Nicole Bergmann at the University of Barcelona
Bergmann: Why are you so fascinated by the subject “Creativity?”
Michalko: I’m fascinated by the way people think and how they can change the way they think. For example many people believe that creativity cannot be learned, and that you are either born creative or you are not. This is a myth. Creativity is not genetically determined.
Typically, the average person has been taught to think reproductively, that is, on the basis of similar problems encountered in the past. We analytically select the most promising approach based on past experiences, excluding all other approaches, and work within a clearly defined direction towards the solution to the problem. We’ve been taught to reproduce what we have been taught by others. So we constantly reproduce the same ideas over and over. It’s as if we enter school as a question mark and graduate as a period.
In contrast, creative people think productively, not reproductively. When confronted with a problem, they ask, “How many different ways can I look at it?” instead of “What have I been taught by someone else on how to solve this?” They tend to come up with many different responses, some of which are unconventional and possibly unique.
Albert Einstein was once asked what the difference was between him and the average person. He said that if you asked the average person to find a needle in the haystack, the person would stop when he or she found a needle. He, on the other hand, would tear through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles.
Bergmann: Why do people who practice “Creative Thinking” simplify their lives?
Michalko: Imagine that the whole universe of creativity is in a glass of wine. The twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the changing reflections on the glass as you twirl it and our imagination which begins to see many shapes and forms in the twisting liquid. The glass is a distillation of rocks from nature, which is the primary creative force on earth. There is in wine the great generalization that all creative life is fermentation. How vivid is claret, pressing its existence into our consciousness. If our small minds, for some convenience, try to divide the glass of wine, the universe, into ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and other products for further academic study– remember that the universe of creativity, the glass of wine, does not know or care about that. So creative thinkers do not forget what ultimately the wine is for and drink and enjoy it. In other words, they simply do it.
Bergmann: What is your favorite trick to escape from a creative blackout?
Michalko: To do nothing! My favorite technique when stonewalled is to do nothing, and let my subconscious mind work on the problem. Sooner or later, an idea or solution will pop up in my mind appear after a period of incubation out of nowhere.
The act of recording your thoughts and ideas about a particular problem plants the information into your long term memory and also into your unconscious. In the unconscious mind, we activate complexes of information without boundary.
Information held in long term memory can be processed in parallel in the unconscious and find its way into conscious thought. An innovative idea emerges not in any real time sequence but in a “mind popping” explosion of thought.
My work notebook contains information about all the ideas, concepts, and problems that I am working on. By periodically reviewing my notebook, I activate all the recorded information in my conscious and subconscious mind.
This sets up a mental system of network thinking where ideas, images, and concepts from completely unrelated problems combine to catalyze the nascent moment of creativity.
Recording your work plants the information in your subconscious mind and somehow activates relevant patterns so it can be processed into a mind popping solution, even after a long delay during which the problem is abandoned.
Archimedes got his sudden insight about the principle of displacement while daydreaming in his bath. According to legend, he was so excited by his discovery that he rushed naked through the streets shouting, “Eureka!” (I’ve found it). Henri Poincare, the French genius, spoke of incredible ideas and insights that came to him with suddenness and immediate certainty out of the blue. So dramatic are the ideas that arrive that the precise moment in which the idea arrived can be remembered in unusual detail.
Darwin could point to the exact spot on a road where he arrived at the solution for the origin of species while riding in his carriage and not thinking about his subject. Other geniuses offer similar experiences. Like a sudden flash of lightning, ideas and solutions seemingly appear out of nowhere.
That this is a commonplace phenomenon was shown in a survey of distinguished scientists conducted over a half century ago. A majority of the scientists reported that they got their best ideas and insights when not thinking about the problem.
Ideas came while walking, recreating, or working on some other unrelated problem. This suggests how the creative act came to be associated with “divine inspiration” for the illumination appears to be involuntary.
The more problems, ideas and thoughts that you record and review from time to time, the more complex becomes the network of information in your mind. Your subconscious mind never rests. When you quit thinking about the subject and decide to forget it, your subconscious mind doesn’t quit working.
The thoughts keep flashing freely in every direction through your subconscious. They are colliding, combining and recombining millions of times. Typically, many combinations are of little or no value, but occasionally, a combination is made that is appreciated by your subconscious and delivered up to the conscious mind as a “mind popping” idea.
Our conscious minds are sometimes blocked from creating new ideas because we are too fixated. When we discontinue work on the problem for a period of time, our fixation fades, allowing our subconscious minds to freely create new possibilities.
To experience “mind popping,” try the following experiment. Write a letter to your unconscious about a problem. Make the letter as detailed as possible. Describe the problem, what steps you have taken, the gaps, what is needed, what the obstacles are, the ideal solution and so on.
Instruct your subconscious to find the solution. Write, “Your mission is to find the solution to the problem. I would like the solution in two days.” Seal the letter and put it away. Forget it. Open the letter in two days. If the problem still has not been solved, write on the bottom of the letter, “Let me know the minute you solve this.” Sooner or later, when you are most relaxed and removed, ideas and solutions will pop up from your unconscious.
Bergmann: Do men and women have a different kind of creativity?
Michalko: No. Creativity is the same thinking process for both sexes. Think of your mind as a dish of jelly which has settled so that its surface is perfectly flat. When information enters the mind, it self-organizes. It is like pouring warm water on the dish of jelly with a teaspoon. Imagine the warm water being poured on the jelly dish and then gently tipped so that it runs off. After many repetitions of this process, the surface of the jelly would be full of ruts, indentations, and grooves.
New water (information) would start to automatically flow into the preformed grooves. After a while, it would take only a bit of information (water) to activate an entire channel. This is the pattern recognition and pattern completion process. Even if much of the information is out of the channel, the pattern will be activated.
The mind automatically corrects and completes the information to select and activate a pattern.
This is why when we sit down and try to will new ideas or solutions, we tend to keep coming up with the same-old, same-old ideas. Information is flowing down the same ruts and grooves making the same-old connections producing the same old ideas over and over again.
Creativity occurs when we tilt the jelly dish and force the water (information) to flow into new channels and make new connections. These new connections give you different ways to focus you attention and different ways to interpret whatever you are focusing on. It is these different ways of focusing your attention and different ways of interpreting what you are focusing on that lead to new insights, original ideas and solutions.
Bergmann: Children are naturally creative. Why do they lose this talent when they grow older?
Michalko: They learn not be creative by our educational system. A group of researchers observed a group of five-year old children at play. They noted that most of the kids loved playing with magic marker type crayons. When these crayons were available, the kids used them with great concentration and pleasure. The researchers claimed that the kids used these crayons for internal reasons. There was no external force causing them to play with them. Instead the kids freely chose the crayons and enjoyed them for intrinsic reasons.
Next, the researchers promised and then gave one randomly selected group of children “Good Player Awards” as a reward for their drawing efforts with the crayons. For one week, these children knew they would get a “prize” at the end of the week for their drawing behavior. For the remaining children, no such promises were made.
There was a significant change in the crayon use among the kids who were promised external rewards for their drawing. These kids reduced how often they played with the crayons and reduced how much time they spent with the crayons. By contrast, the children who were not promised external rewards maintained their normal frequency and duration of use.
We know that the kids already wanted the crayons for internal reasons and were intrinsically motivated to be creative. However, the introduction of an external attribution changed the children and their behavior. When asked, “Why do you play with the magic marker crayons?” the kids answered “Because of the award.”
In a series of illuminating experimental demonstrations, social psychologist Teresa Amabile has called attention to the importance of “intrinsic” motivation. Contrary to what is predicted by classical psychological accounts, Amabile has shown that creative solutions to problems occur more often when individuals engage in an activity for its sheer pleasure than when they do so for possible external rewards. Indeed, knowledge that one will be judged on some criterion of “creativeness” or “originality” tends to narrow the scope of what one can produce (leading to products that are then judged as relatively conventional); in contrast, the absence of an evaluation seems to liberate creativity.
Bergmann: What is creativity’s biggest enemy?
Michalko: Negative thinkers. Constructing a railroad is a complex feat of engineering that requires imagination, intelligence, effort, and skill. Yet, one person can derail an express by pulling up one track. Pulling up one track is not a particularly skillful operation, but the result is immediate and total.
In the same way, an idea assassin usually ignores the major part of an idea and focuses on a sample of the whole. By showing that one part of the whole is absurd, the implication is that the whole is equally absurd. By destroying a part, a person can destroy the whole and feel a sense of achievement without taking the time or making the effort to create anything.