How to make brainspace for creativity

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By Jen Kozin, big co-creator

Before working out, you stretch.

Before a big presentation, you practice out loud.

Before singing, you warm up your voice.

Before a creative session, you...grab some post-its and sharpies?

However, Daniel Seewald’s presentation at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit in New York left me wondering: how might we prepare our minds to be creative for a brainstorm?

Seewald, the Worldwide Innovation Group Leader at Pfizer, had us do a partner exercise to think about the relationship between working memory and creativity.

The first partner was asked to remember two single-digit numbers, and then come up with as many potential uses for a coffee mug as possible in 30 seconds. After getting out the obvious (drinking, pouring, measuring), I threw out digging, playing telephone, and a few others, coming up with 10 ideas in total. This seemed about average for the room, and everyone was able to recall the two digits after the brainstorm.  

The second partner was then asked to remember a string of 6 digits, and then repeat the activity for a pen instead of a mug. Throughout the room, the second partner developed fewer ideas, and the ideas were more closely related to the standard use of a pen (in other words, less creative). Only about half of the second partners successfully remembered the string of numbers.

Though a simplified exercise, this phenomenon is backed by a research study that found that individuals carrying heavy cognitive loads had a harder time generating original and diverse ideas when compared with individuals with low loads. Seewald described this by quoting Herbert A. Simon - “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”.

It follows that in order to increase our chances of being able to focus and generate an abundance of new and novel ideas in a brainstorm, we should prepare by minimizing our cognitive loads. Studies estimate that people can hold about 4-7 things they are actively thinking about in their working memory at any given time.* As we participate in a brainstorm, our minds may wander to that thing we need to remember to get at the grocery store, question whether we hit send on that last email that needed to go out, or start inadvertently making a mental to-do list for the rest of our day. Before we know it, we’re overloaded and our ideas will become more and more inside the box.

So, how can we reserve that valuable working memory real estate for brainstorm-related content? Here are some tips that can help clear your head:

Before the brainstorm

  1. Set Up a Vacation Responder: Let anyone who emails you know that you will be engaging in an innovation session for a set amount of time and will get back to them as quickly as possible when you’re done. Make sure you leave a contact in case of emergency. This way, you can be fully present during the brainstorm.

  2. Write Down Whatever’s On Your Mind: Try to clear that working memory! Document any to-dos or anything else you may need to remember so that you’re not actively thinking about it during your session.

During the brainstorm

  1. Go Tech Free: Put away those iPhones, Apple watches, laptops, or anything else that might cause your mind to jolt from imagining the future back to the realities of today.

  2. Keep a Personal Parking Lot: If any of those pesky to-dos make their way into your mind, write them down on the side and put them away. Know you won’t forget to come back to them later.

In a time where we are constantly getting information from numerous devices, our attention is more precious and harder to capture than ever. If we are intentional about preparing for creative sessions, perhaps a poverty of information can create a wealth of attention and innovation.

*Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12(2), 257-285.

Jeff Eyet