Creativity in motion cognitive methods to increase one’s creativity_big

Creativity in motion – cognitive methods to increase one’s creativity

Given the previous short essays on creativity, we can assume that creative thinking is desirable although it goes hand in hand with several counter-intuitive conflicts. Naturally, readers may now ask two of the most difficult questions:

How can I become more creative and how can I enable others to become more creative? The questions themselves are not that difficult but answering them is. In this article as well as following articles to come, we want to look at the many-faceted fields of psychological research that have yielded useful answers: cognition, motivation, and emotion.

Cognition – Push your know-how

Essentially, the headline already says it all. So instead of describing the “to do”, let us rather look at the reasons why one should do this. Our starting point is the so-called Geneplore model (Finke, Ward, and Smith, 1992) which is – literally and content-wise – a combination of idea-generation and idea-exploration (for an alternative read on that notion see Runco and Chand, 1995). Idea-generation is also often referred to as “ideation” and can be thought of as a set of six sub-factors. For our first answering-attempt, we will look at two of these sub-factors a little closer.

Association, Ping-Pong, and flat hierarchies

I hear the word “table” and, almost instantly, I can hear the word “chair” in my inner ear. That is not necessarily a reason to visit a psychiatric ward. Much more likely, I just experienced an association – the spontaneous salience of the link between two memory contents. Provided you have his phone number, call Timo Boll and greet him with the word “table”. Possibly, Boll may then think of the word “tennis” rather than “chair”. That would be because Timo Boll is – still – ranked in the ITTF Top10 of the best table tennis players in the world. Thus, we can assume that Boll’s mental universe revolves around the sport – he knows what a ping-pong table feels like, how it smells, maybe even how it tastes. In his 39 years of age, he constructed uncountable, deep, mental links with the object.

In this hypothetical “Boll” case, scientists speak of a distant association (in comparison to my “chair”, which is rather obvious). According to theory, if such distant associations frequently occur within one person, that person has a flat associative hierarchy and, subsequently, an increased creative potential. When one has a flat or a steep associative hierarchy, it is linked to several personal traits, but the most basic precondition is knowledge. Who would associate “tennis” if one has never heard of the sport table tennis? Three important footnotes at this point: First, this and the above paragraph are based on the scientific work of Mednick (1962). Second, detailed and broad knowledge does not guarantee a flat associative hierarchy. And third, the attributes “distant” and “obvious” are – as are most attributes in creative cognition – ultimately subjective and depend on the observer’s perspective.

Abstraction, reductions, and Michelangelo’s David

The second sub-factor of “ideation” that we want to cover in this article is abstraction or categorical reduction. An abstraction can be thought of as the reduction of a complex entity towards its most basic dimensions without its lesser relevant details. Everyday examples of such reduced objects are black-and-white images of faces that can be processed without significant delay in comparison to their colourful originals (e. g. McCarthy 1999) or songs in .mp3 format, which are reduced in data-size by the factor 1:10 (or more) in comparison to lossless file formats such as .flac or .wav. The song remains the same… almost. By the way, an object does not have to be a physical, palpable thing for categorical reduction. An object can also be a structured thought, like a business strategy for example.

Through abstraction or categorical reduction, we ask: What is essential? What are dimensions with which we can describe an object? Look at Michelangelo’s David (to be found in the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence), a more than 5 meters tall marble statue of the biblical counterpart of Goliath. In that one sentence we can see seven dimensions and the respective properties: Location = Florence, Italy; artist = Michelangelo; national origin = Italian; epoch = High Renaissance; size = 5.17 meters; material = Statuario (a special kind of Carrara marble); portrayed figure = David, biblical (Tanakh, Old Testament).

Variability, counterfeits, and systematic craziness

An artist who wants to be creative could use that abstraction or categorical reduction and vary one property. If you systematically search for dimension-based properties that you could vary, you will find yourself in the realm of well-established creativity techniques such as the TRIZ (e. g. Altschuller, ca. 1955, Russia), the morphological box (Zwicky, 1957, Switzerland) or the template approach (e. g. Goldenberg, 1999, USA and Israel). Speaking of “… that you could vary…”, what would happen if you varied the above dimension “artist”? Who, if not yourself, could be the artist or maker? The dimension seems invariant. Or is it?

Today, Wolfgang Beltracchi is recognized as one of the most important contemporary artists in Germany. But not by all, surely. He gained fame as the perhaps greatest forger of all time. He created new paintings while mimicking the individual style of the greats (e. g. Campendonk, Ernst, or Pechstein), forged their signatures, made quite an effort to let the supposedly century-old paintings age (e. g. bake them in an oven), and had them auctioned in esteemed houses at high prices… in other words, Beltracchi varied the seemingly invariant dimension “artist”… another footnote: after being convicted and serving time, he has reclaimed the stage through honest work, his signatures now read “Beltracchi”.

One of most eye-opening added values of abstraction or categorical reduction is the reveal of such seemingly invariant dimensions. This allows for the possibility to create absurd ideas that have the potential to become realistic innovation. The mental mechanics that spontaneously happen in the supposedly crazy minds of artists can be systematically implemented in situations that demand utmost seriousness, perhaps your next strategy meeting?

Conclusion and Dixie jazz

Going back to the core message, it becomes apparent that the more you know about an object that you want to abstract or with which you want to form associations, your perspective becomes richer. You can see more dimensions, you can perceive more properties, you can build more distant links, and, thus, you can increase your creative potential. The four other sub-factors of ideation that we did not cover here, as well as the six sub-factors of idea-exploration, go in the same direction. So, do it like Joachim Bublath, hire your go-to-Dixie-jazz-band and push your Knoff-Hoff… Ending with another footnote: Knoff-Hoff was a popular science show in German television in the 80ies and 90ies, hosted by Joachim Bublath. Also, Knoff-Hoff would be the pronunciation of “Know-How” by not-so-well-versed local English speakers.

Text written by Philipp Rosar

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