Making creative headway through attentive looking

Source: smerikal via Wikimedia Commons

Suppose you are searching for a new approach to a pesky but important creative problem.  You’re casting about for any sort of hint, or even the whisper of a hint, as to what you might do.

Scrounging about on the internet one morning you come across an unfamiliar but somehow arresting abstract line-drawing.  Intently looking at the strange drawing, and not even sure of what the image means, you suddenly decide to copy it.  With pencil in hand, you set to work, looking up and back at the unfamiliar drawing again and again, trying your best to faithfully and accurately reproduce the image on the sketching paper in front of you.

Would this intense copying exercise help you with your creative problem?  Or would it, instead, get in the way, obstructing you from making any creative headway?  Could copying an unfamiliar drawing help your own subsequent creative generation?  Or might it, instead, dampen your creative insight and expressiveness?

Tackling just this question, two researchers at the University of Tokyo recently found that copying an unfamiliar art work significantly enhanced the subsequent independent creative drawing of participants.

—> For more see: Speeding Up Your Creativity by Slowing Down: How to use examples for creative inspiration

Hang in there! Creative persistence pays off big!

Source: U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Gary Ward via Wikimedia Common

Source: U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Gary Ward via Wikimedia Common

How do you feel during those moments when you are being most creative?  Do you confidently and surely know, in the moment, that creative ideas are emerging and forming in your mind?  Is there a smooth, easy, and ready flow of your ideas?  Or is your creative process rather more bumpy and uneven?  Is it more akin to moving –– in small stuttering spurts and starts –– down a pot-hole filled country lane than to gracefully gliding along in a canoe?

What are your assumptions about how the creative idea generation process “should” feel?  How do you know if you should persist in your search for inspiration, or if you’d best turn your mind and efforts to other things?

For recent recent research seeking to answer these questions, see WK’s Psychology Today post, “The Under-Recognized Inspirational Value of Persistence.”

Insights into the creative process: A Q&A with illustrator/writer Mike Lowery


The lines between author and reader are maybe not as sharply drawn as they used to be. Book 1 of Mike Lowery’s Doodle Adventures is a great example. “You draw the story!” the book’s cover tells us. And so we do…

But what’s the story behind the story?

Just as Lowery asks his young readers to pledge to “finish this book to get our heroes home safe at the end,” I asked him to pledge to freely improvise answering questions about his own creative journeys.


Each of the 8 questions I posed to him draw upon the science-based way of thinking about innovative thought and action that we develop in Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change. You can find the Q & A here.

The Magic of “Inside Out”

If you’ve just seen, or are about to see, the magically profound and profoundly magical Pixar film “Inside Out,” here are a few questions we invite you to think about:

  • What might it mean to have a control console in your head?
  • Fear, sadness, anger, joy, disgust… each is so identifiable and tangibly distinct, so affectionately near yet far. Why is caricaturing these emotions so helpful?
  • If memories aren’t really little crystal-ball-like orbs, what are they?
  • If we touch a memory (recall it), how and why do we modify it?
  • In order to grow and meet changing circumstances, how important is it to forget (or to re-characterize) our past?
  • How can all of our emotions work better together as team players—integrating and tempering each other, in ongoing interplay with our changing goals?
  • If you could add to the console team other emotions, beyond the five, what would they be, and why?



Jumping in—to get ideas

Recently, talking to an experienced designer, we heard that her colleagues often intentionally waited a long time before they actually got started on a new project. By delaying and deeply mulling creative options over in their minds they felt that their work would be stronger and more creative.

But is this “working entirely in our heads” the best approach? What might be gained if we just got going sooner?

Some of the difficulties that we imagine may fall away once we actually start putting our ideas out there into the world. Our idea landscape quickly changes once we get started. What we are looking at and working with associatively cues new ideas, our well-learned procedures kick in, we start to experiment with ideas—trying out, shifting, and reconfiguring possibilities to discover novel promising options.

“There is a much (much!) wider range of information and many more possibilities that will be ‘ready to mind’ once [we become] immersed in the appropriate problem-solving context, which allows processes such as automatic reminding and the triggering of ‘if-then’ rules and so on to come to the fore and ‘share the load’ of thinking with our conscious and deliberate efforts at control.” (The Agile Mind, p. 595.)

Part of the benefit of getting started arises through the “co-evolution” of our understanding of a problem’s requirements with its possible solutions. Creative problems and their solutions often mutually inform each other. We’ll expand on this in an upcoming blog entry where we will talk about the vital role of our working environments in prompting us to bridge to significant insights. These “bridges” emerge especially during our actual hands-on, interactive, individual and team-based collaborations.

To take a concrete example, John Lasseter, co-founder of Pixar, has some wise words about the value of just getting started and getting feedback as soon as possible:


—> For additional discussion see: Wilma Koutstaal, The Agile Mind, (New York, Oxford University Press: 2012), especially pages 594-595.

Exploring at the edges of what we know

Sometimes when we are exploring for ideas or information online, using a search engine, we have a general sense of what we’re looking for—but we can’t put it precisely into words. Yet, we would readily recognize promising outcomes or directions if we saw them.

Some of our online searching goals are more open ended and multifaceted. Here, getting an answer quickly is not our top priority. We’d rather embark on a somewhat slower search that got us closer to where we ultimately would like to be. The journey itself is part of the learning. We make and find as we go along, with each step providing us with new pathways.

How might our search tools themselves better enable us to truly explore? What if our search tools allowed us to fluidly and rapidly express our changing sense of where we really wanted to go?

One recent example that actually registers and iteratively acts upon our search intent in an interactive fashion—repeatedly inviting our feedback—is called SciNet. Imagine you have a research question about gestures. You enter the search term “gestures” and, on a radar-like circular screen, you are presented with a range of alternative topics—a number of which you might not even have thought of, say, “immersive environment” or “accelerometer.” Suppose further, that you can then move those topics about on the screen. You can pull the most relevant topics into the center of the radar screen. Suggestions that seem more peripheral for your purposes, you can move away closer to the outer edge of the circular radar-like display. The system dynamically responds in real time with new suggestions as your expressed interests change.

Such “interactive intent” search has been shown in a study, using SciNet, to provide significantly improved quality of retrieved information, allowing users to access both more relevant and more novel information in an efficient way. The search tool allows us to deeply tunnel into a meaning space that is already familiar to us (exploitation) but also offers support for experimental forays into the currently less well known (exploration). In the words of the system’s developers: “The model and its environment (the user) form an online loop, and learning involves finding a balance between exploration (showing items from uncharted information space for feedback) and exploitation (showing items most likely to be relevant, given the current user intent model).”

This interactive visualization allows the searcher to capitalize on their natural ability to rapidly and largely effortlessly recognize—rather than recall from their memory—relevant information. With this visualization we can rapidly adjust where we are on our “cognitive control dial” as we cycle through moments of automatic recognition and more deliberate evaluation and goal setting. The interactive visual display maps to both our visual and motor capabilities—allowing rapid updating of our search intent without costly sidetracking of our thinking. In this way, the boundary line between what’s “inside” and what’s “outside” in our thinking/meaning space becomes more permeable and more fully integrated with our unfolding thought processes.

Developing such cognitively friendly and fluid interfaces for structuring and guiding our exploratory idea search and experimentation are examples of what we broadly call thinking scaffoldings. As we explain in Innovating Minds, thinking scaffoldings are a way of productively guiding our perception-action cycles. They are intentional queryings and quarryings of our idea landscapes that are meant to help bootstrap (that is, “scaffold”) our idea generation processes. Thinking scaffoldings include not only databases or tools for extracting and identifying promising ideas or directions but also many other modes of scaffolding our idea generation processes such as adopting design heuristics, engaging in reflective verbalization, and drawing on tools for analogical or biomimetic search.

Thinking scaffoldings assist us to transition and keep moving across ideas, prodding us to re-categorize and shake-up or unsettle creative objects or their configurations. They help us to see things we could try or attempt—without an assurance that what we are trying will work.  They prompt us to test and revise, look and revise, and test again.


—> For more on exploratory online search see:

Dorota Glowacka, Tuukka Ruotsalo, Ksenia Konuyshkova, Kumaripaba Athukorala, Samuel Kaski, & Giulio Jacucci. (2013) Directing exploratory search: Reinforcement learning from user interactions with keywords. Proceedings of the 2013 International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces, pp. 117-128.

Gary Marchionini (2006) Exploratory search: From finding to understanding. Communications of the ACM, 49(4), pp. 41-46.

Tuukka Ruotsalo, Giulio Jacucci, Petri Myllymäki, & Samuel Kaski (2015) Interactive intent modeling: Information discovery beyond search. Communications of the ACM, 58 (1), pp. 86-92.

Are you prompting yourself to be creative?

A recent large-scale experimental study used a simple computer task. In this task, college students are presented with a noun on a computer screen and asked to say a verb that could be associated with that noun. For example, the noun “dog” could be paired with a verb such as “bark” or with the less expected “rescue.”

This task was done for many different nouns and under two different conditions. In one condition participants were asked simply to produce the first word that comes to mind. In the second condition they were specifically asked to “think creatively.”

The experiment revealed that the prompt or instruction to be more creative made a significant difference in three ways:

(1) If we are specifically asked or cued to be creative we give responses that are less predictable, less conventional, and more creative. Setting the explicit goal of being creative enables us to be more creative.

(2) When we are under no specific goal to think creatively we tend to provide responses that are fast and efficient but that are less creative.

(3) The extent to which the students were more creative when prompted was significantly correlated with being more creative at types of drawing and story writing too, even after taking into account individual differences in on-the-spot problem solving and personality factors such as openness to experience. This suggests that creativity isn’t a single ever-present ability but is something we can boost in response to particular contexts and goals.


—> For the full text of the experiment see:

Ranjani Prabhakaran, Adam E. Green & Jeremy R. Gray (2014). Thin slices of creativity: Using single-word utterances to assess creative cognition. Behavior Research Methods, 46, pp. 641-659.

Looking in, looking out: Spontaneous cognition, intention, and creativity

At this time of year, many of us may find our thoughts turned inward, reflecting on what we have experienced and achieved in the past year, and our goals and aspirations for the upcoming year. This underscores an important distinction in our thinking between inner-directed attention, and outer-directed attention, and their interplay.

When our attention is directed externally, whether intentionally or not, we are responding to, and interpreting, stimuli or events outside of ourselves, with information coming in to us from the external world through our senses. When, though, our attention is directed internally, we draw on our own memory and knowledge, reliving past experiences, and imaginatively anticipating future events using what we already know.

In many situations, our internally directed cognition and our externally directed cognition compete with one another. Think of the times we may drift into reverie during a long talk or while overhearing an extended conversation—only to find ourselves unable to capture what was said just moments before. Or, conversely, think of what happens when we’re trying to recall an uncommon word or an unfamiliar name, and we might close our eyes or avert our glance, as we try to fully turn our attention inward and block out external distractions.

This competition is also often observed in brain imaging studies. An interconnected set of brain regions (often referred to as the “default mode network”) is strongly activated when we turn our attention inward. A different set is often activated (for example, in what has been called the “executive control network”) when we are purposefully responding to externally presented words, objects, or sounds. When activation in one set of brain regions goes up, activation in the other set goes down and vice versa.

But do internally directed and externally directed thinking always compete with each other? What would it mean for creativity and imagination if they could, instead, cooperate?

A growing number of studies show that during creative or imaginative activities, when we are partially thinking in spontaneous or automatic ways, there can be a more cooperative relationship between internal and external thinking.

What might this mean for our creative processes? During our creative endeavors, we need to exert some deliberate guidance, but not be too rigid and unrelenting a “controller,” weaving in with our guidance and goals, and then loosening control before we weave in again. In the longer-term, developing effortless ease in parts of our creative process may lead to conditions that promote even more discoveries because there’s a powerful blending of the spontaneous and the intended, and of our internally and our externally directed thinking.


—> For a recent and comprehensive review on the relationship between externally and internally directed cognition in the brain see:

Matthew L. Dixon, Kieran C.R. Fox, & Kalina Christoff (2014). A framework for understanding the relationship between externally and internally directed cognition. Neuropsychologia, 62, pp. 321-330.

Re-presenting words: Writing like Jane Austen

Jumping past the physicality of words, to their meaning(s), is something, as skilled readers, we automatically and effortlessly do. But is our jumping guided by the shape and sound and sinuosity of the words? Does the way a word is written matter?

Take a look at the words of Jane Austen on a manuscript page.

What do you notice? What subtle meanings might be lost (abstracted away?) in a published book?

A type-faced page offers desirable consistencies and constancies. But for this we may pay a price:

“Handwriting . . . happily accommodates the quirks and inconsistencies of individual expression, taste, and personality, and a range of letter-shapes that grow and diminish in size regardless of rules of upper and lower case. In the print edition, where the print transcription both substitutes for and interprets the handwritten original, we largely take on trust the reliability of that substitution. . . . A print transcription, we take it, will be faithful to the linguistic elements of the text – its words and punctuation. But to shapes? to spatial relations? to the graphic ‘noise’ of dashes of varying length and sub-semiotic marks?”

–> From: Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition