WANT to be more creative? Get unconscious.
In British comedian John Cleese's keynote speech at the President's Breakfast and NTEA Annual Meeting, he said the unconscious mind is more inventive and creative than the conscious mind.
“Your unconscious can only come into play and help you become more creative if you are in a more relaxed, performance-weaning state,” said Cleese, a member of the legendary Monty Python's Flying Circus. “This is so against what you were told in school that you are probably skeptical.
“But the greatest inventor of all time, Thomas Edison, believed that he had his best ideas sometime in between the state of being awake and falling asleep. He'd sit in a very comfortable armchair, and in his right hand he'd have some ball bearings. And down on the floor he'd have a metal tray. He'd think and ponder and very gently sit in a relaxed state. Sometimes he'd actually fall asleep. The ball bearings would fall into the tray and wake him up. He'd pick them up and go back to work. He loved being on the edge of sleep. That's where he got his best ideas.
“The problem is that we have a culture of hurry. We always feel under pressure. Everything feels a little urgent. There is anxiety and edginess. We're always trying to save time. We finish a project to get on with the next one. All of that works against the creative mind.”
Some human activity should not be rushed. For example, Cleese said, those who are fond of music and like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony probably shouldn't play it at twice the speed.
“When you're creating, there is a kind of natural, relaxed rhythm that if you try to hurry it, you are not going to be so creative,” he said. “Hurrying makes our minds less creative. Research shows that.
“Children, when playing, are utterly absorbed in what they're doing. They have no sense of time. If you have that kind of playful fascination, that helps creativity.
“The most important question you could ask yourself if you have a decision to make is, ‘When does this decision have to be made?’ That is a real-world decision, and when you know when the decision is going to be made, you take it then and don't take it before, because lots of things can happen if you wait until you have to make it. First of all, you may find there are relational changes. And second, you may get much better ideas, as opposed to not rushing. Don't rush the decision just because you feel anxious about not resolving it.”
Albert Einstein, in a famous letter to Jacques Hadamard, described the role of the visual in his own extremely abstract thinking: “The words of the language, as they are written and spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The physical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be voluntarily reproduced or combined. … The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some muscular type.”
Said Cleese, “Can you believe this man who revolutionized physics is getting muscular feelings to help him become more creative? When Einstein was thinking, he found he couldn't explain to anyone what was going on in his mind. He could only gradually allow it to clarify and then talk about it.”
Cleese referred to Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, a book written by Guy Claxton, an Oxford-educated psychologist and visiting professor at Bristol University in England, after worldwide research.
Claxton labels rational, ordinary, purposeful thinking the “d-mode” (deliberation mode or default mode). He maintains that modern Western culture overvalues the practical, conscious, deep thought of the d-mode, which is diagnostic rather than playful, analytical and impatient instead of intuitive and relaxed.
“We live in a society where everyone's hurried,” Cleese said. “If anyone stops to think, it can look and feel like laziness. Einstein spent most of his life sitting in his study and staring out a window. Imagine what his boss would have thought. There's a real feeling that anybody with a tortoise mind is not working hard. That is wrong.”
He said the tortoise mind is playful — as opposed to being purposeful — and also very spontaneous.
Cleese once interviewed the Dalai Lama, who told him, “Laughter is good for thinking because when people laugh, it is easier for them to admit new ideas to their minds.”
“When people get anxious, they become more stereotypical in their thinking,” Cleese said. “The tortoise mind is more likely to query assumptions. When you're hare-brained, you want to get on with it. The tortoise mind is interested in the exception. The hare brain loves generalizations.
“If we have the same thoughts all the time, it's as though we've created grooves in our mind, and thoughts go down those grooves more easily. Under pressure, we always revert to stereotypical thinking. And our thoughts go along the same grooves. We're in a rut, in other words. When we're in tortoise mind and in a much more relaxed, spontaneous, dreamy state, it's much more likely that our thoughts come out of those grooves, and we will stop having stereotypical thoughts.”
How do you get into the tortoise mind?
“You have to create an oasis of calm where the slightly timid tortoise mind can come out,' he said. “It only comes out when you're feeling relaxed. Two great enemies to creativity are interruptions and any kind of pressure, particular time pressure. So set up boundaries of space and time. Find a place where you are not going to be interrupted. And say to your assistant, ‘Don't interrupt me for one hour.’
“As Einstein said, when you are in this creative frame of mind, it's very hard to know what's going on. These ideas have to formulate. I said you'll have ideas. I didn't say you'll have good ideas. Then you have to bring in hare brain to ask, ‘Will the idea fly?’”