BBC’s Horizon programme about Creative Insight saw Californian Professor of Psychology, Jonathan Schooler exploring what made people have creative insights or ‘aha’ moments and whether these could be deliberately increased.
Experiments in thinking were set on the beach front; people came along to try lateral thinking puzzles and games. The idea was to see when and how they experienced the ‘aha’ moment of clarity and understanding how solve a problem.
One task involved thinking of as many varied uses as possible for a house brick. People were given two minutes to come up with creative and innovative ideas (paperweight, doorstop, hammer, weight training); they were then given a break for 2 minutes which involved one of three tasks: one group sat and did nothing for two minutes, another had the task of building a house with lego and the third was the very simple task of separating lego bricks into colour groups.
After the break they are asked to return to the brick and see if they can come up with more inventive uses for it. Guess which of the groups did the best? (I guessed wrongly!) The demanding task people did the WORST and the people who did nothing came last. It was the mundane, simple task group that came up with the most innovative uses for the brick; the simple task had given the brain enough time to rest and wander in whatever way it wanted to.
It is really important to take breaks when trying to come up with creative ideas or solve puzzles, but it’s best of the break is a simple activity, different to the thing you are working on, things like making tea, walking, mowing the lawn, washing up, sweeping or having a shower.
The programme also proved that simply changing your routine can make you more open to creative insight. A group of people were instructed to make a sandwich in a slightly different way to the usual way, and this small change gave rise to higher scores on a test of creative thinking.
I recall a friend of mine saying she had dramatically opened to new ideas after folding her arms and crossing her legs in the opposite way to her usual habits. The mind can easily get into ruts of thinking and it seems it does not take much to alter that, just small changes in behaviour and taking time to let the mind wander in between demanding tasks.
So, if you are stumped, take a break but it needs to be a break where your mind is occupied on something simple and different. It is good for the mind to be focussed, but not all the time. Occupy your body and let your mind wander freely.