The Unexpected Secret to Creativity

A moment on a plane with my mother captured how scientists see the creative mind.

One day, years ago, I was on a cross-country flight with my mother.

A distinguished-looking gentleman across the aisle from us was fiddling with his digital watch.

After watching him struggle for a few minutes, my mom asked if she could help.

“Well, if you’ve got teeny tiny fingers, sure,” he said, handing over the watch. “I want to move it forward an hour for the new time zone.”

My mother took it, then reached into her seat pocket and pulled out the motion sickness bag. She ripped off the part you fold down when the bag is full and stripped away everything but the thin wire inside. In a matter of seconds, she handed back the watch, the time now fixed.

Both the stranger and I were amazed. It’s not every day that someone MacGyvers your electronics with, of all things, an airplane barf bag.

But then, my mom doesn’t have an everyday mind.

An artist by profession, my mother is among the most creative people I know. What makes her mind—and her brain—different?

Neuroscientists recently discovered that artists, writers, actors, and other creative experts are especially good at imagining, in vivid detail, what is far away from the here-and-now.

For instance, most of us can visualize what it would be like to go shopping in a familiar store, but it’s much harder to picture waiting in line for movie tickets in Tokyo. Likewise, our mental picture of what may happen tomorrow is much higher-resolution than an imagined day a hundred years from now.

When creative experts are asked to imagine these distal scenarios, they recruit a part of what scientists call the “default network,” brain structures that support empathy, thinking about our values, and other forms of abstraction. A creative mind, say the researchers, “may be neurally prepared to transcend the here and now…”

Try imagining what it would be like to be somewhere else, someone else, or sometime else. Read a novel. Watch a film. Consider an everyday object and what, hypothetically, MacGyver might do with it. Thinking outside the box may depend on getting outside ourselves.

With grit and gratitude,

Originally published at Character Lab

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