Jason Bell


Constraints and Creativity

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is famous for defining and disseminating the idea of ‘flow.’ But some of his less famous work involves the study of creativity. In one experiment, Csikszentmihalyi worked with art students at the University of Chicago. He asked all of the students to paint something, but half of them were forced to paint around a pre-existing mark on the canvas. The rest had complete freedom.

Interestingly, the group who had to work around a mark ended up with more creative work, as judged by a panel from the University of Chicago. You may wonder why this happened.

Associative Ruts

Our brains rely on patterns to ease the burden of thinking. This happens at sub-conscious and conscious levels. Your visual cortex, for example, ignores much of the information around the exact point your eyes focus on, because the focal point and the stimuli surrounding it tend to be similar. At the conscious level, file naming conventions are a deliberate use of patterns for the sake of mental convenience.

Fundamentally, neurons connect when they are stimulated together. A schema is a set of related concepts that define a mental object. When any of the sub-concepts in the schema arise in the mind as a result of external stimuli, the associated neurons fire, and cause some firing of connected neurons. So, if you read, ‘large, gray, mammal, trunk, tusk’, your brain is primed to fire ‘elephant,’ and many other ideas associated with an elephant. I’m oversimplifying, but you get the idea. One interesting consequence of all this is the associative rut, which is when your mind gets stuck in some area of mental space because all of the concepts lead to one another in a circular way.

To get an idea of how associative ruts can affect creativity, imagine two groups of people. To one group I give a piece of paper and ask them to write objects that are white. To the other group I give a piece of paper and give the same task, but with one difference: I write the word ‘milk’ on the first line. When researchers ran this experiment, they found that the second group came up with far fewer objects. The explanation they offered is that the schema for milk drove their minds into an associative rut, and hampered their ability to explore freely.

Sometimes constraints, oddly enough, can break us out of our associative ruts. For this to work, the constraint needs to push us away from our natural schemas, rather than toward them. But that is not particularly difficult to accomplish. One way to maximize the chances that a constraint will push you out of your associative rut is to make it somewhat random.

When well placed, constraints can force us to step out of our mental comfort zone and connect a schema to something new. This can very often lead to innovative ideas. Some researchers call this technique ‘forced association,’ and its value has been demonstrated experimentally more than once.

Abstractions and Rabbit Holes

Occasionally, I get stuck in a strange thought pattern that goes something like this:

Idea -> Would it work? -> Related idea -> Would this new idea work -> …

I never get anything done in this mode because each idea just leads to a new one. I used to write them all down, thinking I’d come back, until I realized I probably never would.

Creativity isn’t just comprised of thinking things, execution matters too. If you only imagine good solutions but don’t implement them or communicate them to someone who does, you haven’t really been creative, in my view.

Giving an idea a context makes it more concrete. Placing parameters on the task prevents the mind from flying away. Maybe an example helps clarify this.

Suppose I tell you ‘invent the next big thing in electronics.’ You can go in so many directions. You’ll probably end up thinking of things that are most salient in your mind related to electronics. Oddly, because you have so much room to move, your brain zeroes in on the conventional.

Now, I give you more context ‘come up with a new kind of phone charger that works well for people who like to switch between using the wall outlet and the computer as a power source.’ This restricts your freedom, but it also defines the problem so you don’t have to. That frees up mental resources to work on just the important stuff: coming up with a creative solution. In fact, it’s so much easier that I already have one idea. Maybe you do too. For the one above, however, I just thought of vague things.

Okay, it’s probably unfair of me to make the comparison above, because, even though the top one is harder to give an answer to, it’s way more valuable. But the point is that it’s probably a good idea to decouple the task of finding the right problem from the task of answering it.

Use Your Constraints

If you are bad at something, or don’t have some resource, come up with a workaround. Chances are high that your workaround is valuable, and you may even be able to sell it. If something comes along and destroys your vision, pause, and imagine what would happen if you changed course to fit this new something. Maybe that is better than your original plan. Finally, if you have expertise in one area but are coming up with ideas in a different area, you might reconsider. With your area of expertise, you have a ready-made context with much more solvable problems. If you endlessly abstract away from where you stand, you may never arrive anywhere.

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