Creative and Lateral Thinking
© Lloyd King
Creative thinking is a magical ability, which can both enhance our lives on a personal level and catapult us into another reality or way of seeing the world. Until quite recent times it was still widely believed to be some sort of supernatural gift bestowed on only a few tortured artists, musicians and scientists. Of course today we now know that this is just a myth and that almost everyone is born with the potential to be creative. But whether it blooms, withers or remains dormant is still very much dependent on luck. To a large degree this is due to an imbalance in our educational systems, which tend to target critical thinking skills almost to the exclusion of creative thinking ones. The unfortunate outcome of this is that our creative potential remains almost entirely forgotten and untapped. Albert Einstein had this to say about the problem, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Such an imbalance defies logic. As lateral thinking expert Edward de Bono pointed out, “Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.” The good news is that you can learn to reawaken your creativity, shake off your old thought patterns and start creating some new ones.
The area of the brain most commonly associated with creative thinking is the right hemisphere, which, as well as being the visual, holistic and intuitive side, is also home to the imagination. While it is undoubtedly a major protagonist in the creative process, other areas of the brain also play a significant part in what is really a ‘global’ or whole-brain process. For example, the more critical, linear and logical left hemisphere of the brain supplies the essential raw data for the right hemisphere to synthesise. It does this via the corpus callosum, a bundle of more than 200 million nerve fibres, which forms a bridge between the two cerebral hemispheres and allows them to communicate. In addition, the left hemisphere is responsible for the analysis and the evaluation of any ideas, insights or solutions generated by the right hemisphere.
Creative thinking is all about having ideas. The ultimate purpose being to bring into existence something startlingly original, culturally acceptable and useful too. To think creatively you also need to be creative in the way that you think. This means thinking divergently, laterally, fuzzily, overinclusively, provocatively, synesthetically, ‘outside the box’ and, as has already been mentioned, analytically too. It requires breaking out of familiar patterns of thought, being flexible and coming up with new and unusual associations and possibilities between seemingly unrelated ideas and things. In addition, it means being able to tolerate ambiguity, being able to see things from many different angles at the same time and being able to change strategies at the drop of a hat in order to avoid getting “stuck”. In his book No Ordinary Genius about the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, Marvin Minsky says of him, “He was so 'unstuck' and, if something didn't work, he would look at it in another way. He had so many different good ways. He would do something in ten minutes that might take the average physicist a year.”
A characteristic of creative thinkers is that they like to do things in novel and unusual ways. They are not afraid to take risks and try new ideas even though they might be wrong and appear foolish. As the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward; they may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.”
They also possess some thing called entelechy, which is the vital force that pushes you to make the most of your potential and work towards a specific goal. According to psychologist Howard Gruber, “the creative person cannot simply be driven, he must be drawn to his work by visions, hopes, joy of discovery, love of truth, and sensuous pleasure in the creative activity itself.” Being iconoclastic and having a disregard for routine and order, creative thinkers can tend to live chaotically. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact A. A. Milne, the author of Winnie The Pooh, said, “One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.”
Creative individuals have a childlike sense of playfulness and wonder as well as an unquenchable zest for life. It is as if they never grew up. Consequently, they tend not to take things too seriously and so retain their natural spontaneity. Also, they do not become too complacent or allow their thought processes to become predictable and stuck in a rut. After all, humans are not trams or trains confined to tramlines or railway lines and should be free to move in any direction they please. In some ways to be a creative thinker you must become a sort of ghost so that you are no longer confined by walls and can walk through them as though they do not exist.
More often than not creative thinking involves recombining and expanding existing ideas to generate new theories and concepts. Isaac Newton famously acknowledged this process when he said, “If I have seen a little farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." The artist Vincent Van Gogh used what he had learnt from the new ideas of the impressionist artists like Claude Monet and neo-impressionists like Georges Seurat to forge his own highly original and expressive style. Pablo Picasso too was greatly influenced by the ideas and work of other artists and art movements. He was particularly inspired by the post-impressionist Paul Cezanne and Tribal Art. Their combined influence eventually led him and Georges Braque to invent Cubism with its radical simultaneous depiction of objects from multiple viewpoints.
Sometimes when the conscious mind cannot resolve a problem the subconscious mind continues to work away at it behind the scenes. Then, after a period of incubation, a solution unexpectedly bubbles to the surface. This happened to the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He was working on a long poem called the Duino Elegies when he fell into a deep depression that lasted for ten years. Incredibly, when it did finally lift, he managed to complete this poem and also write the entire Sonnets to Orpheus, a total of 1,200 lines, almost without revision in just 18 days. Such an apparently effortless burst of creativity is known as a period of ‘flow’. When someone is in this trance-like state they may describe themselves as being “in the zone” or “on a roll”. There is an altered perception of time, a sharpening of the senses and ideas just seem to pour out. Perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon is Mozart. He said:
"When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer - say, travelling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them... Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively but I hear them, as it were, all at once... The committing to paper is done quickly enough, for everything is already finished; and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination."
Ideas sometimes occur unexpectedly in a flash of inspiration called an “Aha!” or “Eureka!” moment. In Zen Buddhism such a state of sudden intuitive enlightenment is known as “satori”. This is how the idea for Harry Potter came to author J. K. Rowling. She was taking a long train journey from Manchester to London in England and the idea for Harry just fell into her head. Another recent example is Trevor Bayliss’ clockwork radio. This seemingly incongruous idea suddenly ‘hit’ him after he had been watching a TV programme about the alarming spread of AIDS in Africa. The programme had mentioned the problem of providing sex-education in isolated regions without electrical power. In an instant he realised that a wind-up radio could help to solve the problem. Straightaway he went into his workshop and began working on the idea.
Similarly, the idea for “Liquid Paper” came out of the blue. As a secretary Bette Graham found that mistakes made using the new electric typewriter ribbons could not be erased. Being an amateur artist, it suddenly occurred to her that, if artists can simply paint over their mistakes on canvas to hide them, why couldn’t typists do the same? To test her idea out, she put some tempera water-based paint of the same colour as the paper she used in a bottle and took it to work. Using one of her paintbrushes, she began painting over her typing mistakes. It worked. Her boss didn’t even notice!
Dreams are a great source of inspiration for ideas and many artists, writers, scientists and musicians have claimed that their best ones came to them while they were asleep. For instance, the melody for the classic Beatles’ song “Yesterday”, one of the most popular songs ever written, came to Paul McCartney in a dream. Apparently, it seemed so beautiful and vivid that for a while he was not sure that it was original.
A bizarre dream about a snake biting its tail led the chemist Friedrich August Kekulé to discover the ring structure of benzene. Here is his account of the experience:
"I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were flitting before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by repeated visions of this kind, could now distinguish larger structures, of manifold conformation; long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snakelike motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning, I awoke."
Daydreaming too is very important in the creative process because it allows you to experience the deeper, intuitive processes of the mind. It is when we go ‘inside’ ourselves and enter what is known as an ‘alpha state’, which is when we are relaxed, ‘unfocused’ and our alpha brainwave levels are low. For this reason the period just before we go to sleep is especially conducive to this type of thinking. If you have ever driven a car and been unable to remember part of the journey, this would have been because you experienced an ‘alpha state’. The writer Mary Shelley famously conceived her nightmarish horror tale Frankenstein as she lay half-awake late at night. To access this state, start breathing deeply and slowly, making sure you hold your breath briefly between breaths. This will oxygenate your brain, promote alpha brainwaves and relax your body and mind so that you enter a state of calmness and heightened awareness. Immersing yourself in a relaxing bath is also a very good way to induce this state. It may be no coincidence, therefore, that Archimedes’ famous “Eureka!” moment happened while he was taking a bath.