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On Creativity – and making time for Eureka moments

On Creativity – and making time for Eureka moments
Anna Younger against a light blue background

By Anna Younger, Group Head of Innovation and Creativity

The varied perceptions (or perhaps misconceptions) of what it really means to be creative, as well as the role of creativity in a commercial setting, are always interesting to me.

There is certainly much to say about the essential link between creativity and commercialism. However, for today, I am considering not the necessity of creativity but instead exploring one view on the optimum conditions for enabling a particular mode of creative thought – the Eureka moment.

I was inspired (!) to write about this after listening to a podcast from the American Psychological Association. The guest was Professor John Kounios, one of the co-authors of “The Eureka Factor”, and a scholar who has spent decades researching creative thinking – utilising sophisticated brain imaging to better understand what physically happens in our minds when we are creatively engaged.

According to Kounios, “Eureka moments” are in fact their own distinct form of creativity. He defines a Eureka (or “aha”) moment as:

a sudden realisation that can expand our understanding of the world and ourselves – conferring both personal growth and practical advantage

It is believed that such aha moments are responsible for some of the most impressive breakthroughs – from Barbara McClintock discovering the science of genetics to Paul McCartney composing “Yesterday”. Not all of us will gain a Nobel prize or a multiplatinum record, but we have likely experienced our own Eureka moments – in the form a flash of insight that provides the elusive answer to a crossword puzzle or unearthing a killer idea for a campaign. The million-dollar question is how can we have more?

5 ways to stimulate more creativity

An important part of my job is to help the teams across the Instinctif Partners Group nurture their creativity, so “stimulating an increase in Eureka moments” certainly sounds like a worthy KPI. According to the expert opinion of Professor Kounios and his brain scanner, there are several things we can do:

1. Get more sleep

Now, if you are at a similar life stage to me and have a small child in tow you will be pleased to know there are four more tips in this list. However, for those for whom it is obtainable, sleep is one of the best ways to kick-start creativity. It promotes memory consolidation, but it also helps us with “supercharging forgetting”, or in other words to not fixate on our existing ideas but allow the reorganisation of thoughts to enable fresh ones. If you want to take a lesson from Paul McCartney, then keep a notebook by your bed to capture your flashes of insight if you awake in the night or have a great idea first thing in the morning. Kounios similarly encourages us not to be afraid of the power nap – this can provide the same benefits as a night of sleep , allowing us to step away from forced thinking and our brains to get on with it whilst we snooze.

2. Create an environment of psychological safety… and be happy!

You are more likely to have a Eureka moment when you are relaxed and open to off-the-wall ideas. You will also have more (and better) ideas in this state as you will be making lots of different neural connections which stress or fear can stifle and restrict. This is certainly something for those leading teams or sessions to consider, but it applies equally to giving ourselves permission to get comfortable with failure, and to explore ideas without judgement. Kounios states that our ability to be creative is also enhanced by a positive mood – as we are more open to exploring and accepting new information which in turn improves our flexible thinking. So, the happier we are, the more likely we are to experience a creative flash.

3. Consider your physical surroundings

Know what kind of creative state is going to be most useful for your problem-solving challenge and manipulate your physical environment to support that. There is a link between perceptual attention and conceptual attention. So, being in a room with a high ceiling, or in a big open outdoor space can help your attention to expand and let the new ideas in, which in turn is more conducive to Eureka moments. On the flipside, embracing a confined space can help put our brain into analytical mode (a different form of creativity) – so a smaller cubicle with a coffee and a pressured deadline could be exactly what you need if your goal is focused thought. 

4. Your ability to have “aha moments” can strengthen in time

Those who think they are beyond being able to have Eureka moments, take heart. Contrary to the belief that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, doing the same thing for a long time and becoming an expert in it is one of the best breeding grounds for aha moments. This of course speaks to creative genius throughout history. The relativity theory may have come to Einstein as a sudden flash whilst he sat staring out of the window of a Bern streetcar, but this itself was likely only possible because of the years of study and expert knowledge that preceeded that moment.

5. Do your creative work when your thinking is a little fuzzy

Taking psychedelic drugs or alcohol are two ways to get into this state (although as Kounios says, of course in moderation and this is not an endorsement of such behaviour…!). This can also be simply about knowing your “peak” and “off-peak time” and getting comfortable with the fact that (counter-intuitively) your off-peak time can spurn more creative ideas than the peak. You may spend all day trying to break through on something, but the best idea will come to you suddenly during your evening shower. Or maybe you are night owl, and it is when you take an early morning stroll that you can have the moment of clarity you have been awaiting. The key point being – embrace that off-peak time. It can be a difficult thing to allow ourselves headspace and pause in a busy and “always-on” world, but it is at these times that we can be the most productive.

So, to conclude, everybody has creative thought. The science categorically says so. Yes, some people are more predisposed to certain kinds of creative thinking ability than others, but we do all have the innate ability to be creative, in lots of different ways.

There is not a “one size fits all” solution to enhancing our creativity, but there are lots of ways we can look to manipulate our mental and physical states and give ourselves the best possible chance to experience more and better flashes of creative insight.

And if all that fails…try a glass of wine.

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