In the movies, creativity often involves moments of insight. A character struggles with an idea. There is a montage of pained faces and crumpled sheets of paper. Then, suddenly, the light comes on. A choir sings. A new creative moment has happened.
When you see this movie scene, or you hear about a moment of creative insight, there is an interesting question that comes up. Where, exactly, did this new idea come from? After all, it is pretty clear that there was a lot of hard thinking going on. Yet, suddenly, the new idea appears from out of nowhere.
A recent set of studies has focused on the difference between conscious and unconscious thought. Ap Dijksterhuis and his colleagues have pointed out that it is possible to be thinking a problem, even when you are distracted. In this case, what seems to be happening is that the problem you are solving is having a chance to find other knowledge that relates to it and to bring that knowledge to mind.
One way to think about this is that researchers who study creativity often distinguish between two phases of creative idea generation—divergence and convergence. In the divergent phase, you generate a lot of potential solutions to a problem. In the convergent phase, you evaluate those ideas and focus on those that seem most promising.
The work on unconscious thought suggests that it may be most effective for the divergent phase of creative thought.
A paper by Haiyang Yang, Amitava Chattopadhyay, Kuangjie Zhang, and Darren Dahl in the 2012 volume of the Journal of Consumer Psychology explored this process in more detail.
In one study, they had people generate as many uses as possible for a paper clip. This task has been used often as a way of getting people to think creatively. The experimenters varied both the amount of time people spent thinking about their answers as well as whether they used conscious or unconscious thought. Groups spent either 1, 3, or 5 minutes thinking about the uses for a paper clip. The conscious thought group was simply told to think about the problem. The unconscious thought group was told to think about uses for a paper clip, but then was asked to count backward by 3s. This task made it hard for people to do any controlled thinking about the task. After the thinking period, participants had 2 minutes to write down their answers.
For the groups that spent one minute or five minutes on the task, the conscious thought group came up with more ideas (and more novel ideas) than the unconscious thought group. For the groups that spend 3 minutes on the task, though, the unconscious thought group came up with more ideas and more novel ideas than the conscious thought group. A second study replicated this finding with a different creativity task and found that while unconscious thought at a medium duration could lead to more novel ideas, those ideas were not necessarily more appropriate for solving the problem.
What is going on here?
Deliberate conscious thought involves both divergent and convergent processes. You are reminded of things you know about that might help you to solve the problem, and then you evaluate those ideas and focus on the ones you like. In addition, as you think about the problem consciously, you are able to generate new descriptions of the problem that may help you to take a different perspective on it. These conscious processes get better over time, so the longer you spend thinking, the more you come up with.
Unconscious thought has just the divergent component. The description of the problem races through your memory activating things that might be useful. At short durations, there isn’t enough time to activate much. At longer durations, some of the initial activation of an idea dies down and it is lost. At medium durations, though, the largest number of different ideas are active.
How can you use this to help you?
In cases where you are stuck on a difficult problem, it can be valuable to walk away from that problem and to engage in another activity. Take a walk. Play a mindless video game for a few minutes. Go to the gym. The other activity you do should not lead you to think a lot about something new and difficult, it just occupy your conscious train of thought. After some time away from the problem, come back to it and see what you come up with.