Creativity Is Not Learned, It’s Unlearned

Back in 1968, NASA was using IQ tests to measure applicant intelligence, but it wasn’t enough. The agency needed a way to identify and hire the most creative scientists, so they could put them on the most challenging projects. They contacted Dr. George Land and Beth Jarman to create a test that could determine creative genius in a simple way.

The team devised an unorthodox test, rooted in the process of divergent thinking, and tested one’s ability to a particular problem and propose multiple solutions. The test was such a success that it left Land and Jarman with many unanswered questions, such as: Where does creativity come from? Is creative thinking innate or learned?

To answer these questions, they decided to administer the test to 1,600 children between the ages of four and five. When the test results came back, Land and Jarman were shocked. Over 98% of the children tested as creative geniuses, far higher than the NASA scientists. Now they had even more questions! What happens to us as we age that could account for a drop in creative thinking?

Land and Jarman decided to create a longitudinal study and test the children every five years. By 10 years old, the number of geniuses in the test pool had dropped to 30%. At age 15, only 12% of them tested high enough to be called “creative geniuses.” Then they gave the test to 280,000 adults. Only 2% of those respondents had maintained their creative thinking skills at the genius level.

“What we have concluded,” wrote Land, “is that non-creative behavior is learned.”

Land and Jarman concluded that the education system was the cause. It was designed to teach students to use two types of thinking at the same time: divergent thinking and convergent thinking. Both were useful in life, but only one contributed to creative thinking.

Divergent thinking is pure daydreaming, imagining new possibilities and a broad range of solutions to problems. Convergent thinking on the other hand, is about evaluating or testing something, and then making a judgement or criticism.

As you can imagine, divergent thinking is an expansive process for the brain, while convergent thinking a constricting process — and brain scans prove this out. When we think divergently, our brains light up all over the place. When we think convergently, only neurons in one section of the brain fire.

Land and Jarman deduced that we we are trained throughout our schooling to allow convergent thinking to dominate, and this training chokes off our creative imaginations. One part of our brain comes up with the idea, and then almost immediately the other part of our brain gives us a reason (or many) as to why it won’t work. Do this enough over the course of a childhood, and the part of our brain in charge of coming up with ideas — no matter how crazy and off-the-wall — becomes stunted.

The good news is that, even if you were to test low on the Land/Jarman divergent thinking test, it doesn’t mean you’ve lost your creativity completely. In fact, every time you dream you’re taking a trip to Imagination Land.

The Land/Jarman test shows us that creativity and imagination are innate. We enter the world with these skills, and they never leave us. However, they do become dormant and locked behind other types of limited thinking and beliefs. These limiting beliefs can lead us to judge an idea so harshly we never voice it, or to fear looking foolish for expressing a “crazy” idea. Even when we are able to voice a creative solution, a whole grab bag of limiting beliefs shows up to keep us from acting it out: stories about the “risk” of failing, or why it won’t really be worth it; stories about what other people will think, or how the solution might upset the status quo.

Yet, despite of all the chains we’ve put on our imaginations over the years, beneath the bindings every single one of us is a creative genius, born with an unbridled imagination and the belief that anything is possible. The best part is that it’s never too late to free our creative thinking from the limiting filters we choose to see them through and unleash our genius on the world.

The next time you have a problem to solve and want to think more creatively about it try out one of these tactics.

1. Think of it is someone else’s problem. Ever notice how creative you are with someone else’s issue? This is because you’re taking yourself and your limiting beliefs out of the equation and focusing solely on the other person.

2. Expose yourself to more diversity of any kind. This could mean surrounding yourself with new people, rearranging your office, changing the route you take to or from work, exploring a new coffee shop, setting up a new bedtime routine, really anything that changes your normal experience. By putting ourselves new situations, our brains are stimulated with new information that we can use to think in different ways.

3. Turn it into a game or puzzle. Adding rules or parameters to our problem gives our creativity boundaries to bounce off of. You’ll be surprised at how well your creative mind adapts to the self-imposed limits.

4. Practice counterfactual thinking. This is when you take a solution that is well-established and rethink how the problem could’ve been solved differently. Deconstructing what you assume to be truth puts your brain in a mindset to break out of your usual patterns and come up with something new.

5. Mediate or practice yoga. Both of these activities can calm the mind and quiet the convergent thinking parts of our brain. In this more relaxed state, the divergent aspects of our thinking are able to come to the forefront of our consciousness and reveal the imaginative ideas we had all along.

This week consider a problem you’ve been wrestling with. Do you already know the solution, but find yourself resistant to sharing it with others or acting upon it? Have you been looking at it through various filters or limiting beliefs, or allowing convergent thinking to dominate your thought process? What if you were to tackle the solution using one of the tactics listed above?

Try out one or more of these tactics, and come up with as many solutions to your problem as you can. And don’t stop until you’ve reached at least 100. I’m serious — that’s still 100 shy of what Land and Jarman would tell you to develop. Forcing yourself to come up with 100 solutions to your problem will free your mind, and reveal the best solution — one that you’ve had all along.

“Every human has four endowments – self awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom… The power to choose, to respond, to change.” — Stephen Covey

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