Crash Course: The Science Of Human Creativity

From the discovery of the wheel to exploring outer space, we as humans advance our inventive capabilities with each generation. To innovate means to create change by introducing something new– which requires us to tap into creativity. But where does the uniquely human capability to think 'creatively' begin and end?

In terms of neuroscience, being 'creative' occurs when unique patterns arise in our brain. These patterns usually arise when we are faced with human needs such as comfort, accessibility and even curiosity. It is because of these diverse 'needs' that we are able to witness the wonders of what we as a creative and innovative species are capable of.

Creativity can be defined as the use of imagination to generate novel ideas, whether in tangible forms such as paintings and the construction of buildings, or intangible such as theories about space and mathematics.


"In our modern lives, we’ve come to acknowledge creativity as a subject of social perspective subject to appreciation and acknowledgement."


We credit those who achieve great things, possess unique talents or attempt to solve the mysteries of the cosmos as 'creative'. But when we look at what's happening in our brains, we can in fact observe human creativity in everyday problem-solving situations.

For instance, 'creativity' could refer to using a well-known object, such as a book, in an unconventional way: a book is made for reading, but could be also used to prop up a laptop, or cover something as a lid. It's not that using book as a lid will unlock any mysteries of life as we know it, but to arrive at a temporary solution to a problem such as this does require a process of creative thinking. Whether observed rarely or daily, we must go through certain stages of creative processing to allow this kind of thinking to occur.  

The Four Stages of Creativity

Graham Wallas proposed that creativity can be seen as a cohesion of four stages:

Stage 1: Preparation

When we expect to gain new insights, we must first understand our field of study and be well prepared. The first stage is to identify, define and solve the problem at hand. This act of ‘identification’ and ‘definition’ involves obtaining as much information as possible in regard to the problem. This can be derived both from external stimuli, as well as internally from memory sources. By preparing this ‘data’, our brains are contributing to a pool of information that will be used in order to ‘solve’ the problem we're facing. 

Stage 2:  Incubation

Wallas noticed great ideas tend to come to us only after we spend a period of time away from the problem, after initially engaging with it. In many cases, we’ll find ourselves at a dead end. We might become frustrated or feel disappointed when unable to solve the problem on the spot.

It's at this point that the second stage of creative processing takes place, during which we must let the an idea ‘sink in’. As our brain is not actively engaged in solving the problem, we'll seem to forget about it, or passively ignore it while we sleep. But what really occurs is unconscious processing which, as the word suggests, means we are unaware of it.

Stage 3: Illumination

That iconic symbol of a light bulb switching on above our heads; the click or flash of a new idea illuminating. It’s a mysterious phase that we don't know too much about. (Perhaps Wallas’ suggestions of resting the mind and diverting to other activities is the closest explanation of how new creative ideas come to be.)

Whatever the spark may be, it's during this stage that we reach that ‘Eureka!’ or ‘Aha!’ moment. It's the process by which we become aware of the solution to our problem, or an alternative way of approaching it at least. It tends to occur while doing something completely unrelated to the problem, and is perceived as appearing out of nowhere.

Stage 4: Verification

Once the inkling of an idea comes to us, the next stage is to assess whether this new idea actually solves the original problem. During this verification stage, we consciously seek to comprehend whether our proposed solution relates to the problem by evaluating its content. Since ‘great’ ideas don't always work out in actual practice, this final step is vitally important to the success of any project.

Modern Daily Rituals 

In order to reach "creative thinking", we therefore must put ourselves in circumstances where these four stages of creative processing can unfold. Throughout history, many of the great philosophers, creatives and scientists have observed how to enhance their ability to think creatively.

For example, taking time away from work (as Wallas suggests) was especially important for creatives such as Mark Twain, which Mason Currey details in his book Daily Rituals

“[Mark Twain] would go to the study in the morning after a hearty breakfast and stay there until dinner at about 5:00. Since he skipped lunch, and since his family would not venture near the study — they would blow a horn if they needed him — he could usually work uninterruptedly for several hours... After dinner, Twain would read his day’s work to the assembled family. He liked to have an audience, and his evening performances almost always won their approval. On Sundays, Twain skipped work to relax with his wife and children, read, and daydream in some shady spot on the farm. Whether or not he was working, he smoked cigars constantly.”

Living in our hyper-connected digital era, where anything is possible at the touch of a screen, we’ve become biased to some of these stages over others.


"We favour certain environments and habits, such as sitting behind a screen for hours on end and inviting our devices into bed, that interrupt with these stages."


While we recognise that being constantly connected to the internet gives us an endless access to information, and overload of content also hinders our ability to step away from it and properly evolve into the 'incubation' stage. This is especially true when our use of technology disrupts our sleep patterns by using our devices before we go to sleep.

As the 'always-on' generation, we've eradicated the ability for boredom to arise. 

However recent studies point out that being bored can actually positively influence our creativity, because it allows us to disengage from an activity and process it. In other words, it allows us to daydream and ponder, so that we can stumble at a ‘eureka’ moment.

We are all aware of the positive relationship technology can have on human creativity; it can augment our problem skills immensely. Creativity is part of a continuous technological advancement brought on by humans and, at the same time, technology provides us with opportunities to enhance our human creativity. But in times where technology is misused, or even abused, we risk restricting our creative potential.

Whether you are a painter, programmer or entrepreneur, your ability to creatively solve problems is essential to solving human needs. By consciously creating the time and space to allow these four stages of creativity to unfold, we can create a simple mechanism for facilitating an environment where innovation can thrive even in the age of distraction.