Friday, 12 June 2009
Novelty and creativity.
Perception and imagination are linked because the brain uses the same neural circuits for both functions. Imagination is like running perception in reverse. The reason it's so difficult to imagine truly novel ideas has to do with how the brain interprets signals from your eyes. The images that strike your retina do not, by themselves, tell you with certainty what you are seeing.
Visual perception is largely a result of statistical expectations, the brain's way of explaining ambiguous visual signals in the most likely way. And the likelihood of these explanations is a direct result of past experience.
Most corporate off-sites, for example, are ineffective idea generators, because they're scheduled rather than organic; the brain has time to predict the future, which means the potential novelty will be diminished. Transplanting the same mix of people to a different location, even an exotic one, then dropping them into a conference room much like the one back home doesn't create an environment that leads to new insights. No, new insights come from new people and new environments -- any circumstance in which the brain has a hard time predicting what will happen next.
Fortunately, the networks that govern both perception and imagination can be reprogrammed. By deploying your attention differently, the frontal cortex, which contains rules for decision making, can reconfigure neural networks so that you can see things that you didn't see before.
You need a novel stimulus -- either a new piece of information or an unfamiliar environment -- to jolt attentional systems awake. The more radical the change, the greater the likelihood of fresh insights.
Some of the most startling breakthroughs have had their origins in exactly these types of novel circumstances. Chemist Kary Mullis came up with the basic principle of the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR -- the fundamental technology that makes genetic tests possible -- not hunched over his lab bench, but on a spring evening while he was driving up the northern California coast.
Walt Disney was a decent illustrator, but he didn't imagine the possibilities of animation until he saw his advertising illustrations projected onto the screen in a movie theater. In an extreme example, the preeminent glass artist
Dale Chihuly didn't discover his sculptural genius until a car accident led to the loss of an eye and literally forced him to see the world differently. Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not encountered before does it start to reorganize perception.
The surest way to provoke the imagination, then, is to seek out environments you have no experience with. They may have nothing to do with your area of expertise. It doesn't matter. Because the same systems in the brain carry out both perception and imagination, there will be cross talk.
Novel experiences are so effective at unleashing the imagination because they force the perceptual system out of categorization, the tendency of the brain to take shortcuts. You have to confront these categories directly. Try this: When your brain is categorizing a person or an idea, just jot down the categories that come to mind. Use analogies. You will find that you naturally fall back on the things you are familiar with. Then allow yourself the freedom to write down gut feelings, even if they're vague or visceral, such as "stupid" or "hot."
Only when you consciously confront your brain's shortcuts will you be able to imagine outside of its boundaries.
Read whole article at Fastcompany