Hey You!

Are You Creative?

I've read quite a lot. Some of what I've read says that as human beings, we are deeply creative! Whether it's music, software, or furniture, we are all creative.
I've also read that we, as human beings, simply cannot stop creating.

Think about the implications of this. Creativity is in our nature. From our very DNA moving out from our minds, heart, fingers and toes. Every aspect of what we do is creative, everything we are meant to do is creative but what we call creativity, can be, well...rather restrictive.

Being able to design good websites, apps or software is one type of design. But we can't ignore the creative eye of a person who can see a rundown house not as it is, but how it could be, or will be once they're finished with it.

Or a joiner. I can barely move a table without catching a splinter of wood in my finger. But joiners and other people who can fashion a piece of wood into something beautiful. That's a very satisfying form of creative ability.

The truth is that we have a very restrictive idea of what it means to be creative. We are generally quite poor at recognising the talent we have and what that means to other people. Creativity in teaching, is not just being able to create a programme of study that is interesting or engaging...it's also being able to think on your feet to explain what a database is to a group of Year 12 students (I used iTunes, and they got it very quickly).

Creativity is also how you get your two year old child to eat something, do something that they don't want to...no mean feat if you've ever been there.

But wait...

Is There a Science to Being Creative?

Quite simply, yes there is.

There are three main networks in our brains that are responsible for different functions:
1. The Default Mode Network
2. The Executive Control Network
3. The Salience Network

The default mode network is what's happening in the brain in a resting (but not sleeping) state, the brain’s “idle state.” The executive control network monitors what is going on, manages emotional parts of the brain, directs resources like attention, and oversees decisions and choices. The salience network determines which sorts of things tend to be noticed, and which tend to fly under the radar. In PTSD, for example, the salience network is scanning for threats.

For creativity, scientists hypothesize that the Big Three operate as a team: the default mode network generates ideas, the executive control network evaluates them, and the salience network helps to identify which ideas get passed along to the executive control network. On top of this basic schema, these networks can also influence one another via other feedback loops. For instance, the executive control network might “tune” the way the salience network scans internally, depending on the task at hand, in response to the environment.

These brain networks form a somewhat flexible and responsive system, a 'complex adaptive system.' Not only is it a resilient learning system, the brain has also evolved to math its' environment. With human beings, it isn’t just the physical environment, it is the world of language, culture, ideas and social relations. This is of particular importance when it comes to creativity. This is closely linked to what folks have called divergent thinking. Looking at divergent thinking tasks, compared to conventional tasks, and measuring brain activity is how the current research is set up.

Beaty et al. (2018) looked at basic brain activity with fMRI and use (similar to other work, such as using machine learning to predict suicidal intent, to understand the effect of cannabis on the brain, and to enhance psychiatric diagnosis) machine-learning approaches, and then leverage those computational models to predict which individuals from a group of people are more creative just by looking at their brain scan. Beaty et al. found that people who are more and who are less creative, could be identified just by looking at brain scans of them doing nothing in particular.

These findings are of crucial importance for anyone trying to understand, and possibly enhance creativity, as they point to the global nature of generative processes for engaging multiple brain networks, activating in sync, providing feedback to and mutually regulating one another. There isn't one "creativity" area in the brain; creativity emerges from the interplay of complex brain activity involving multiple more basic systems. The implications of this work, just in the early stages, are remarkable.

When You Look Back Over This Post, You'll Find the Images

Do Not Over-Emphasise the Use of Colour

Colour is not important in the execution of the idea. If you ever find it is, then your idea simply isn't strong enough.

When I worked in web design, I made it a central part of my design phase to construct the website without any colour. My intention was to show the customer the importance of the message of their content. It was the product or the service a company provided that was important, not whether I had used Pantone 185 or 186 - those choices are easy, which is why I would leave them to the end.

Work on the strength of your idea. It might take several iterations, but if you have a good idea, then it will be worth it. I am working on a current side project that will solve an educational problem for me, and will perhaps be useful for other people, and it can also be replicated for other areas of learning. But so far, colour hasn't entered into the equation at all.

What my mind is focused on currently, is the problem, but more importantly, the execution of the solution. I am thinking about how the solution will be presented to the user and in what order. I am thinking about the problems I know I will face in the middle of the project and how I am going to solve those. I am also thinking about the problems I will face that I haven't considered yet - can I reveal those before I get there, so that I might be able to work on a solution before the problem halts the project?

All these things (and more) are important parts of the creative process - parts in which, colour has no place as it doesn't solve any of my problems.

One or Two

Final Thoughts

Creativity can also include the act of asking new questions, or phrasing things in a way that makes the concepts new and approachable.

Creativity is inspired by a previous observation of a certain thing, coupled with a current problem, deficiency or void requiring a solution. To put it another way– creativity is a form of analogical reasoning.

So, knowing this, it’s a process that can actually be taught. “Creative thinking”, in this sense, is a skill that anyone can gain, if they really apply themselves enough.

In order to come up with a different, unique or extraordinary solution or reaction to something, we must first:

1. Understand the problem at hand.

2. Obsessively and aggressively consume relevant information and work hard at turning that information into knowledge and apply it as much as possible.

3. Harness what you already have. Experience and specialist knowledge can, if it is carefully used, lead to exceptional creativity.

4. Be open to risk and show a lot of determination and self-assurance.

5. Use your mind. When you’re interacting with people, yourself, or whatever. Don’t just sit there and zone out – think! Absorb! Participate! Staring at a white sheet of paper is not creative. It’s the process of acting and doing that leads you to extraordinary results.

6. Design and design again. I often found that my first design was never my greatest effort. It was usually the most obvious answer, but never the most unique, most creative, or most insightful. Design multiple times because your best answer might be version 5 or 6. If you don't get to that point, you might never fully discover or realise your full potential.

Creativity is one of the greatest qualities we are blessed with, yet many never allow their true creativity to be expressed. Why? Because creativity requires a lot of experimenting. It requires a lot of work. Next to that, creativity also involves a lot of risk. You have to be open to put something big on the line and risk being shut down, and that can be scary. Employers have told me that they want employees (i.e. my students) to be creative, but are equally risk averse.

Now don't get me wrong, I get this. There is little room for failure in the business world - it is unforgiving and the government is not going to come along with a bailout, so with the choice of creative failure or ensuring the business stays afloat and stays open for business, there is few of us who would actively choose the first option.

But in the right context, with the correct guidance (I've had plenty of 'creative managers' who really just wanted a skill set of following orders and completing tasks - regardless of size - in 20 minutes), creativity can be the difference in securing a contract and missing out.

Keep designing, keep creating, keep doodling. It will take you places and help you see things that you otherwise would have missed.

Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

Michael is a Lecturer and Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. He is an avid supporter of technology enhanced learning, instructional learning design and blended learning. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution.

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