creative thinking
Creativity Creative Thinking

What Cognitive Neuroscience Tells Us About Creative Thinking

7 Minute Read
Unsurprisingly, cognitive neuroscience researchers have been taking a deep dive into the mechanics of creative thinking—and how to create the conditions for innovative thinking. Blue sky thinking: It’s a method of thinking that’s all about embracing innovation and possibilities, and is completely unfettered by the realities of executing a project or campaign. It’s also often the first step in the process creative agencies take when generating their next big idea or blockbuster campaign for their clients.

In my role as a content strategist with Fortune 500 companies, I’m often developing a dozen or more content campaigns, go-to-market strategies, and sales generation campaigns every quarter. In wildly divergent industries, and with different customer profiles, it often feels like I’m expected to turn on the creative tap and let the ideas flow in several directions at once.

What happens in that space between looking at the completely blank canvas of possibilities for shaping a campaign and creating something tangible enough for writers, artists, editorial teams, and data people to execute? And what happens—between developing multiple campaigns and pursuing writing projects—when the tap simply runs dry? When both your financial well-being and your personal identity depend in part or in total on your creative abilities, the uncomfortable reality is that you simply don’t have time to lose to creative blockages. Here’s a closer look at what the latest cognitive research suggests about creative burnout and how to prevent it.

Blue sky thinking

Image attribution: Joshua Earle

Can Creativity Thrive on a 24/7 Cycle?

Recently, I was working on an in-depth campaign strategy. Preparing the creative brief involved approximately twenty hours of interviews (and then combing through their transcripts), reading a couple of thousand pages of reports, and conducting a detailed business analysis and competitive market assessment. It was full immersion, and contacts were constantly emailing me new documents, subject matter experts, examples of content they loved, and more. I couldn’t turn off the fire hose to swim in the pool in a way that really mattered, and I felt like my creativity was suffering. It turns out that neuroscience shows that creativity both suffers and thrives in these conditions.

The 24/7 cycle is a significant contributor to burnout. As experts recently told the Harvard Business Review, “There’s no question that we’re at greater risk of burnout today than we were 10 years ago. In large part, it’s because we’re surrounded by devices that are designed to grab our attention and make everything feel urgent.”

Being constantly in demand and distracted can leave you spent creatively. Distractions can pull you from a task that you’re trying to process, and make it hard to get back on task. However, not every distraction is equal. Researchers from the National University of Singapore concluded that certain kinds of interruptions—namely, those that don’t demand 100 percent of your focus—may act like Olympic training for creative thinking.

They write: “Drawing on the recent observation that processing disfluency could elevate the construal level that people use to mentally represent objects and conceive ideas, which in turn facilitates creative cognition, we suggest that intermittent low-cognitively demanding interruptions can enhance creative thinking. However, if interruptions impose significant cognitive load on the individual, creative thinking will be impaired.”

Keeping the creative taps flowing is about creating enough space to think, but keeping your brain agile enough to work with disfluency and the unexpected inspirations it may provide.

Relaxation and Overthinking

When you’re facing the challenges associated with a big new product or creative challenge, there’s often an urge to dive right in. Yet new research shows that overthinking can slow down your learning curve and make it harder to think outside the box.

A recent study reported on in Psychology Today showed that using “electric current to temporarily suppress a particular region of the frontal lobes called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) helps to break the mental constraints linked to ‘rut-like thinking.’”

This aligns with research from Stanford, which the key researcher summed up in a critical way: “As our study also shows, sometimes a deliberate attempt to be creative may not be the best way to optimize your creativity. While greater effort to produce creative outcomes involves more activity of executive-control regions, you actually may have to reduce activity in those regions in order to achieve creative outcomes.”


Image attribution: Matt Helbig

The Components of Developing a Campaign: A Working Example

Putting this research into the context of developing a campaign strategy is a useful way to see it in action. Coming from a background in management consulting, I love frameworks. Frameworks help distill complex ideas and processes into composites that I can understand and communicate quickly, and they make processes replicable so they can “scale.”

Scaling campaign development is—in most cases—a bit of an illusion. Processes that rely on human input and creativity don’t scale in the same way that you can scale the distribution of a product through more efficient logistics or scale production or manufacturing. And yet, the economics remain the same: The more you produce, the more profitable you are.

In our attempts to scale, it’s easy to become formulaic. One client I work with loves templates. Every strategy—whether it’s a splashy VR immersion experience concept document or a go-to-market strategy for demand generation—follows the same template.

But beginning the thought process from the perspective of that template—in effect, trying to organize while also trying to innovate—hampers the creative process. Going through the creative process in a more organic way and then capturing those results in the strategy document is infinitely more effective. This same approach—optimizing each step—plays out throughout the creative process.

Fighting Creative Ruts and Burnout

If you’re fighting creative burnout, what steps can you take now? Here are some takeaways from cognitive neuroscience.

Tools for productivity may not support creativity

Leveraging the same templates for every campaign brief you create makes it easier for everyone to review them. But they’re not necessarily conducive to driving the creative process. Separate the parts of the process you use for organization and communication from creativity. Focus on creating first—such as coming up with ideas for new blog posts—and then prioritize and organize them later. From a writing perspective, this is the classic idea “write first and edit later” applied to the entire creative process.

Create space for focus, but don’t make yourself unable to “process disfluency”

It’s important to have the time and space to focus on what you’re creating. Yet the research shows that agility—and the ability to draw from multiple inputs—benefits creative thinking. Spend some time in the creative process following your instincts and curiosity. Research related topics and see what tangential streams “interrupt” your flow. They may lead to cross-discipline insights and innovation you never expected.

Don’t overthink it

Do you get anxious when you’re faced with a creative challenge? If you’re overthinking, you may be causing the creative gears in your brain to grind to a halt. Try to develop creative schedules that leave enough room to ideate without the pressure of deliverables. Author James Altucher suggests writing ten ideas every day to exercise your idea muscles. Another strategy that can help you avoid overthinking projects is to follow this approach and develop the skills for creative thinking quickly—without having to go through a long, intellectual setup process.

Our brains don’t come with an operating manual, but cognitive neuroscience is helping us gain a better understanding of how to leverage the hardware behind creative thought. Whether you’re crossing your organizational and creative wires or overthinking your projects, applying the latest insights to your creative process can help you take both your productivity and innovative insights to the next level.

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Featured image attribution: Bino Storyteller

Liz Alton is a technology and marketing writer, and content strategist, for Fortune 500 brands and creative agencies. Her specialties include marketing, technology, B2B, big data/analytics, cloud, and mobility. She's worked with clients including Adobe, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Twitter, ADP, and Google. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an MBA. She is currently pursuing a master’s in journalism from Harvard University.

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