A Gathering Voices post by Lynne M. Baab
Because it is now so much easier to monitor what’s happening in the human brain, psychologists have been studying creativity in new ways. They monitor the parts of the brain that are activated when people engage in various activities such as problem solving or generating ideas of new ways to do things. Brainstorming creative ideas, or doing things in new ways, lights up different places in the brain than routine tasks do.
Psychologist Evangelia G. Chrysikou, assistant professor at the University of Kansas, studies the ways people use ordinary objects in creative ways to achieve goals or solve problems. In a recent article in Scientific American Mind, she summarizes numerous research studies on creativity. She describes several patterns that help nurture creativity.
1. Performing tasks in an unconventional order. She cited a Dutch study involving making a typical Dutch breakfast sandwich. Some of the research subjects made the sandwich using an unconventional sequence of events, and they afterwards scored higher on “cognitive flexibility,” a measure of ability to come up with a greater variety of different types of answers to problems.
2. Describing objects in a unusual way. In another study, participants were asked to describe common objects by their size, shape and materials, rather than by their function. They were asked to consider two questions: “Can I break this description down any further” and “Does my description imply a practical use?” Participants who received this training showed a boost in problem-solving ability afterwards.
3. Sleeping on a problem. Studies show that waiting until after a night’s sleep to make a decision can result in creative solutions, presumably because sleeping activates our unconscious mind. Dream sleep makes associations between unlikely ideas more possible.
4. Taking a break to do a totally unrelated task. People in one study were more productive and creative when they took breaks to engage in something completely unrelated to the problem they were trying to solve, rather than breaks that focus on similar problems.
All the examples given by Chrysikou seem to indicate that creativity begets creativity. Doing something in an odd way, or thinking about things in a new way, seems to spill over into later activities.
My impression is that many Christian communities are reluctant to do things new ways or think about things in an unexpected way. Some of the reluctance comes from the need among members for stability and security in an ever-changing world, an understandable perspective. But some of the reluctance comes from fear, plain and simple. And often those fears dominate the decision-making process.
I’ve been pondering creativity, and have written about it twice recently on this blog (here and here). I wonder what we can do in communities of faith to nurture an attitude that embraces the value of creative solutions. I wonder how church boards could experiment with the four strategies that Chrysikou describes. I wonder what those four strategies would look like in the context of church boards and committees.
One minister who I admire very much always puts topics on the board’s agenda well in advance, so that challenging questions are discussed at more than one meeting. He wants his elders to be able to pray about possible solutions between meetings. I wonder if the wise decisions that result from that strategy come from both the prayer and the fact that elders have many nights sleep to nurture creativity before they make a decision.
(The article referred to in this post is “Your Creative Brain at Work” by Evangelia G. Chrysikou, Scientific American Mind, July/August 2012, pages 24-31. The illustration is Oban Presbyterian Church on Stewart Island, New Zealand, painted by my husband, David Baab.)