Monday Mornings with Madison

Cultivating the Creative Spark, Part 2

Word Count: 1,887
Estimated Read Time: 7 min.

Creativity is a state in which the mind is filled with words, images and possibility.  Buried recollections are blasted into consciousness.  Distant unrelated thoughts become tied together.  In a creative burst, what were once just random considerations and scattered reflections connect in ways that might have otherwise passed unregistered, unfelt and unacknowledged.  In that moment, newly-generated ideas are recognized as important and worthy of being shared.

Within the creative realm, risk-taking and exploration are more likely and new ideas gain the weight of being more possible or even probable.  Creativity is the mental process of experiencing the previously unimaginable and trying on for size the unthinkable.  It requires exploring the crevices and corners of the mind to connect dots that had never before been touched.  In creativity, ideas take flight in a glorious burst of electro-magnetic energy connecting by thin threads and assembling in never-before exampled ways.  Great.  But if creativity is the sweetest berry to use in the pie of success, then how exactly does one help the mind bear such creative fruit?  How does one cause one’s mind to shred elements within memory and rearrange them so that they coalesce into something better and different than the sum of its parts?  Is there a way to force and shape a kind of creative upheaval?

The creative process is understood now more than ever before, and yet not nearly enough to be able to fully dispense a tried and true method for manufacturing it.  Scientists concur that it has little to do with IQ and a lot to do with activating a variety of neural connections in different parts of the brain.  But there’s more to it than that.  There are a multitude of factors that affect creativity.  Here are some highly important ones.

1. Sleep

The first tip is pretty simple to do and something everyone does… sleep.  But sleep is vital to innovation.  To dream is to create.  When we sleep, our bodies rest but our brains do not slumber.  During sleep, the brain cleans house, moving memories from short-term hold to long-term storage.  It purges toxins.  And, it also deconstructs and reconstructs thoughts in often absurd ways… thoughts that would likely be rejected during the lucid state of being awake.   According to Kluger, “During REM sleep, the brain becomes fragmented, reassembling bits and pieces of scenes and images in strange ways.”

According to Jeffrey Kluger in “The Power of Sleep,” “our uncensored, slumbering brains can dream up limitless vistas.”  By way of example, Kluger cites Elias Howe, who patented the first good lock-stitch sewing machine over 150 years ago.  He didn’t invent the sewing machine, but rather made the first solid innovations that made it an essential global tool.  His invention led to the mass production of sewing machines and clothing, revolutionizing the sewing industry and transforming the economies of cities and countries worldwide.

Howe’s machine contained the three essential features common in most modern machines: a needle with the eye at the point; a shuttle operating beneath the cloth to form the lock stitch; and an automatic feed.  Howe’s design demonstrated the novel idea of a needle that carried the thread forward, through a piece of material, where another thread, held in a metal shuttle, passed through a loop in the middle thread (caused by the needle moving forward then suddenly backward). The needle was then retracted and this action pulled the two threads to lock them in the fabric. This is how the lockstitch was born.

So what does this have to do with sleep?  Howe said the idea for the sewing needle came to him in a dream.  He dreamt that he was being attacked by warriors with spears that had holes in the tips.  The back story is that Howe apprenticed in a textile factory in Lowell, Massachusetts during his early adult years.  So he understood the garment industry well.  Then he worked as a mechanic repairing precision machinery.  Those were experiences in two very different disciplines that gave him deep insights into each industry.  He had a vast amount of knowledge derived through experiences locked in his brain.  But it was only in his sleep — where he could deconstruct and reconstruct ideas in silly, irrational and unique ways – that the connections for the sewing needle could be made.  In his sleep, he arrive at an innovation that transformed the world.

There are countless anecdotal accounts such as that of Elias Howe in which a genius idea was the product of a dream.  Golfing legend Jack Nicklaus is said to have had a dream that helped him improve his golf swing to a champion level.  Robert Louis Stevenson claimed to have come up with the plot for Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde during a dream.   German physiologist Otto Loewi won the Nobel Prize for medicine for his work on the chemical transmission of nerve impulses after discovering a way to prove his theory from a dream.  The list goes on and on.  The truth is that each person had an abundance of knowledge, experience and insights locked in their brains, and were able to tap into possible solutions while dreaming by deconstructing and reconstructing that data in random ways until bumping into an ‘aha’ moment.

But, besides anecdotal data, there are now many scientific studies that validate the link between creativity and sleep.  One recent study by Penny Lewis at Cardiff University found that the two main phases of sleep — REM and non-REM — work in tandem to help find connections between what the brain already knows and solutions to vexing problems.

2.  Collaboration across Industries, Sectors or Disciplines

It’s been said that two brains are better than one.  And when two people collaborate, that is exactly what they are doing.  They are, in a sense, sharing their brains.  By working with people in other fields, disciplines, sectors or industries, each person is tapping into the collective knowledge of that person and seeing a problem through a new set of eyes.  If cross-collaboration is not possible, then explore other industries or disciplines to approach a topic from an entirely different angle.

Case in point.  The U.S. Navy had a problem keeping bacteria from growing on the bottom of their ships.  They turned to the materials science and engineering department at the University of Florida to research if there was a way to improve antifouling technology for ships and submarines.  Dr. Tony Brennan and the team studied the problem, as had countless other scientists the world over.  But Brennan decided to look at the problem from the perspective of a marine biologist.  They considered what substances or surfaces in the ocean do not have bacteria growing on it.  They discovered that only sharks do not experience biofouling.  Upon deeper study, they discovered that the reason sharks are impervious to biofouling is because their skin denticles are arranged in a distinct diamond-shaped pattern with millions of tiny ridges or ribs.  That is why a shark’s skin feels silky smooth when rubbed in one direction but scaly and rough when rubbed in the opposite direction.  Dr. Brennan created a corresponding mathematical model of the texture for a synthetic material that was the same width-to-height ratio as that of shark denticle riblets to see if that would discourage microorganisms from settling.  The first test performed showed an 85% reduction in green algae settlement compared to smooth surfaces.  Subsequent innovations developed a film that made it impervious to bacterial attachment.  When a petri dish with sharklet film on one half was filled with MRSA, the side with sharklet had no spread of the bacteria while the other side was full of reproducing MRSA.

According to Sharklet Technologies, “the material’s topography creates mechanical stress on settling bacteria, a phenomenon known as mechanotransduction.  Nanoforce gradients caused by surface variations induces stress gradients within the lateral plane of the surface membrane of a settling microorganism during initial contact. This stress gradient disrupts normal cell functions, forcing the microorganism to provide energy to adjust its contact area on each topographical feature to equalize the stresses. This expenditure of energy is thermodynamically unfavorable to the settler, inducing it to search for a different surface to attach to.”  Sharklet is made, however, with the same material as other plastics.  So there is no chance for a chemical allergy or rejection of the material.  Today, Sharklet is now being introduced into products such as catheters and other medical devices as well as surfaces that are highly prone to the transfer of bacteria such as hospital bed rails, hospital doors, etc.  In due course, the transfer of bacteria in medical settings and through medical devices will become a thing of the past thanks to this singular invention.

This technology was discovered when a materials science engineer looked at a problem experienced for centuries by the shipbuilding industry from a marine biological perspective.  Researchers had to study and collaborate across disciplines and industries in order to disassemble and reassemble data and insights in order to create a truly innovative solution.  A similar cross-disciplinary discovery was made by using the design techniques used by ants to develop their colonies and keep them cool even in the desert on the architectural design of buildings in places of extreme heat such as in Africa.

3.  Clean the Slate

If the creativity needed is to solve a problem or make a decision on a complex issue, it sometimes helps to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.   Use the Six Thinking Hats technique developed by Edward de Bono in his 1985 book by the same title.  This approach allows the person to move outside a habitual thought process to a different tack.  Approach the issue from an emotional, intuitive, creative or risk management viewpoint. Here are the six hats:

  • White Hat – focuses on the available data. Look at the information available, analyze past trends, and see what can be learned from it. Look for gaps in knowledge, and try to fill them.
  • Red Hat – uses intuition, gut reaction, and emotion.  Think how others could react emotionally. Try to understand the responses of people who do not fully know the reasoning.
  • Black Hat – considers potential negative outcomes.  Look at it cautiously and defensively.  Try to see why an idea might not work.  This is important because it highlights the weak points in a plan.  It allows issues to be eliminated or altered, or contingency plans can be prepared to counter it.  This increases resiliency.  It also helps spot fatal flaws and risks before embarking on a course of action.
  • Yellow Hat – encourages thinking positively.  The optimistic viewpoint helps identify all the benefits of the decision and the value in it.  This keeps things going when everything looks gloomy and difficult.
  • Green Hat — spurs innovative solutions to a problem. It is a freewheeling way of thinking, in which there is little criticism of ideas.
  • Blue Hat – focuses on process control.  This helps to view things from a step-by-step angle, which often reveals things that may have otherwise been overlooked.

By enlisting a variety of approaches to spur the creative flair, people can actually increase their inventiveness and imagination.  This can not only bring about solutions to problems, but actually lead to innovations that can change the world.  Now that is an activity worth doing!


Quote of the Week

“For innovation to flourish, organizations must create an environment that fosters creativity; bringing together multi-talented groups of people who collaborate together — exchanging knowledge, experience, and ideas in order to shape the direction of the future.” Linda Naiman


© 2019, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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