Everyday innovation: priming the mind to think creatively

Creative Thought

Creativity is important in the workplace, especially in a field like public transportation space where the workforce cares deeply about its mission and bureaucracy is a serious challenge. Even though much of our work is set – complying with laws, producing reports, and even moving capital projects from concept to reality – there is a lot of room for creativity. When problems catch us off-guard or new solutions are needed, the prefab approaches that help us perform our anticipated work don’t cut it.

In recent years, cognitive psychologists have been investigating the magic and mystery of creativity, trying to figure out how people’s brains engage in non-linear, divergent thinking to produce unexpected ideas, connections and solutions. Creativity can be elusive, but the genius in you may just need a cognitive boost. Recent research reveals that we are all capable of increasing our capacity for innovative problem-solving when we make room for our brains to do so.

Divergent thinking is the thought process that generates discovery through exploring many and different possibilities and can lead to innovative solutions. We can do this by engaging in a low-demand task before trying to crack a hard nut (more on that in this scholarly article.)

When you concentrate on a high-demand task, your prefrontal cortex (PFC) kicks into high gear to take in the new sensorial information for formulating an appropriate response. The PFC is the frontal lobe of the brain, behind your forehead, and is in charge of executive function, which includes complex planning, personality-expression, decision-making, and moderating social behavior. Your brain is fully dedicated to the task at hand, without distraction, even if multi-tasking.

On the other hand, low-demand tasks require a steady but minor level of focus. Going on a jog, catching up with a colleague over coffee, or counting the stops until your destination — these are low-demand tasks, which many may even deem meditative or therapeutic. Your PFC decelerates during low-demand tasks and the background of your brain is in a sweet spot of being turned on but having available space to make connections. (Check out some examples here)

Daydreaming and mind-wandering have been said to be helpful for coming up with “Aha” moments, but beware. The truth is, your brain never stops thinking, even after your yoga instructor has told you to clear your mind, and mind-wandering does not lead to innovative epiphanies. When our mind is ‘blank’ our default network (parts of your brain including the prefrontal cortex, limbic nodes, and other cortical areas) kicks into focus with self-generated mental activity. Your own hopes and fantasies, maybe even what you want to make for dinner tonight, flood your head. It may seem like a great time for creativity, but these thoughts are mind-consuming. (More on mind-wandering here.)

Researchers believe that incubation of previously gathered knowledge about a problem during low-demand task activity leads to greater output of innovative ideas. For example, British computer scientist Alan Turing was a practitioner of this principle. He used to go on long runs between his heavy-duty code-cracking.

In summary, here are five steps for igniting your innovative mind to solve a new problem:

  1. Don’t panic. Just try to understand the facts of the situation.
  2. Allow yourself some time and mental space. Don’t grind away at your worksite or stare at a blank screen. This will not help.
  3. Stay calm and divert your thoughts toward a low-demand task like running an errand on Metro.
  4. Come back to your problem and jot down as many ideas as you can.
  5. Use these ideas to craft a solution.

Eileen Hsu is a Senior Creative Designer in Metro’s Design Studio. She is currently a Fellow in the Office of Extraordinary Innovation.