Art of Creative Thinking
Dr KS Dhillon
What is creative thinking?
‘To create is always to do something new’.
“Creative thinking is not a talent, it is a skill that can be learnt.
It empowers people by adding strength to their natural abilities
which improves teamwork, productivity and where appropriate
Edward de Bono
The word creativity originated from the Latin term creō, which means to create or to make. It refers to the ability to generate new ideas and find original and useful solutions to problems .
Creative thinking is often referred to as, ‘thinking out of the box’, ‘lateral thinking’, or ‘divergent thinking’. In simple terms, it means looking at something in a new way. It is the ability to think differently and to perceive patterns that are not obvious. Creative thinking makes a person see things from a new angle or perspective.
Creative thinking allows a person to explore connections, meet new challenges and seek original, fresh and unusual solutions.
What is the need for creative thinking?Creative thinking has many advantages. Creative thinking helps a person to become a more confident, stronger, self-reliant and happier person. Creative thinking adds value not only to one’s life but also the life of others around. Open-minded thinking helps a person to explore new thoughts and ideas. Hidden talents surface, which allows a person to discover new opportunities, when creative thinking is adopted. There is no dead-end road for creative thinkers. There are endless opportunities to explore new challenges. Creative thinking gives a person a reason to wake up every morning and see what others cannot see.
The experiences gained through creative thinking makes it easier to handle difficult and challenging situations that come around. Creative thinking also makes a person happier and liked by people around.
How to enhance creative thinking skills?
Some believe that creative thinking techniques are based on experience. In 1996 this is what Steve Jobs had to say about creative thinking.
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem”.
There are several ways in which creative thinking skills can be enhanced.
The term counterfactual literally means contrary to the facts. Counterfactual thinking is creating possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred which in fact is contrary to what actually happened. In counterfactual thinking thoughts such as ‘what if’ and ‘if I had only done that’ run through a person’s mind and the person wonders how things could have turned out differently. Counterfactual thoughts include things that could never happen in reality because they pertain to events that have occurred in the past.
A counterfactual thought occurs when a person alters a factual prior event and then goes on to assess the consequences of that change. A person imagines how the outcome could have been different if the antecedents which led to the event were different. For example, a nurse whose patient died while undergoing treatment in the ward may reflect upon how things could have turned out differently by imagining how some of the factors could have been different for a different outcome. The person would think that if she had given closer attention to the patient’s medical condition the patient may not have died.
There are two components in counterfactual thinking. The first is the activation portion and the second is content. The activation portion is when we allow the counterfactual thought to enter into our conscious thought and the content portion creates the end scenario for the thought that has entered the conscious.
Counterfactual thinking has both positive and negative consequences for the individual but the net result is an overall benefit for the individual.
Why do we allow ourselves to think of alternatives that can be beneficial or harmful to us? Many believe that humans tend to think of such counterfactual ideas in the presence of exceptional circumstances that led to an event which could have been avoided in the first place. Another reason why we use counterfactual thoughts is because we are close to an alternative outcome with positive outcomes .
Counterfactual thinking has a preparative function that helps people avoid past blunders and it makes a person feel better. Counterfactual thinking is known to boost creativity for short periods of time.
According to Wertheimer , the function of thinking is not just to solve actual problems but to discover, envisage and go into deeper questions. In most great discoveries a certain question is often found. Envisaging and putting forward a productive question is a greater achievement than the solution of a question that has been set.
Research shows that real-world problem finding measure is predictive of creative thinking and real-world problem-finding measure is the most valuable predictor of creative potential .
Real-world problem finding is useful in enhancing creative thinking. For example, the nursing manager in the hospital ward can ask the nursing staff to think of as many different problems as possible, in their ward and come up with as many solutions as possible.
Creative thinkers don’t sit back and think of cut-and-dry end goals, they instead examine the problem from different angles before beginning to do the work.
3.Interpersonal distance and creativity
When there is a creative block, abstaining from a task is known to be useful. Now there is evidence which shows that creating “psychological” distance is also useful.
Jia et al  studied the effect of spatial distance on creative cognition and insight problem-solving. They were able to show that when a creative task is portrayed as originating from afar rather than a close location, individuals were able to provide more creative responses as well as perform better on problem-solving tasks that required creative insight. Individuals in their study were able to solve twice as many insight problems when they were asked to think about the source of the task which is distant, rather than closeby.
Förster et al  carried out six studies to investigate how and whether distant future time perspective promotes abstract thinking and at the same time impedes concrete thinking, by altering the level at which an individual’s mental representations are construed. They found that individuals who imagined themselves engaging in tasks a year later as compared to the next day performed better on a series of insight tasks. They also found that a distant perspective improved the creative generation of abstract solutions.
According to construal level theory (CLT), the distance of an individual from objects and events determines how abstractly the individual will represent or construe the objects and events. Whether events or objects are construed at lower or higher levels of abstraction would depend on conceptual differences as well as perceptual differences .
The contents of more abstract, higher-level construals consists of a summary of the given information about objects and events, whereas the content of lower-level construals consists of contextual and readily observable features . Higher-level construals involve broad and global processing of information whereas lower-level construals involve narrow and localized processing of information. The main tenet of CLT is that increasing the distance of an individual from objects and events is associated with more abstract construals. Creativity increases as the spatial distance increases.
One has to try to imagine that one’s creative task is disconnected and distant from one’s current position or location. This will make the problem more accessible and it can encourage higher-level thinking.
Research shows that reading and or experiencing something unreal or absurd can boost pattern recognition and creative thinking. The mind is always trying to make sense of the things that a person sees. Absurd and unreal things put the mind in overdrive for short periods of time while the mind works out what it is looking for .
Proulx and Heine  were able to show that novel patterns of association learning could be enhanced by unrelated meaning threats. They found that the ‘cognitive mechanisms responsible for implicitly learning patterns are enhanced by the presence of a meaning threat’ . Meaning threats whatever their source motivate people to seek out meaning somewhere else. Meaning threats can be to an individual’s self-esteem, threats to their political worldview, threats to their sense of situational certainty, threats to their existence or threats to their goal attainment .
Reading interesting absurd short stories and seeing absurd art can provide inspiration to individuals.
5. Let your mind wander
There is a link between mind-wandering and crucial parts of our daily lives, including affect, learning and job productivity. Mind-wandering is limited in the morning and it increases throughout the morning and peaks at midday. It decreases through the afternoon and peaks again in the evening .
A wandering mind can boost creative thinking. It allows you to access new ways of processing and imagining and help you to come up with new solutions to old problems. It can inspire an individual to write new stuff and learn new languages. It is a creative minds’ ultimate asset.
A wandering mind encourages inquisitiveness which in turn increases the desire for information and knowledge. It also stretches one's imagination and lays the fountain for creativity. The newfound creativity opens up new avenues of thinking, planning, preparing and ultimately doing things.
Self-imagination and awareness of self increases when the mind wanders.
Self-imagination allows the transfer of short term memory to long term memory by concentrating on the meaning of the information. Self-imagination helps with retrieval of memory and it also brings about a sense of self.
6. Day time naps and sleep
A nap of between 10 min to 30 min duration during the day is known to promote wakefulness and enhance performance and improve learning ability. Longer naps, on the other hand, are associated with a loss of productivity and sleep inertia. The habit of taking frequent and long naps especially among the elderly may be associated with higher morbidity and mortality .
Nocturnal sleep provides pivotal insights. Insight is mental restructuring which leads to a gain of knowledge which brings about qualitatively changed behavior. Sleep allows the consolidation of recent memories.
A study by Wagner et al  showed that sleep, by restructuring new memory and representations, facilitates extraction of explicit knowledge and insightful behaviour.
7. Conceptualize the problem in a new way
Creative people generally look at problems in a new way more often as compared to less creative people. Creative people avoid cut-and-dry end goals and they examine the problem from different angles before starting on a job. Creative individuals focus on fundamental parts of the problem and they look at a more meaningful angle of the problem which leads them to something that is original.
8. Embrace your limitations
Many believe that freedom gives you the space to be a better creator. This is not true because history shows us that most creative endeavors took place within limited environments with restricted budgets and individuals who had an abundance of talent and finances often fail to create anything original.
It is well known that creativity is not born from freedom. We have to push ourselves beyond our limits to learn a skill, absorb the rules, learn where the limits are and try to exceed them. Staying inside a box helps us think outside it by looking at light shining through the cracks in the box.
Imposing restrictions or limitations can actually boost creativity, which is the ultimate defense against a creative block. More freedom can be crippling. When we have more options than it is harder to make decisions. When we add limitations to our creative process it helps us to stay motivated and we find new ways to handle the difficulty.
Limitations challenge the way we think and it forces us to think in new ways. Creative problem solving keeps our mind sharp. Thinking of limitations makes our brain work harder and peculiar limitations push the mind to work harder.
Limitations yield more interesting results and it leads us down new paths which we may be unfamiliar with. One must avoid taking the path of least resistance and building on ideas that we already have and using all the resources available. We need to impose limitations which can boost our creativity and force us to work outside of our comfort zone.
8. Mood and creativity
“Feeling and longing are the motive forces behind all human endeavour and human creations”
Albert Einstein, Religion and Science
Creativity is critical for both survival and prosperity. Hence people adapt to changing environment by generating new insights and solving problems. One of the most studied predictors of creativity is mood.
Baas et al  carried out a meta-analysis of 25 years of mood-creativity research. They found that positive moods produce more creativity than mood-neutral controls and there were no significant differences between negative moods and mood-neutral controls.
Moods with positive hedonic tone (e.g happiness and relaxed state) bring about greater creative performance as compared to moods with negative hedonic tone (e.g fear and sadness) or neutral mood control conditions. The reason for this is that positive hedonic tone increases cognitive flexibility and inclusiveness. Negative activating moods such as fear and anxiety are associated with lower creativity.
Moods with positive hedonic tones are associated with an increase in dopamine levels in the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain. Dopamine mediates many of the cognitive effects of positive affect. Increased levels of dopamine promote creative thinking.
Some investigators have found the opposite effect of mood on creativity. Kaufmann et al  in a study found that positive mood led to significantly poorer creative problem-solving performance and negative mood significantly facilitated creative problem-solving relative to induced neutral mood. They found that the poorest performance was obtained in the positive mood condition.
Overall most studies show that a positive mood is associated with creativity.
9. Exercise and creativity
There is a link between physical exercise and favorable moods and this has been well established. Various kinds of exercise such as aerobic workout, jogging, running, cycling as well as treadmill have been shown to enhance mood . Steinberg et al  carried out a study to assess if exercise enhances creativity independently of mood. They found that mood was significantly improved by aerobic exercise as compared with a neutral video control group. They also found that there was a consistent increase in creativity with exercise. They concluded that creativity and mood improved with physical exercise independently of each other.
10. Pursue weird or different experiences
“Creativity comes from looking for the unexpected and stepping outside your own experience.” ~Masaru Ibuka
It is well known that creative people can be eccentric. History shows us that many poets and playwrights had odd behavior and this has been observed by well-known people like Plato and Aristotle. History tells us that Albert Einstein used to pick up cigarette butts from the street to get tobacco for his pipe. Howard Hughes used to spend full days on a chair in the middle of his Beverly Hills Hotel suite because he believed that the suite was germ-free. The famous German composer and critic, “Robert Schumann believed that his musical compositions were dictated to him by Beethoven and other deceased luminaries from their tombs and Charles Dickens is said to have fended off imaginary urchins with his umbrella as he walked the streets of London” .
Research has established that there is a connection between creativity and eccentricity. This association is often seen in individuals with schizotypal personality which is a milder version of schizotypal personality disorder.
According to Shelley Carson , schizotypal personality can appear in a variety of forms, some of which include magical thinking, unusual perceptual experiences, social anhedonia, and mild paranoia.
There are several studies which show that creative people tend to score higher on schizotypal surveys. Carson also found that some creative students report “magical thinking and odd perceptual experiences” such as hearing whispering voices in the wind. .
Schizotypal personality does not predispose an individual to creativity. Cognitive disinhibition appears to be the underlying factor in eccentricity. Cognitive disinhibition occurs when an individual is unable to ignore irrelevant or immaterial information.
There is a large amount of data that we are bombarded with throughout the day and it is not possible to attend to all this data on a daily basis. To prevent this data from reaching our conscious awareness we all possess mental filters. One of these filters is called latent inhibition (LI). LI has been
defined by Carson and colleagues as: “the varying capacity of the brain to screen from current attentional focus stimuli previously experienced as irrelevant”. Research shows that reduced LI is associated with increased vulnerability to schizophrenia. Low LI has also been found to contribute to original thinking especially in combination with high IQ.
It is well known that not everyone who’s weird is creative. This is because research shows that only individuals with low LI who have high IQ are creative .
Highly creative individuals and psychotic-prone individuals probably possess neurobiological similarities which are genetically determined and they present either as psychotic predisposition or as unusual creative potential.
11. Challenge your brain.
Problem-solving is the key to creativity. The commonly used approach to creative problem solving (CPS) is the 6-diamond model .
The 6 steps include :
- Mess finding: The areas of concern are identified. Ideas are generated for possible solutions. Three most critical problems are identified and one is selected for further work.
- Fact-finding: Careful observation is necessary while collecting information about the problem situation. Both objective and subjective information is collected, identified and explored.
- Problem finding: Look at the problem from different angles and think of other possibilities.
- Idea Finding: Look for a variety of ideas, alternatives, options, approaches, paths, methods and tools to select potential ideas or solutions.
- Solution finding: Look at all the ideas in new and different ways. Consider the consequences, implications, and reactions to the ideas selected. Once the ideas have been selected and solutions found than develop an action plan.
- Acceptance finding: Once the action plan has been developed, think of ways to implement the action plan. Ways must be found to make the ideas and solutions more attractive, more effective, more acceptable and more beneficial. Working plan for implementation must be developed.
There has been a lot of research into the CPS process which shows that there is a need for willingness to consider alternatives, to take risks, to venture into insecure areas and to tolerate some uncertainty and ambiguity .
12. Chart your own path.
“Act! Action will delineate and define you.”
It is well known that the only person who can promote yourself is you. There is no one who will promote you or put you in the limelight unless you do it yourself. You have to sell your story yourself.
Well known people who charted their own path include Steve Job, Bill Gates, Thomas Eddison, Wright brothers, James Watt and the list goes on and on.
Only we ourselves can define and determine our destiny. We have the responsibility of managing our thoughts. Positive thinking will spur us to positive actions and productive habits. Good habits will shape a positive fruitful future.
We have to stay away from defeatist, discouraging and disillusionary thoughts and negative attitude. We have to stay away from people who belittle our dreams. You are the best person to set your own goals.
Charting our own creative path helps us open doors which we might have never known existed. Trailblazers are people who hold hands with fear and they are willing to risk venturing into the unknown rather than staying in familiar surroundings. They are willing to venture into the unknown
Nobody can discover the world for us, we have to discover it ourselves.
ConclusionCreative thinking refers to one’s ability to generate new ideas and find original and useful solutions to problems. Sometimes it is referred to as, ‘thinking out of the box’, ‘lateral thinking’, or ‘divergent thinking’. It is the ability to think differently and to perceive patterns that are not obvious. It makes a person see things from a new angle or perspective and it allows a person to explore connections, meet new challenges and seek original, fresh and unusual solutions.
Creative thinking helps a person to become a more confident, stronger, self-reliant and happier person. Creative thinking adds value not only to one’s life but also the life of others around.
There are several ways in which creative thinking can be enhanced and these are explored in some detail in this article.
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