The Power of the Mind: Subconscious Creativity in Idea Generation & Innovation
Posted on March 23, 2018 by Tom Siddle.
Method acting is a well-known technique whereby actors emotionally absorb themselves into a role that they are playing on screen or on stage. By doing so, they temporarily alter their psychological and behavioural state into one that more closely resembles their character, therefore increasing the realism and legitimacy of their performance.
In his book, Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind, Srini Pillay explores of the benefit of employing similar methods to increase engagement with complex or abstract tasks. Rather than assuming the role of a specific character, as in the case with method acting, he instead describes the benefit of assuming the role of a behavioural stereotype. Pillay suggests that “trying on” different behavioural stereotypes can increase performance in areas where that identity is stereotypically strong – coining this concept “psychological halloweenism”.
This clearly doesn’t apply to all skills or tasks, especially those which are highly technical. For example, if you have never played the piano before, your performance is unlikely to improve no matter how much you envision yourself as Beethoven. For more abstract and psychologically-driven tasks, however, research suggests that identity stereotyping or ‘method acting’ can have some benefit to performance.
One study that examined this phenomenon was conducted by Dumas and Dunbar (2016) who investigated the impact of “creative stereotypes” on creative output. They used a divergent thinking test known as the Uses of Objects Task, which requires participants to generate different uses for simple everyday objects (e.g. a fork). Responses were scored across two metrics; number of uses per object (fluency) and how novel or abstract their suggested uses were compared with the original word (originality).
Crucially, participants were divided into groups – a creative stereotype group, an uncreative (inhibited) stereotype group and a control group. In the creative stereotype group, participants completed the test assuming an identity of an “eccentric poet”, whereas in the uncreative group they assumed an identity of a “rigid librarian”, but in both groups were still instructed to generate as many uses as possible for the items.
The results were fascinating. The “eccentric poets” came up with an average of 92.1 uses for all ten objects, compared with only 60.3 for the “rigid librarians”. The results were the same across the originality metric; the novelty of the uses suggested by “poets” was significantly higher than the “librarians”. These results are particularly astonishing when you consider the extent of the ‘method acting’ – the only difference between groups was a simple sentence instructing them to imagine themselves as either stereotype.
An explanation for these results may have foundations in neuroscience. Unconscious areas of the brain have previously been shown to be highly active during creative tasks, suggesting that the human subconscious could play a major role in instigating novel thought (Andreasen, 2011). It could be the case that assuming a creative identity helps individuals draw upon and/or activates parts of their subconscious which then in turn facilitates idea generation and innovation.
Considering the potential implications of these findings, this area is relatively unexplored, especially considering how critical creativity and innovation are for modern, forward-thinking and ever-evolving organisations. It is seemingly important, then, to investigate these findings further and in a more systematic fashion. If assuming a creative identity increases creativity by such a considerable margin (by 53% in the case of the “poets”) surely this can be utilised in a systematic fashion to drive innovation within organisations.
Watch this creative space.
Practitioner Take-Home Points
- Relatively speaking, little is known about the nature of creativity or its neuro-scientific basis
- Recent neuroscience evidence points to the potentially important role of the subconscious (or unconscious) in producing new concepts, ideas and innovations
- Research has demonstrated that assuming a temporary creative identity (a behaviourial stereotype) can improve levels of idea generation and creativity
- Little is being done to systematically implement this methodology in organisational settings despite its potential as a tool to drive innovative thought
Inspativity are currently working on an exciting new development in this area and are looking to partner with similarly forward-thinking and innovatively-minded organisations. We want to build on some of the evidence discussed here and host a series of Creativity Sessions to explore further the impact of behavioural identity stereotyping.
These workshops are only 2 hours in length and we conduct them for free.
Please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the office on +971 4 253 3517 to find out more and/or arrange a free session.