than seeing the ‘bigger picture’. Thus, anything you can do to help yourself relax should help your unconscious creativity come to the fore. This might mean playing some Vivaldi, or just changing your PC wallpaper to an image of some lush green fields – the colour green and plant life helps us to relax thanks to psychological hangovers we all have from our evolutionary history.
Getting ‘Out’ Of Yourself: The way we think is structured by many different forces, including a tendency toward egocentrism; in other words we find it difficult to think in a way other than ‘the way we normally think’. To escape this problem, try using different methods to remove yourself from the equation. For instance you can ask yourself how someone else might approach the problem. How would a scientist approach the issue? How would an idiot approach the issue? How would your mate Dave approach the project? Even if they don’t have the answer, they can help you to gain fresh perspectives and think in ways you normally wouldn’t.
Likewise you can use comparable situations to explore the idea more fully. For instance you might say that coming up with a room design is ‘like designing a website’, or you might say that advertising your new business is ‘like selling apples in a market’. How can ideas from that scenario be applied to your situation?
By using all these methods you can help to quieten your conscious thought process and start tapping into that well of creativity underneath. Just how far does the rabbit hole go?