15 Ways to Trigger the Brain’s Creative Thinking Mode

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I was thinking of having a peanut butter sandwich and finally got up to make one at 3 am. With a very inattentive brain, I stumbled upon a creative life-hack to apply peanut butter on bread without crushing the bread’s corners or leaving some extra on the spoon – use the spoon’s backside to scoop and spread the peanut butter on bread. This overcomes the problem of unevenness, extra stuff on the spoon, and a crushed corner of the bread. Of course, it would be easier with a buttering knife, but what if there isn’t one?! Out of the many creativity hacks described below, this uses 3 of them.

  1. Spontaneous creativity through the default mode network’s activation – Considering it was 3 am, and I was sleepy-hungry, my brain’s attention was directed inward, and I was moving habitually. This possibly activated the default mode network that accessed random processes and memories in the brain. That may have helped me gain a new perspective on using the spoon and re-assess the problem of making a sandwich.
  2. Overcoming functional fixedness – I flipped the spoon and thought of it as a new object with a new purpose – a different way to scoop up the peanut butter. I thought of a new function for the spoon’s backside.
  3. Having limited resources – Having a buttering knife would’ve been easy, and I would’ve lost my chance to think of the spoon in a different way. Not having the resourceful knife worked in my favor.

What is creativity, really?

Creativity is the act of generating, applying, processing, and transforming an object or idea into something new and unique. This means creativity is a process with an end result that is judged to have some new, original value. Common areas where creativity is valued are arts, science, technology, and engineering. Sometimes, we call it innovation. Even jokes and new ways to cook are hotspots of creativity. From a social point of view, we call something creative when it violates expectations in a subjective way – a particular piece of art may seem creative to a layman but not to someone familiar with the artist’s work.

Creativity can be applied to problem-solving – as in finding new solutions to a problem. It also applies to generating new ideas. In this article, we’ll look at ways to trigger the brain’s creative thinking processes to serve both aspects of creativity – finding solutions and generating something new.

We don’t yet know for sure if people have a general capacity to be creative[1] in any domain or if creativity depends on their specific skills[2] and experience in a particular domain. It probably requires both. Research on creativity in science, writing, music, design, and art points to nuanced differences[3] in each domain’s creative process.

A classic example of creative problem solving is the candle experiment.

You have a box and tacks, matches, and a candle. Find out how you can use these to place a lit candle on the board without letting the wax fall on the floor.

Candle problem: A test for creative problem solving

Karl Duncker observed that people often reach a roadblock in solving the candle problem because of the way the tools (box of tacks, match-sticks, and the candle) are presented. Solution at the end of the post.

Getting into a creative mindset means relying on your intelligence, working memory, attention, ability to let your mind wander and run in the background, and cognitive flexibility to think and do something new. Creativity is about executing an idea, so sometimes creativity is considered as a novel behavior or performance. This also means learning to be creative requires physical & technical skills, and the ability to act on your thoughts on top of creative thinking.

Now let’s look at 15 creative thinking tips and psychological/neural processes that facilitate creativity. These strategies will show you how to be creative on demand.

1. Activate the brain’s default mode network

The default mode network (DMN) is a widespread network in the brain that typically shows activity when the mind wanders while being idle and reduces activity during intense focus. This is when a lot of random memories get activated and combine with random ideas. When the DMN is active, unexpected associations come into awareness, random thoughts pop up, and old ideas emerge in a new light. That’s when you get a lot of new ideas or solutions to problems. It is also why thinking intently seems to hamper creative thinking – the DMN is suppressed and the brain’s attentional system is focused on just the task trying to block everything else. The easiest way to activate the DMN is to stop focusing on the details and let your brain wander freely. Mindlessly following a routine can also help. Some call a DMN-induced creative idea the aha! moment. This is the brain’s incubation process, where the brain continues working on a problem in the background at a subconscious level and pushes it out when it is resolved. In fact, this background processing can occur during procrastination and even improve productivity/creativity.

2. Allow chance configurations

When random things in your environment connect with random ideas or other random objects, your brain suddenly changes perspectives and sees something new and interesting. This is a great way to stumble upon creative ideas. For this to happen, you need to spend time doing a lot of things in many different contexts. Even a messy room can spark creative ideas because the mess brings random objects close to each other. You may find an exciting dress combination just because 2 random clothing items were together in a mess. These are called “chance configurations[4],” where things spark creative ideas by coming close to each other purely by chance.

3. Limit your resources

Restrictions can force the brain[5] to see resources from new perspectives. Just because you won’t have unlimited time, space, money, and energy, you’ll need to think differently about what you have to reach a certain goal. For example, on the designing site Canva, you can make many cool shapes and templates by combining predesigned elements. That’s a cheaper and more creative solution than trying to learn Photoshop or other expensive software. Knowing Photoshop can leave you with a decision-paralysis of not knowing what design to create from scratch. The options are unlimited and that is the problem. On Canva, you’ll have limits that save you the time and effort to make decisions about what shapes or colors to use. Having modest constraints can lead to emergent creativity (accidental creativity) and deliberate creativity. And because this is realistic, it is often helpful to know the limits to maximize creativity in business and professional contexts. The problem-space theory of creativity and constraint[6] says a healthy balance of constraints and ambiguity in problem-solving goals can be good for creativity, but having too many or too few resources for a very specific problem can lead to creativity “dead zones.”

4. Learn to transform

If you have an idea, learn to switch its components and change them one by one. This is iterative creativity where you start simple and slowly build something cool. Musical creativity is the best example of this. If you take a simple uncreative idea and start transforming a few notes here and there, you’ll get creative. You can do this with code and design too.

5. Learn to combine

Some of the simplest creativity comes from combining different elements. Creative designs emerge from mixing color palettes or visual themes. Creative stories come from mixing genres. Creative code comes from mixing small processes together. Transformations and combining elements are called creative mutations, like genetic mutations. Think of everything your senses absorb as a small part or component that can be combined with something else, regardless of how you feel about it at first. We often assume things don’t belong together or won’t work based on superficial “boundaries.” Using eastern herbs in a classic cheeseburger may sound odd but it may create a fun new taste. Even in music or creative writing, we assume certain themes belong to a certain genre and can’t belong elsewhere. These superficial boundaries hamper creativity.

Stonks meme for creativity

6. Change perspectives

Our brain has a tendency to model and comprehend objects and ideas in a specific way. We call this a perspective. It helps the brain simplify the amount of information it sees and keep it just enough for it to make sense. If you change your perspective[8], literally by looking at things from new angles or in different environments, your brain will “re-process[9]” that object or idea. This allows the brain to notice new details and connections that were previously hidden/missed. Those details fuel creative thinking. You can familiarize yourself with a lot of illusions to get started. Remember: Everything you do can have by-products that can be useful somewhere, a change in perspective can highlight those.

7. Use different levels of processing

A construal level is how precisely or abstractly you process something. Your phone could be an iPhone (precise) but it is also a communication device (abstract). Depending on whether you look at it as an iPhone or a communication device, different memory networks will be highlighted. An “iPhone” will be closely associated with other names like android or Samsung. But a “communication device” might bring computers into your mind more easily than an iPhone would. Looking at an object or idea at different levels of its “concept” means changing the object/idea’s “construal level”. High construal levels mean something is vague and abstract, like a communication device. Low construal levels mean something is precise and concrete, like a Nokia. Switching between construal levels for an object or idea means you gain access to different memory associations, and that can give you new, unique thoughts. This is like zooming in (low construal) and zooming out (high construal) with your mind.

8. Pay attention and adopt a flexible mindset

Without paying attention to objects, people, and ideas, you will have no creativity. Because creativity means building something unique, it’s best to start paying attention to all sorts of details. Acknowledge them and remember them. You’ll need them for future creativity. Pay attention to all sensory information from all possible senses – eyes, touch, taste, ears, and movement. Try to understand things your senses don’t have direct access to. Also, pay attention to how that sensory information comes together and forms your perception of the whole object. Once you have your attention going toward new information (open-mindedness), you have to hone your cognitive flexibilitythe ability to shift attention and focus quickly without feeling distracted. Mindfulness practice is a great way to improve cognitive flexibility and it promotes creative thinking. Paying deliberate attention with an open and flexible mindset is also how you can overcome biased thinking.

9. Remember more things

A lot of creativity occurs in the brain with what you can remember. The more you remember, the more chance configurations and creative associations come into your awareness. If you remember some conversation with a friend, that can randomly trigger something exciting and that excitement might make you access other memories, and viola, something unique might come up. Information that can be readily remembered can feed the creative thinking process. We may even rationalize the notion: “If I remember it, it must be important.” And we may use it in new ways because we’ve deemed it important. When creative ideas come from remembering something relevant, others may think – “how did you know that?”

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10. Borrow ideas from other unrelated domains

If something is typical in your domain, it won’t be creative. But if you try to apply a cooking process to an engineering process, it might end up being creative. Learn to borrow ideas from different domains and apply them however you’d like. Research shows[10] that people often draw inspiration from other domains and apply it to their craft to get more creative. Technological innovation often comes with inspiration from analogous observations in other domains. For example, robotics is often inspired by biology. Even adding elements of traditional eastern music to metal music can make a song more creative.

11. Overcome functional fixedness

Functional fixedness is the idea that all objects have only one use – the use they are designed for. Overcome the notion that objects/ideas can be used in just one way. Find new uses and applications, there are no limits. Water cups are typically used only for water. Who knew they can be used to make phone speakers? Start seeing objects as objects without a specific purpose. In fact, forget about their purpose. Use them however you’d like. If an object is already in use, it is said to be pre-utilized. That creates a problem because pre-utilization can block other ways of seeing the object. If it is possible, stop the pre-utilization to examine a tool, object, or concept to think about it in new ways. For example, a cup of water filled with water is pre-utilized. Emptying the cup can make it easier to think about the cup in new ways. Don’t ignore something you see just because you don’t know how to use it. It might just be that something unexpected solves your problems.

A makeshift audio amplifier using cups and a cardboard roll. This is an example of creativity by overcoming functional fixedness.

12. Use lateral thinking by being outside the box

Lateral thinking[11] is a creative problem-solving method where the implied assumptions of a problem are disregarded. In lateral thinking, the nature of the problem and solutions changes once the assumptions are examined. You can carefully analyze a problem and list implied assumptions and expectations to arrive at “out-of-the-box” solutions. Lateral thinking is about ignoring assumed rules of problem-solving. For example, the classic tik tac toe game has the assumption that you can place a cross or nut in any of the 9 sections. However, to arrive at a solution, you can draw a cross outside the box and still be the first to reach 3 crosses. Captain Kirk reprogramming the impossible-to-win Kobayashi Maru in his Starfleet training is an example of lateral thinking. In the simplest sense, lateral thinking is breaking unspoken rules and changing assumptions to remove limitations. When people are stuck in impossible situations and need a creative solution, lateral thinking approaches can help. Ask deeper questions like “why should I do this?”, “why is this correct, but that is wrong?”, “what is the actual significance of doing X and not Y?”, and “does this really make a difference?” to begin the lateral thinking process.

Davie504 uses the "that's illegal" catchphrase when he spots someone using lateral thinking.
Davie504 using lateral thinking to show he doesn’t smile.

13. Assume many solutions exist, not just one

The brain has neural circuitry to carry out 2 opposing types[12] of thinking: Convergent problem-solving and Divergent problem-solving. Convergent problem solving is about arriving at a single best answer, like solving a physics problem. Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is about arriving at any of the many possible correct answers; like finding all the uses of a specific object. This can help to overcome functional fixedness. Tests like the “alternative uses test” can measure divergent thinking and also be work as a creativity training exercise. Divergent thinking allows populating many possible solutions from the ground up. For example, coming up with many explanations for life’s events or generating hypotheses in science. In many situations that need creating problem-solving, assuming that there is only one solution creates the biggest barrier to creativity.

14. Activate a diffused mode of thinking

Under specific theories, the brain has 2 deliberate modes of attention – focused and diffused attention[13]. Creative thinking usually occurs during a diffused mode because it triggers changes in construal levels, changes perspectives, and activates different memory associations. Essentially[14], creativity occurs when we link unrelated/unexpected ideas. A focused thinking session is like concentrating. So how do you activate diffused thinking? A diffused thinking session is exploring with or without curiosity. It is triggered when you start connecting faraway ideas and jumping between unrelated concepts/ideas. This mode is the opposite of thinking in a structured, algorithmic way. Don’t keep a goal or method for your thinking. Diffused thinking also involves quickly paying attention to unexpected bits of information that can update the creative thinking process.

Focused and diffused thinking

15. Learn to create by improvising

Improvisation, or real-time decision-making[15], is thinking on the fly to find solutions without any preparation using available information and tools in novel ways. Improvisation is not just for the creative genius or a creative personality. It is a practiced skill that anyone can learn. Improvisation requires high working memory, self-monitoring, vast knowledge, a clear way to reframe problems, attention to detail, and trust. You can start improvising in everyday life by trying to solve problems by using whatever you find around you, even if it isn’t the best option. Don’t wait to find the best method and ingredients to solve a particular problem. Access what’s available to you and work with just that.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and the by-product from one food can be perfect for making another.” – Yotam Ottolenghi[16]

  1. High working memory: Working memory is our ability to hold information in our minds at any given time. It’s the act of continuously remembering something and keeping it in awareness for as long as needed. Typically, humans remember a few items at a time for a few seconds. Improvising requires us to remember as much as we can at any time to apply that information and update it on the go.
  2. Self-monitoring: Improvising requires us to monitor ourselves while we are in a creative process to continuously use feedback from ourselves, others, the environment, and how the solution unfolds. Self-monitoring allows us to constantly update our perspectives and approach to problem-solving, without which we would be clueless about how our solution works.
  3. Vast knowledge: Vast knowledge – both tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge – is important so you can use that information while improvising. Knowledge is stored as a network of connected information, and accessing that knowledge is necessary to use that knowledge. So having it isn’t enough, having the confidence to remember it is equally important. A general habit of learning and keenly observing your experiences is a good way to build tacit and explicit knowledge.
  4. A clear way to reframe a problem: We need to improvise when new problems emerge or existing problems unexpectedly change. In some cases, the resources to handle a problem change, and sticking to a known strategy isn’t feasible. So, to improvise, you have to reframe and regularly assess the situation to update your approach.
  5. Attention to detail: Since our brain focuses on only a small portion of information at any given time because of heuristics and biases, we need to deliberately pay attention to many minute details and keep a big-picture perspective. To develop your attention to detail, practice being observant in day-to-day events.
  6. Trust: Improvising requires trusting other people to help you. It also requires trusting your judgment and abilities. This trust often lays the foundation for feeling confident in improvising.

A solution to the candle problem.

A solution to the candle problem
The optimal solution is depicted in the image above. However, people do try to overcome the unconscious functional use of the box w/o the tacks as a resource by using other creative (but sub-optimal solutions). Some people solved the problem by using the wax as an adherent between the candle and the board.

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