Where Does Innovation Come From?


Article by Bobby Miller | 2,843 words

At some point, every parent can count on hearing the dreaded question, “Where do babies come from?”  It’s only natural for children to wonder how something so amazingly complex as a human being came into being in the first place.  They know something special must have happened to make such a thing possible.

Some of the most brilliant ideas, from scientific theories to artistic wonders, can produce this same sense of wonder in people of all ages.  We step back and wonder, “How did someone even think of that?”  Some cultures find creativity so fascinating that they attribute it to a person’s divine muse.  On a more practical level, a few innovative products can be powerful enough to turn a struggling company around—Apple wasn’t always the big name it is today.

To delve deeper into the mystery of creativity, scientists have conducted studies examining who the most creative types of people are, under what circumstances people tend to generate their best ideas and what we can do to fuel our own creativity.

Fostering Your Own Creativity

The first step to understanding creativity is to let go of the notion that some people just plain aren’t creative.  The idea that some people are blessed with “aha!” moments while others aren’t usually does nothing more than prevent individuals from cultivating their own creativity.  They just sit around waiting for inspiration or assume that other people should do all the creative stuff.

But the great inventor Thomas Edison once said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  Recent research has validated his famous maxim.  In June of 2014, the University of Pittsburgh published a study in the journal Cognitive Science that analyzed various brainstorming sessions.  They found that brilliant ideas didn’t spring out of nowhere fully developed.  Instead, they found that “creativity is a stepwise process” where one idea leads to another related idea, which leads to yet another related idea, until the group arrives at a feasible plan.  So, creativity requires taking an idea and thinking hard about it.

Hard Work and Creativity

Credit: LIAA.gov.lv

Likewise, researchers have found numerous ways that people can make themselves more likely to feel inspired.  Elizabeth Hutton, a graduate student at Penn State, published a study on her university’s website that examined how well people fared in different tests of creativity.  These include the Remote Associates Test, where the participant is given three distinct words and asked to come up with another word that somehow links them all together, and the Alternate Uses Test, where the participant has to come up with as many different uses for a certain object (such as a pen) as possible. 

Surprisingly, Hutton found that the most creative people were those who were either happy and highly aroused or unhappy and unaroused during the tests.  The first part of this finding makes sense, as we typically picture creative ideas coming from engaged, motivated individuals.  However, the second part of the finding may suggest that creative ideas can spring even from people who find themselves cynical and contemplative.  Quiet reflection is, after all, another means by which to cultivate unique ideas.  The least creative individuals, though, were the ones in a neutral mood with neutral arousal, suggesting that we shouldn’t expect to come up with anything innovative if we just go through our days in a ho-hum mood with uninteresting routines.

One means by which we can break free from monotony is to travel somewhere new.  Three studies published by the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in June of 2010 found that individuals who had lived abroad were usually more creative than control groups who hadn’t.  The researchers speculate that the enhanced creativity stemmed from how the participants needed an open mind to adapt to new cultures.  Other cultures may also see the world differently than our own does, allowing people to gather a wide range of perspectives, which obviously fuels creativity.  So perhaps there’s more to studying abroad at college than taking a trip to a pretty place.

On the flip side of the coin, a study published in the journal Psychological Science in early 2013 found that people who see the world through the lens of racial essentialism, “the view that racial groups possess underlying essences that represent deep-rooted, unalterable traits and abilities,” usually score low on creativity tests.  This may be in part because those with a racist mindset are less likely to consider alternative perspectives, resulting in generic, categorical thinking.  So, educating people to respect diversity benefits not only social acceptance but also creativity.

Even if you don’t have the time or money to pack up your bags and travel around the world, there’s still plenty that you can do in order to boost your own creativity.  Even though innovative ideas often come from hard work, taking a break from the busyness of daily life can help your thinking abilities immensely, as research by cognitive psychologist Lorenza Colzato of Leiden University has found.  According to a study that she and her colleagues published in the April 2012 edition of Frontiers in Cognition, a certain kind of meditation fuels creativity.


Credit: EmergeIntoPeace.com

In open monitoring meditation, you allow yourself to absorb and acknowledge all the thoughts and sensations you experience without fixating on any particular thing.  This helps a person’s divergent thinking abilities, a form of creativity where many new ideas are generated by looking at things from a different perspective.  For instance, when you’re taking the Alternate Uses Test and coming up with many different uses for a pen, you’re putting your divergent thinking to the test.

In focused attention meditation, however, you concentrate solely on one thought or object.  Colzato did not find this type of meditation to significantly influence creativity, though it can certainly help an individual to relax and concentrate, which yields its own benefits.

Aside from meditating, you can also let yourself savor music in order to stimulate areas of the brain associated with creativity.  A study conducted by the Academy of Finland and published in the journal NeuroImage suggests that even fun, lighthearted music can boost creativity—Mozart and other classical composers aren’t the only ones who are good for the brain.  In the study, led by Dr. Vinoo Alluri, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that creative centers of the mind became aroused while participants listened to a piece of modern Argentinean tango.

Music’s not the only form of art that can stimulate creativity, however.  Even forms of entertainment that are often looked down upon, such as movies, television shows and video games, can lead to creative thinking.  Lancaster University, located in the United Kingdom, published a study in March of 2012 that tested creativity in dozens of four-to-six-year-old children.  Some of the children watched clips of the first Harry Potter movie that featured magic, while others watched clips that contained no magic.  The children then participated in creativity tests where they had “to pretend they were a rabbit or driving a car,” as the research website AlphaGalileo.org explains.  “They were also asked to think of different ways of putting plastic cups in a bin” and to think of “alternative uses for the cup.”

Since the children who saw the magical scenes performed better on these tests, the researchers believe there are concrete benefits to “magical thinking.”  It “enables children to create fantastic imaginary worlds, and in this way enhances children’s capacity to view the world and act upon it from multiple perspectives,” as the Lancaster researchers explain.  “The results suggested that books and videos about magic might serve to expand children’s imagination and help them to think more creatively.”  So perhaps there is a reason for parents to teach their children about mythical figures like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.

And while the association between video games and real-world violence is still up for debate, research from Michigan State University has suggested that playing video games can boost creativity.  The institution’s official website explains that “a study of nearly 500 twelve-year-olds found that the more kids played video games, the more creative they were in tasks such as drawing pictures and writing stories.  In contrast, use of cell phones, the Internet and computers (other than for video games) was unrelated to creativity.”  Interestingly enough, these results held true no matter what kinds of games the children played during their free time.

However, this doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to sit in front of a screen all day watching movies and playing games.  Numerous studies have shown that athletic activity, even light exercise such as walking, is essential for a healthy brain.  A study conducted by the University of Utah and the University of Kansas found that students who went on a four-day backpacking trip outdoors performed better on creativity tests than a control group who went about their usual routines during that time.  Perhaps this was due to the increased physical activity.  Perhaps this was due to the increased exposure to nature.  Perhaps this was due to being disconnected from technology like cell phones and computers.

Whatever the case, this study should raise red flags in a culture where we spend most of our time inside.  “Children today spend only 15 to 25 minutes daily in outdoor play and sports,” as the study’s press release on the University of Utah website explains.  “The average 8- to 18-year-old spends more than 7.5 hours a day using media such as TV, cell phones and computers.”

Walking in nature

Letting your mind relax as you take a walk can do wonders for your creativity. Credit: TheNutritionPost.com

We shouldn’t be too quick to glorify nature as the spring from which all creativity flows, however.  Research conducted by Santa Clara University and published on the American Psychological Association website in April of 2014 sought to answer a fundamental question: When you feel inspired by a walk through the woods, is it the walking or the forest that inspires you?  The scientists found that those who were pushed through scenic landscapes in a wheelchair did not perform as well on creativity tests as the participants who walked through forests.  This suggests that, if you want to fuel creativity, take a hike.  Perhaps a short walk before a business meeting could help your performance as well, even if you have to take that walk indoors.

More rigorous forms of exercise can also boost creative thinking, as cognitive psychologist Lorenza Colzato has found.  Her study, whose results were published in the December 2013 issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, demonstrated that individuals who exercised at least four times a week performed better on creativity tests than those who did not.  While this finding certainly provides us another convincing reason to get active, be warned that overdoing it can have negative consequences.  Colzato found that people who didn’t exercise regularly but then tried strenuous activity before being tested actually fared worse on the creativity measures.

Basically, if you want to make yourself more creative, stay active—physically and mentally.  Let yourself experience different cultures.  Let yourself experience many fantastic worlds in different forms of art.  Don’t confine your body to a chair all day.  And don’t confine your brain to the busyness of ho-hum routines all the time; take breaks to meditate on the world around you.

Fostering Creativity in the Workplace

In the book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, author Michael Gelb asks thousands of people a seemingly simple question: “Where are you when you get your best ideas?”  Most of his respondents claim their creative thoughts come to them while in the shower, while out for a walk, while listening to music, or while resting in bed.  The answer he almost never receives is “while at work.”  Since just about all businesses live or die based on the quality of their ideas, something must be wrong if most work environments aren’t inspiring creativity in their employees.  How can businesses break from the norm and encourage innovation?

First, we need to let go of the widespread myth that brainstorming sessions are the perfect way to foster creative ideas.  Despite brainstorming’s prevalence in the business world, it has come under attack from numerous scientific studies for decades.   In her book Quiet, author Susan Cain defends the place of introverted people in a society that glorifies extroverts and group work.  She cites a study by Marvin Dunnette, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, who found that individuals generated more and better ideas while working alone than in groups.  That is, four individuals who work alone and then pool their ideas together fare better than four people working together in a brainstorming session.  Dunnette’s findings held true whether he was looking at outspoken advertising executives or bashful research scientists.  Ever since this study was published in 1963, a flood of other investigations have come to the same conclusion: Brainstorming just plain doesn’t work.

Researchers have suggested different reasons as to why this might be the case.  Social loafing, the act of letting others do the thinking as you sit around doing nothing, might be to blame.  There’s also production blocking, which is the simple fact that only one person can speak at once in group settings.  Evaluation apprehension, the fear of having your ideas turned down, is also problematic.  Some companies try to get around this fear by setting guidelines that encourage people to be open to all ideas.  But the fact of the matter is, some ideas have to get tossed aside, which is unpleasant even when people try to reject an idea politely.

As Cain points out, however, studies have shown that brainstorming online tends to work out well.  This might be because everyone has their own individual space, can continue typing while others are doing the same, and experience less fear of having their ideas rejected thanks to the physical separation that technology provides.

But one danger all brainstorming sessions face, whether conducted online or in-person, is that of idea fixation.  One individual suggests something, and suddenly everyone else has trouble diverging their thoughts away from that suggestion.  As researcher Nicholas Kohn of Texas A&M University explains, “Fixation to other people’s ideas can occur unconsciously and lead to you suggesting ideas that mimic your brainstorming partners.”  This can reduce creativity by narrowing everyone’s focus to a certain idea, when in fact the best idea might be something entirely different.


All too often, brainstorming sessions lead to everyone fixating on one idea rather than producing their own. Credit: Handshake.uk.com


Kohn suggests that breaks during brainstorming sessions might help reduce fixation by letting people clear their minds.  Also, as Cain points out, companies would do well to balance individual and group work.  Employees should be offered privacy when they want it, but still have opportunities to communicate with coworkers.  Allowing employees to generate ideas individually before a meeting could help reduce idea fixation and boost creativity overall.

In addition to balancing alone time and group time, companies ought to encourage their employees to balance immediate concerns with long-term thinking.  Google, one of the most successful companies in existence right now, has the famous policy of encouraging its employees to take twenty percent of their time to pursue independent projects outside their main focus.  This has given us AdSense (which composes about one fourth of the company’s $50+ billion annual revenue) as well as Gmail, Google Transit, Google Talk and Google News.  Although this policy isn’t as prominent at Google now due to its massive size and demanding workloads, it’s still considered an important milestone for the company, according to QZ.com.  Other successful companies, such as Apple and LinkedIn, have even implemented similar policies in their workplaces.

Researcher Doug Williams explained to ComputerWorld.com that this twenty percent policy has become so popular because “it’s energizing for employees to take a break from their day-to-day business and think creatively about solving other problems or using technology in a different way.”  In other words, they have a chance to exercise their divergent thinking abilities.  Revolutionary ideas don’t come from doing nothing but taking care of each day’s chores.  So, encourage employees to let their minds wander out of their comfort zones, and when you hear an interesting suggestion, do what you can to foster the seed of what might be an incredible idea.  Just don’t expect fully formed ideas to pop out of nowhere.

Michael Poh, a freelance blogger who specializes in psychology and communication media, has posted a few more suggestions for businesses seeking to foster creativity.  An anonymous suggestion box could be helpful for meek employees who are especially wary of rejection, as he explains on hongkiat.com.  Hiring a diverse workforce also helps foster diverse ideas.  And perhaps most importantly, a positive working environment helps lead minds away from constraining worries and toward new frontiers.  Google’s campus is, after all, known to feel like a friendly café.

So even though a business can’t necessarily force the next innovative revolution out of its employees, it can provide a peaceful work environment that balances contemplative alone time with energetic group time to help facilitate creative ideas.

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