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Solution First, Then Problem

There are easy solutions––and there are difficult ones. Merely because one has chosen a difficult solution to a problem does not work to confer an advantage. The result’s the same. So, what are some methods to help find an easier way?

Leverage. Using a fulcrum, a small weight can leverage a far greater weight. Ask: what small change can result in a disproportionately larger improvement? Just as math problems can often be made easier by slightly reconceptualizing the problem so too can everyday roadblocks be solved by taking a slightly different view. “A lever is a simple machine consisting of a beam or rigid rod pivoted at a fixed hinge, or fulcrum. A lever is a rigid body capable of rotating on a point on itself…Also a leverage is a mechanical advantage gained in a mechanical system. It is one of the six simple machines identified by Renaissance scientists. A lever amplifies an input force to provide a greater output force, which is said to provide leverage. The ratio of the output force to the input force is the mechanical advantage of the lever. As such, the lever is a mechanical advantage device, trading off force against movement.” Wikipedia/Lever

Important for creativity researchers, a growing body of evidence has emerged to demonstrate that novel ideas emerge as a function of the dynamic interaction of the default network (DN) and the executive control network (ECN) in the brain (Beaty et al., 2016). Regions within DN are more active during task-unrelated thought than during task-related thought, and frequently come online during episodes of mind wandering, daydreaming, and imagination (Christoff et al., 2016Raffaelli et al., 2020). In contrast, ECN is activated when the individual is engaged in tasks that require cognitive control. In most instances, DN and ECN activities are negatively correlated because individuals tend to be engaged in either task-related thought that necessitates cognitive control or task-unrelated thought that is not under top-down regulation. What is remarkable about creativity is that it represents a form of thinking that is supported by the dynamic interaction of these two modes of thought. Specifically, in the early phase of creative problem solving, when internally-oriented thoughts support idea generation, DN is relatively more active. In turn, in the later phases of creative problem solving, when the generated ideas are pruned to satisfy task demands, ECN is also engaged to exert top-down control to select appropriate output. Interestingly, aside from supporting goal-directed memory retrieval and inhibition of prepotent responses that represent some of its core functions, ECN may also facilitate internal orientation by shifting attention away from sensory input toward internally-generated thought processes carried out by DN (Benedek et al., 2016Beaty et al., 2019Figure 1).

Pressure Points. These exist, but rarely announce their presence. They’re invisible, sometimes stumbled upon, often missed, but well worth the search. A singer can direct sound to break glass. A miner can wield a sledge hammer to release a cascade of rock. A therapist can elicit a reflex by applying pressure to a nerve. To elicit a disproportionate response––pressure points exploit a margin of vulnerability, take advantage of an exposed inseam. Unguarded, incapable of being protected, pressure points work because they bypass that which is thwarting, obstructive.

In other words, as we generate new ideas using imagination, it is likely that we mine our episodic memory to locate and flexibly recombine episodic details to support novel ideation. In turn, during evaluation not only was there activation in DN, but also additional activation in ECN, most notably in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex that plays an important role in cognitive control. Additional analysis demonstrated that there was greater functional connectivity between DN and ECN during the evaluation phase, suggesting that there is close communication between those networks in the later stages of creative thinking when cognitive control is applied on the contents of generated ideas for their evaluation. Since then, data from several studies including musical improvisation (Pinho et al., 2016) and poetry composition (Liu et al., 2015) have also shown dynamic coupling between DN and ECN – interpreted to reflect the spontaneous generation of ideas derived from long-term memory and the evaluation of those ideas to meet specific task goals, respectively. Using dynamic causal modeling, Vartanian et al. (2018) have recently shown that ECN exerts unidirectional control over the activation of DN regions in the course of divergent thinking, supporting the causal model that underlies their interaction.

Chain reaction. What step, if taken, will accomplish multiple goals? The word for this is not efficacy or efficiency. We’ll call it “multiplicity” ––the reaction which occurs when a single displaced piece sets into motion the force necessary to topple a thousand. Think of the difference––one directed movement, then no further force, energy, or effort required.  Not only the time saved, but the process itself can be said to be designed so as to achieve the greatest results with the smallest possible effort. To seek out such correlations and connections––and then to recognize those most valuable are probably those most camouflaged or hidden.

It is generally assumed that stress has a detrimental effect on creativity. This assumption is not unreasonable: given that in the immediate aftermath of stress, physiological, and cognitive resources are reallocated to promote vigilance and survival (Hermans et al., 2014), it is likely that higher-order cognitive capacities that would otherwise support creative cognition would be shifted to meet those more urgent needs. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that stress has a negative impact on processes related to creativity, including task switching and cognitive flexibility (Steinhauser et al., 2007Plessow et al., 20112012). However, the impact of stress on creativity is not necessarily and universally negative, and depends in part on how stress-inducing the stressor is perceived to be, and the type of stress that is induced. For example, Byron et al.’s (2010) meta-analysis of 76 experimental studies that had examined the impact of stress on creativity demonstrated that uncontrollable stress leads to worse performance on creativity tasks, where uncontrollability was defined as the extent to which an individual believes that one’s actions can affect outcomes (Dickerson and Kemeny, 2004). In addition, they found that whereas high social-evaluative threats decreased creative performance, low social-evaluative contexts increased creative performance, where social-evaluative threats were considered to “occur when an aspect of self is or [can] be negatively judged by others” (Dickerson and Kemeny, 2004, p. 361). Thus, it appears that stress impacts creativity, but not necessarily in negative ways. Importantly, the findings are broadly consistent with appraisal models of stress (e.g., Lazarus and Folkman, 1984), according to which one’s perception of the stress and individual differences that underlie vulnerabilities to those stressors are important factors that influence the stress-creativity relationship.

Leverage, pressure points, chain reactions––what do each have in common? They’re short–cut methods, ways of accomplishing a lot with a little. These notions have been variously described under the general heading of “work smart, not hard.” And yes, it’s bright–light creativity, not necessarily brute strength or endurance, which reveals the easiest and surest path. “It’s hard to be fully creative without structure and constraint. Try to paint without a canvas. Creativity and freedom are two sides of the same coin. I like the best of both worlds. Want freedom? Get organized. Want to get organized? Get creative.” ––David Allen. In contested areas such as lawsuits each side makes predetermined assessments, seeks an advantage using whatever evidence can be obtained and exploited. A nod of assent from someone detached––typically only the executive control network is addressed, the notion of formally presenting information and arguments to another––but perhaps the secret ingredient is to see if the default network can be reached as well. Merely because one has chosen a difficult solution to a problem does not work to confer an advantage. Perhaps another way of thinking about this––solution first, then problem.

All quotations from Oshin Vartanian, Sidney Ann Saint, Nicole Herz, Peter Suedfeld, The Creative Brain Under Stress: Considerations for Performance in Extreme Environments, Front. Psychol., 30 October 2020 |


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