Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Creativity, How Ideas Must Ripen, and the Aha! Moment

Daniel Goleman has a good article for creativity over at  He describes research by Harvard's Teresa Amabile, which suggests that workers must have "periods of sustained focus" in order to engage in creative work.  Moreover, Goleman explains how Joy Bhattacharya's research on the brain's functioning supports Amabile's conclusions.  Here is what Goleman writes:

The Harvard researchers also recommended that supervisors protect workers’ time and resources so they can have periods of sustained focus on their projects. This advice -- to manage staff time well -- is supported by new brain research that reveals what happens at the moment of Aha! Joy Bhattacharya at the University of London has found that in the moments just before a creative insight, the mind is typically relaxed and open to new ideas, as indicated by an alpha brain wave.   As the Aha! approaches, there’s an abrupt shift marked by high gamma-wave activity. This indicates that far-flung neural circuits are connecting in a new network. A third of a second after the peak of this activity, a novel idea floats into the mind.  This finding indicates that creative insights can’t be concocted on demand; they need to ripen. The first step in the creative process typically involves immersion in the problem and current thinking, and then gathering any information that might be relevant. But in the next stage, intense effort should give way to letting what is known as the "cognitive unconscious" work on the problem by making novel connections. Constant distractions interrupt the mental space where creative insights simmer. That’s why so many Aha! moments come in the relaxed space of downtime -- when we’re doing something other than tensing to be creative. 

This work suggests that one of the most critical roles that a mid-level manager can play is a "buffer" for a creative team.   That manager can protect that team from other organizational demands and pressures, and insure that the team members have the time and sustained focus required to be creative. 

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