Creativity: Where Art and Engineering Meet

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Photo by Rakicevic Nenad from Pexels

Author: Jeff Colombe

At first glance, creativity might seem like the ability to make something from nothing. That isn’t actually true, but creativity does require an active imagination and the ability to judge what, among all the imagined things, might have value, given what you’re trying to accomplish. Creativity in engineering and in the arts requires the ability to generate a wide variety of ideas that relate to the goals of the effort, often the more ideas the better. Judgment is then used to evaluate the merits and flaws of each idea. These complementary activities—generation of ideas and judgment of ideas—proceed in an iterative process that drive improvements toward a goal.

You might be interested in whether you can intentionally train yourself to become better at this creative process. You might also have an interest in setting up environments, for example in the workplace, that are more conducive to creativity. The research findings on creativity so far are promising and suggest the means for promoting creativity in yourself and in your organization.

Divergent Thinking and Creative Fluency

Cognitive psychology researchers such as Adam M. Perkins of King’s College London have recognized that idea generation doesn’t come easily to everyone. People for whom creative ideas flow readily have what is called fluency, borrowing a term from language learning, where fluency means accuracy and ease of expression.

In creativity research, fluency is defined as the ability to produce many and varied ideas, regardless of their value. Creativity researchers such as Sir Ken Robinson regard this kind of value-free productivity of thought as divergent thinking, meaning that such thinking seeks to range widely and create many options. Most such ideas won’t be useful, just as most genetic mutations aren’t beneficial to biological species. But without options to consider, there is no forward flow.

The Neuroscience of Creativity and the Default Mode Network

The neurobiological basis for idea generation was discovered, like many useful things in science, by accident. Again we visit cognitive psychology research, where often a human subject of a research study is told to sit quietly and do nothing for several minutes to establish a baseline of measured brain activity before they start doing a cognitive task, so that the brain activity during the task can be compared to brain activity during the period of rest. This experimental method assumed that the human subject’s brain and mind would be doing something close to nothing at all, simply because the researchers told them to. If you ask someone to do nothing, but their brain is doing something, comparing a false presumption of no brain activity to brain activity during a task can generate results that may be hard to interpret. This difficulty led researchers like Marcus Raichle of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis to look directly into that so-called resting brain activity.

Once researchers took a good look at that resting brain activity, what they found was nothing like rest, but instead a vigorous and wandering mind. The brain has what neuroscientists call a default mode network that generates and tests ideas in the absence of any other obvious thing to do. Our minds wander, almost beyond our control.

Why do our brains do this? The short answer is that our bodies can’t afford to let our brains remain idle. Brain tissue is expensive in terms of energy consumption, and humans have unusually big brains that require a lot of energy. Although your brain is about 2% of your body’s weight, it consumes about 20% of your body’s energy even when you are sitting still (yes, there’s a reason humans crave carbohydrates). In evolutionary terms, we are confronted with a use-it-or-lose-it bargain. If having a large brain is expensive, we should get the most out of it by using it more or less all the time, whether we like it or not.

Using our brains all the time can result in intrusive thoughts invading our minds, including agitated risk analysis and worry. Highly creative people often suffer these negative side effects of their hyperactive imaginations—think Vincent Van Gogh, Robert Frost, and Sylvia Plath. But active, curious, and wandering minds can also be very productive and create beautiful solutions to engineering problems such as NASA’s moon shot, and beautiful sensory and cognitive displays in the arts such as the Van Gogh painting Starry Night.

Convergent Thinking, Creative Novelty, and Utility

Our minds habitually reach out to generate new ideas. What about the value of those ideas? In addition to measuring fluency, creativity researchers measure the novelty or non-obviousness of ideas, as well as the utility or value of ideas. These aspects of creativity are a part of what has been called convergent thinking, which serves as a way of culling the breadth of idea generation to focus on those ideas that have merit given the goals of the creative effort.

Not all ideas are good, and convergence requires that only the good ideas get saved. Again, there is an analogy to biological evolution. Vary widely, then cull. Keep what is beneficial, throw away the rest.

Agile and Lean processes for technical innovation reflect an awareness of this need for divergent thinking to identify options, and convergent thinking to weigh the merits of those options, with a mixture of patience, tolerance for failure, seeking value in diverse perspectives, and learning as much as possible in an efficient way.

Your Unconscious Mind is a Workhorse of Creativity

A recent avenue of creativity research has been looking into the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind that can result in flashes of creative insight, and how such epiphanies might be cultivated through deliberate effort. Hilde Haider of the University of Cologne and Michael Rose of the University of Hamburg Medical School have been studying moments of insight in problem-solving, and have found cases where the unconscious minds of human participants solve a problem before their conscious minds have figured out what’s going on.

If your conscious mind is actively and attentively watching what your unconscious mind is doing, you’re much more likely to catch on and bring a new insight on as a tool that can be used with intention. Not everyone is poised to become aware of what kinds of automatic problem-solving and insight their unconscious minds are giving them from moment to moment. The unconscious mind does its thing quietly. If you’re not paying attention, you could miss what it has to offer.

Several years ago, I interviewed several successful painters and sculptors in the Washington, D.C., area, who echoed the importance of the relationship between their conscious mind and their unconscious mind in the creative process. A common theme involved a conscious pitch or query to the unconscious, and the ability to catch whatever might come back from the unconscious. The artists variously described curiosity, openness, drivenness, wonder, and an urge to explore as being important to the conscious pitch, with the conscious catch depending upon vigilance, attentiveness, readiness to act, a heightened sensitivity to novelty and value, and an insistence to press ahead until needs were satisfied despite temporary failures. We might call this last quality patience, although it can sometimes take on an aggressive character.

What You Can Do to Cultivate Creativity in Your Work, and Your Workplace

In Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, psychology researcher Scott Barry Kaufman of the University of Pennsylvania and co-author and journalist Carolyn Gregoire offer several suggestions for developing creativity in those aspects of daily work that call for it. They suggest avoiding deadline-driven, institutionally structured ways of being productive that regard intelligence in narrow terms and that are more characteristic of purely convergent kinds of work. (Note that, for purely convergent tasks, these structured ways of approaching work are probably best.) Kaufman and Gregoire recommend cultivating openness to experience and to exploration, and to becoming comfortable with holding multiple, perhaps contradictory, thoughts at the same time. Contemplative mind wandering in unstructured circumstances—such as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “bed, bath, and bus” as places for insight—may be of best use when complemented by the ability to focus attention internally that results from mindfulness practices.

None of this advice supposes that you can force creative insight, but it suggests that you can prepare yourself to invite it and to be receptive to it when it occurs.

Creativity at the individual level has its challenges, but what about making creativity work in organizations? In The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures, Gary Pisano of the Harvard Business School describes several environmental qualities that can help workplace environments to foster thought that is fluent, novel, and useful, but that also advances institutional needs. The “hard truths” are the perhaps paradoxical nature of these qualities. Tolerance for failure is essential but must be limited to failures that are well-planned to result in maximum learning. Experimentation must be balanced by a willingness to terminate unproductive pursuits. Psychologically safe environments, perhaps counterintuitively, are those in which participants are comfortable giving and receiving brutal honesty. Collaboration only works when individuals are held accountable for their contributions. Flat, egalitarian cultures only work with strong and engaged leadership.

MITRE experts in organizational change management and human-centered design have prepared a set of tools, called the MITRE Innovation Toolkit, to help organizations like yours to engage in collaborative and productive problem-solving. MITRE’s Integrated Demonstration and Experimentation for Aeronautics (IDEA) Lab plays a critical role in modernizing air traffic management. MITRE established MITRE Labs to accelerate innovation and disruptive solutions in the public interest (e.g., ACME Lab, Nudge Lab, REACT Lab).

Creativity isn’t making something from nothing. The tendency of your mind to wander, that may sometimes feel like a distraction, can be harnessed to fluently generate new thoughts. Your unconscious mind, working quietly behind the scenes, may offer flashes of insight that the prepared conscious mind can catch and use. A paradoxical combination of openness to thought and disciplined judgment of the value of thought can drive progress, step by step. That same paradoxical balance can be cultivated in collaborative teams and larger organizations, and the results can be among the most satisfying of work experiences: creating a thing of beauty with fellow travelers.

Dr. Jeff Colombe is a neuroscientist and biomedical engineer by training. He has worked in biologically inspired approaches to artificial intelligence and machine learning, the biomedical science of blast injury, human performance monitoring and enhancement, and federal workforce development.

© 2020 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. Case number 20-1974

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Mistakes and Transcendent Paradoxes: Dr. Peter Senge Talks on Cultivating Learning Organizations

Interview with Dan Ward, Rachel Gregorio, and Jessica Yu on MITRE’s Innovation Toolkit

Interview with Awais Sheikh on Deciphering Business Process Innovation

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