Tag Archives: creativity

Sleep for Creativity

Dreams are not “meaningless narratives” but are “layered with significance and substance”, laments insomniac Jonah Lehrer as he considers the importance of dreaming for creativity:

A group of students was given a tedious task that involved transforming a long list of number strings into a new set of number strings. This required the subjects to apply a painstaking set of algorithms. However, […] there was an elegant shortcut, which could only be uncovered if the subjects saw the subtle links between the different number sets. When left to their own devices, less than 25 percent of people found the shortcut, even when given several hours to mull over the task. However, when [the researcher, Jan Born,] allowed people to sleep between experimental trials, they suddenly became much more clever: 59 percent of all participants were able to find the shortcut. Born argues that deep sleep and dreaming “set the stage for the emergence of insight” by allowing us to mentally represent old ideas in new ways.

So that’s another good reason to sleep well.

Before looking at how sleep is “an essential component of creativity”, Lehrer also describes this fascinating study: a selection of rodents spent their day running around a circular track, having their brain activity monitored. Once the animals fell asleep, the researchers noted that the brain activity displayed was identical to that displayed while they were actually running around the track (i.e. they were dreaming about running). On further examination, the researchers then discovered that they could also predict precisely where on the track the rodents were at any given point in their dream.

Creativity Stages and ‘Flow’

After intently studying people at work in a diverse range of fields, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlined what he determined to be the five stages of the creative process in his book Creativity:

  1. Preparation: Becoming immersed, consciously or not, in a set of problematic issues that are interesting and arouse curiosity.
  2. Incubation: A period whereby ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness. (It is during this time that unusual connections are likely to be made.)
  3. Insight: When the pieces of the puzzle fall together.
  4. Evaluation: Deciding whether the insight is valuable and worth pursuing.
  5. Elaboration: The slow and often routine work of elaboration (the hardest and longest stage of the process).

In this work, Csikszentmihalyi coined the word ‘flow‘ for the state when a person is totally absorbed in a creative exercise: “an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness”. To achieve flow, one’s skills must match the challenge at hand (as you can see in Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk, when these two don’t align optimally you can be confronted with anxiety, relaxtion or boredom, depending on what is lacking: skills or difficulty of the challenge).

There are some fantastic notes on Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk at Lateral Action where they’ve provided his answer to the question, How does it feel to be in flow? Anyone who has a passion (be it painting, programming or writing) will surely recognise this:

  • Completely involved in what we are doing – focused, concentrated.
  • A sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality.
  • Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing.
  • Knowing that the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task.
  • A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
  • Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.
  • Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.

Innovation of Innovation

The costs of innovation have exceeded the benefits, says Umair Haque, and it’s time to move away from this “relic of the industrial era” towards something specifically “built for the 21st century”. Haque has dubbed this the almost too hip Awesomeness Manifesto.

The three problems with innovation as it stands, according to Haque:

  • Innovation relies on obsolescence.
  • Innovation dries up our seedcorn.
  • Innovation often isn’t.

The four pillars of new-innovation, or awesomeness:

  • Ethical production.
  • Insanely great stuff (creativity).
  • Love.
  • Thick value (making people authentically better off — not merely by adding more bells and whistles).

Let’s summarize. What is awesomeness? Awesomeness happens when thick — real, meaningful — value is created by people who love what they do, added to insanely great stuff, and multiplied by communities who are delighted and inspired because they are authentically better off.

Your Job as an Artist

Andrew Keen, the so-called Anti-Christ of Silicon Valley, tackles his common ground of technology and creativity in a piece from the Telegraph where he hopes to discover Why are Artists so Poor? After a bit of Twittering, Andrew found that his:

responses extended to everything from lucid one-worders like “oversupply” to philosophical tweets such as “because they live in the moment” to Clay Shirky’s terse and elliptically authoritative “unequal distribution of talent + supply and demand”.

The shift in the relationship between art and technology, as Andrew continues to explain, is due as much to the lack of gatekeepers (agents, editors, studios) on the Internet as it is to the ease of personal distribution.

With that being said, the (new) job of the artist is more or less strategic self-promotion:

In an age in which the old cultural gatekeepers are being swept away, the most pressing challenge of creative artists is to build their own brands. And it’s the Internet which provides creative talent with easy-to-use and cheap tools for their self-promotion.

This is a guest post from Alex J. Mann.  You can subscribe to his blog here and follow him on Twitter here.

Free: Interview with Chris Anderson

Whether you’ve read it or not, you’re undoubtedly aware that Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired and author of The Long Tail, has written a new book: Free.

I haven’t read the book but can likely guess the premise—and given that the unabridged audiobook can be downloaded online I’ll no doubt be giving it a listen at some point in the near future (Anderson made Free available online at no cost in various formats for a limited time).

Until that time, this interview about Free between Chris Anderson and Hugh MacLeod (of Gaping Void) will satiate my desire.

I think there are two classes of people who are afraid or skeptical of Free: those who grew up before the web (ie, olds like me) and people whose industries are threatened by the web (ie, media people like me). Many in my generation or profession (mostly, I hope, those who haven’t read the book) assume that Free is something of a Ponzi scheme. Meanwhile, my kids are also appalled that I wrote a book called FREE, but not because it’s wrong/scary, but because it’s so freaking obvious.

Needless to say, they’re both wrong. Free is neither a mirage nor is it self-evident. Instead, it’s an essential, but complicated, component of a 21st century business model—not the only price, but often the best one.

Some other choice quotes from the interview (best read in context):

These are exciting days, and if ever these was a time to be overextended this is it.

Easier: experimenting. Harder: predicting.

Don’t wait to be given a job to do something cool. Follow your passions, create something every day, take chances and try to be the best in the world at something, no matter how tiny and trivial. Nothing impresses me more than initiative. And there has never been a better time to take it.

On a more prosaic note, I think that leading people is perhaps the most important skill these days.