Keys to neuroscience and creativity
When I was in the second grade, Mike, a chubby and kind friend, was in my class, and we were asked to draw a picture of a tree. With pencil in hand, I quickly drew two sticks for the trunk and a squiggly circle for the treetop. That was my level of creativity: make the most basic image of a thing that is still holds enough power to remind viewers vaguely of a tree.
Mike took forever, and I watched him over his shoulder. He wasn't drawing a blob tree, but a tall pine tree with exquisitely detailed branches. "You're a freaking artist" I told him. He responded that he just liked to draw.
This was an essential difference because I did not enjoy drawing, I liked to write. Perhaps, with practice, I could have drawn a pine tree equal to Mike's realistic picture, but I didn't care to. And, I believed that the drawing must be easier for Mike because he had a natural gift.
My point in this piece is that we all have the cognitive ability to create and innovate, and by learning more about the brain, we become more skilled. We practice and nurture our skills.
For those interested in improving their creative capacities, it's helpful to know what is going on in the brain that makes creativity and interpretation possible. There are all kinds of definitions of creativity, but the one that concerns me the most as having the potential to empower us is the neurological explanation which scientist have learned much about in the last decade. The drawing below points to areas we will be discussing.
The recent article "What Neuroscience Teaches Us About Creativity" by Tanner Christensen provides useful information for understanding creativity in the brain. He interviewed Joel Chan, a PhD student in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. Chan started with this on creativity in the brain:
The science of creativity is arguably still in its infancy, despite there being volumes of research on it since the 1950’s, in part due to the strong presence of folk psychology, and the difficulty in wrangling it scientifically.
One of the problems with research in creativity is that we already hold preconceived notions, so accepting new science is challenging. I exhibited this in my interaction with Mike in the second grade: I believed that art was a natural gift, easy for Mike, tough for me. The truth is that we are all naturally gifted as human beings to be creative, even though the kinds of creativity are different.
Another problem is that, even though it has been studied for a while, a lot remains to be done to understand precisely what goes on in the brain.
A cognitive definition of creativity and the process
Still we do know quite a bit, and Chan knows enough to have put down some initial thoughts on a definition:
I think creativity, from a neurological standpoint, is a collection of cognitive abilities and tendencies, that, when applied to a problem or pursuit, result in the creation of something that is appropriate to the problem/pursuit, and also new/original in some sense.
This definition is broad enough that it captures other kinds of creativity than just visual art. And really, what Chan describes is the heart of innovation, when we use collective cognitive capacities to apply to a problem in an appropriate and original way. In the originality lies the innovation, but the analysis of the problem must also be appropriate. Totally random innovation or creativity is less than useful.
How the brain captures the meaning of visual ideas
The following Ted Talk by Tom Wujec (less than six minutes) addresses what is going on in the brain during creative processes so that we can learn how to better use creativity.
We know that creativity and design create meaning in the brain, but Tom Wujec moves us closer to understanding why this happens. This is important because the better we understand how the brain generates meaning from creativity, the more effectively we can put it to use:
Techniques to maximize learning
Because our minds are adept at making meaning from creative visual information, we should apply this knowledge by:
You can use this for visual collaboration rather than a simple PowerPoint, where teams work together to create their own visuals, making the meaning more powerful and hands-on. They can use the visuals to clarify ideas and abstract concepts. This also helps to make them interactive, and it is through this interactivity, information becomes memorable.
Essential reads on the brain and creativitySome essential reads on creativity.
The more knowledge you have about how these ideas integrate, the better position you are in to use graphics effectively and learn from them.
Pinar Noorata describes some essential reads on creativity and the mind, with a synopsis of each of the five. The links will take you to Amazon if you are interested. The list includes powerful titles:
All the books provide different means to the same goal of finding your creativity and most agree that:
The air is full of ideas. They are knocking you in the head all the time. You only have to know what you want, then forget it, and go about your business. Suddenly, the idea will come through. It was there all the time.
Innovation is all around us if we use the proper cognitive tools. Understanding how visual and creative information is processed in the brain empowers us to create better graphics and learn more from them. We realize the world of ideas and learning can no longer be separated from the creative.
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Before you leave, give us your impression of this information. Do you use graphics to teach and instruct? Are they effective?