The Unconscious Mind: Your Creative Superpower
Discovering the processes behind your creative ideas.
Do you remember the last time you had an "aha!" moment?
Maybe it went like this; you were trying to solve a problem, so you spent a considerable time thinking of a solution. You did your research and thought through all options and ideas but couldn't develop a good solution. The next day while taking a shower suddenly, the answer appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Eureka!
Was it magic, or was there an internal process within your mind that enabled the insightful moment?
This question struck me as I read the latest book by writer, actor, and comedian John Cleese of Monty Python fame, Creativity: A short and cheerful guide.
In the book, John Cleese touched on a part of the creative process we all go through but may not realize the importance of, which is the role our unconscious plays in the creative process.
This is the same unconscious that takes over after we have practiced repeatedly to a point where our unconscious takes over, and it feels like second nature.
“The conscious mind may be compared to a fountain playing in the sun and falling back into the great subterranean pool of subconscious from which it rises.” - Sigmund Freud
In his book, John Cleese shared examples of how he used to get stuck when writing scenes for his comedy skits in the evening but after a good night's sleep, the answer would come to him the next day while taking a shower.
Another example he shared was when he had lost a whole skit he had written with his writing partner. Thinking he had lost all the hard work they had put into the writing, he decided to write the skit again from memory. So he wrote the whole skit again and showed it to his writing partner, and they realized that the skit was much better than before.
Do we chalk these moments up to chance, or is there a process that happens in our minds to enable insightful moments?
Turns out there have been quite a few studies exploring this question. One of the fascinating studies to better understand our unconscious mind is mentioned by John Cleese in his book.
Researchers asked a group of volunteers to look at five Chinese characters. They were then asked to come back a few days later, were shown the same set of characters plus a few more, and were asked to identify the characters they saw on their initial visit. None of the people could identify the five characters they saw the first time around. The researchers then brought in a new group of volunteers and showed them the same five characters. They asked the second group of people to come back again and showed them the larger set of characters which included the initial five characters as well, but this time, they were asked to pick the characters they liked. Amazingly, all the volunteers picked the five characters shown in the first round.
This was mind-blowing!
The information about the five characters had moved into the unconscious mind of the volunteers without them being aware, which surfaced as a feeling or intuition. This is how subtle our unconscious is.
This discovery was like finding a hidden gem. Our unconscious mind is a superpower we can use in our creative process.
One word, incubation.
Incubation is a critical part of the creative process which includes:
Preparation - where we acquire the knowledge to solve a problem
Incubation - where our conscious attention is diverted away from the problem to allow for unconscious processes to enable our mind to make connections
Illumination - where the creative idea suddenly flashes into sight
Verification - where the creative idea is subjected to evaluation and is tested
The unconscious processes in our mind
Let’s look at the incubation period to better understand it and harness its power in our creative process.
The incubation period is when our unconscious mind is busy solving the problem without us consciously being aware of it.
The Unconcious Thought Theory states that the unconscious processing in our mind is more adept at actively facilitating the discovery of remote associations and integrating information to enhance divergent thinking than conscious thought.
It is where the unconscious processes in our mind make connections while we are doing something other than the task at hand; the result is we get an idea seemingly out of the blue.
Two unconscious processes we can tap into to harness this creative superpower are mind-wandering, which is a short incubation, and sleep, a longer incubation period.
Mind-wandering and sleep seem to be the first ones we abandon as we focus on what we can consciously control.
Sometimes we can't think our way out of a problem. So we must let go of control and allow the unconscious processes to occur.
Mind-wandering is the act of thinking about something other than the task at hand while we are awake. Letting our minds wander helps our unconscious mind take over and make the connections needed to develop ideas and solutions. It turns out that looking out the window to be lost in thought is good.
Sleep is the longer period in which incubation takes place. Studies have found that during REM, the Rapid Eye Movement phase of sleep, the activity of the brain's neurons is quite similar to that during our waking hours. REM sleep also increases cognitive flexibility, which helps facilitate creative insights.
There have been many anecdotal accounts of creative insights appearing as a result of sleep, such as:
Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein because of a dream
Paul McCartney said, “I woke up with a lovely tune in my head” as he discovered the song Yesterday in his sleep.
The musician Aphex Twin wrote most of the album by going to sleep in his studio and then recreating the sounds once he woke up.
So the next time you are faced with a challenge, why not tap into your unconscious superpowers and let your mind wander, or better yet, take a nap or a good night’s sleep to activate the unconscious processes which can help you create insights and eureka moments to power your creative thinking and boost your creativity.
Thanks for reading, and stay creative!
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I love this. When I'm my best self I use the subconscious in two ways. 1) write down an important question in my notebook a little bit before bed. Think about the possible answers for 3-5 minutes. Go about my evening, go to bed, wake up and immediately answer the question. Amazing things come out. My other tool is to write a question down, think about it. Then go for a run. Come back and answer. Answers don't feel as wonderful as the sleep method, but they're still pretty good.