In Exploring Creativity, Part I, I discussed how creative exercises rarely incorporate rationality. As an example of an exercise that explicitly applied creativity to overcoming bias, I spotlighted Eliezer Yudkowsky’s idea for avoiding the fallacy of the false dilemma. To disabuse oneself of the idea that a problem admits of only two options, Yudkowsky suggested, you should spend five minutes racking your mind for additional alternatives. I called this recommendation the Timer Task because Yudkowsky insisted that we measure five minutes by an actual clock, rather than our intuitive sense of time. Despite there being no experimental evidence to recommend this technique, I praised the Timer Task for at least acknowledging the synergy between creativity and rationality. Another aspect of the Timer Task that distinguishes it from most other creativity exercises is the fact that it is solitary.

The solitary nature of the Timer Task is noteworthy because most creative exercises implemented by schools and businesses are group exercises. Indeed, for the past sixty years, the prototypical creative exercise has been group brainstorming. Based on my own informal survey, I suspect most Americans are familiar with the technique. According to the cognitive psychologist and creativity expert Mark A. Runco, “brainstorming is almost definitely the most often employed [creativity] enhancement technique” (365). 

In its modern sense, ‘brainstorming’ refers to an activity in which several people work together to generate creative solutions to a given problem. However, the term ‘brainstorm’ dates back to the 1890s, when it was medical jargon that meant “a fit of mental confusion or excitement” (Random House). By the 1920s, the word ‘brainstorm’ had diverged from its clinical origin, toward something analogous to epiphany or insight. According to the Dictionary of American Slang (4th ed.), it was “[a] sudden idea, esp. one that is apt and useful.” Around the same time, we find the first use of ‘brainstorm’ in its modern sense, as a verb meaning, “to examine and work on a problem by having a group sit around and utter spontaneously whatever relevant thoughts they have.” (Dictionary of American Slang, 4th ed.)

It was not until the 1950s, however, that ‘brainstorming’ transitioned from little-known slang to an established member of the lexicon. The current notion of brainstorming as a formal technique can be traced back to a single source: the 1953 business management book, Applied Imagination. It is from this book that we get the term, “brainstorming session.” The impact of this book can be observed in the increased usage of  ‘brainstorm’/’brainstorming’ in written media after 1953, as depicted in the Google NGram chart below. The especially steep rise in the usage of “brainstorming” –as opposed to other conjugations of the verb ‘to brainstorm,’ such as ‘brainstormed’– reflected an emerging sense that the word referred to a formal technique, rather than a new label for a standard conferencing strategy.

Google NGram Viewer: 'Brainstorm', 'Brainstorming', and 'Brainstormed'

Although the process of searching your mind for creative solutions to a particular problem –i.e. the crux of brainstorming– can be accomplished just as easily by an individual as by a group, the popular meaning of brainstorming assumes it to be a group activity. Outside the scholarly literature, “group brainstorming” is an oxymoron, and “individual brainstorming” is a contradiction in terms. Undoubtedly, the inventors and early adopters of brainstorming regarded their method as a group activity. Even today, most dictionaries continue to define brainstorming as an inherently social enterprise. If you conducted a psychological experiment in which you brought a group of strangers together, gave them each a piece of paper, and asked them to “brainstorm creative solutions to a problem,” I strongly suspect most groups would not even consider splitting up, coming up with ideas separately, and then pooling their ideas at the end of the session. And yet, as I intend to show, this strategy of brainstorming individually and then pooling solutions would be far more effective than group brainstorming.

Modern American culture idealizes extraverted personality traits. Although recent years have seen an uptick in appreciation of introversion, the extrovert ideal still exerts a tremendous impact on all aspects of our lives, including our conception of creativity. Indeed, brainstorming’s status as the prototypical creative exercise is simply one example of a broader conflation of creativity with extraversion. Appreciation for brainstorming cuts across traditional ideological and professional boundaries: therapists, educators, corporate managers, and military planners all employ brainstorming techniques in their work. But what are the consequences of conflating creativity and social interaction?

In her fine book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain situates the enthusiastic embrace of group brainstorming in the 1950s within a broader cultural trend that glorified extraverted personality traits. One indicator of the public’s receptiveness to brainstorming was the speed of its adoption. Writing in 1958 –a mere five years after the publication of Applied Imagination— the psychologist Donald Taylor commented:

Within recent years [the use of brainstorming] has grown rapidly. A large number of major companies, units of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and various federal, state, and local civilian agencies have employed the technique […]. (Taylor 24)

In my previous post in this series, I profiled Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an eminent psychologist who wrote some irrational things about creativity. One of his unfalsifiable definitions of creativity touched on the introversion-extraversion dynamic. In Creativity, he wrote that creative people “seem to harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between extraversion and introversion” (Csikszentmihalyi, as quoted in Landrum, pg. 64). To go from reading Csikszentmihalyi to reading Susan Cain is to experience a kind of literary vertigo. Whereas Csikszentmihalyi is exuberant, vague and prone to digressions, Cain is modest, deliberative, and thesis-driven. Here is a striking, instructive (and, in my view, invidious) example. Both Cain and Csikszentmihalyi address the apparent paradox of people who manifest both introverted and extroverted traits. Here’s Csikszentmihalyi:

Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted. We’re usually one or the other, either preferring to be in the thick of crowds or sitting on the sidelines and observing the passing show…. Creative individuals, on the other hand, seem to exhibit both traits simultaneously. (Csikszentmihalyi, as quoted in Kaufman)

Here’s Cain:

Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions. (Cain 11)

More than anything, I want to highlight the fact that both authors are making the same argument. The only difference is that Susan Cain actually resolves the paradox by providing illustrative examples; Csikszentmihalyi simply asserts that certain “[c]reative individuals” can “exhibit both traits simultaneously.”

My purpose in bringing this up is not simply to re-hash my earlier critique of Csikszentmihalyi, but to show that rigorous thinking about science isn’t solely the province of scientists. Susan Cain is not a scientist, but her writing reflects a deep respect for science. And in many ways she is a better rationalist than Csikszentmihalyi. It goes to show that regardless of your profession or academic specialty, everyone is capable of making a positive contribution to the scientific conversation.

In Quiet, Susan Cain uses brainstorming as a lens through which to inspect our cultural beliefs about introversion and extraversion. In an earlier section, I mentioned the 1953 book Applied Imagination, crediting it with having launched brainstorming into public consciousness. Applied Imagination was written by the advertising executive Alex Osborn, who had been developing brainstorming techniques since 1939 in his role as a consultant to major businesses. He believed that (1) people were naturally creative, (2) creativity was the key to success in business, and (3) traditional business practices stymied creativity. Brainstorming, Osborn thought, was the optimal way to unleash this wellspring of latent of creativity. Though convinced that group synergy was essential for creative achievement, Osborn was aware of pernicious group dynamics like social anxiety and diffusion of responsibility. However, he maintained that these problems could be averted through a combination of explicit instructions and expert guidance. Osborn outlined four rules for constructive brainstorming:

(1) Criticism is ruled out. Adverse judgment of ideas must be withheld until later.

(2) “Free-wheeling” is welcomed. The wilder the idea, the better; it is easier to tame down that to think up.

(3) Quantity is wanted. The greater number of ideas, the more the likelihood of winners.

(4) Combinations and improvements are sought. In addition to contributing ideas of their own, participants should suggest how ideas of others can be turned into better ideas; or how two or more ideas can be joined into still another idea. (Applied Imagination, as quoted in Taylor, et al., 24-25)

On the surface, these rules sound plausible and comprehensive. However, if the objective is to maximize creativity, all four rules are counterproductive. The first rule is wrong in its assumption one could subvert people’s judgmental attitudes via an explicit rule, and doubly wrong for supposing that a maximally permissive environment is the ideal incubator of creativity. The second and third rules err in their assumptions about what kind of creative solutions are worth aiming for. The fourth rule, like the first, falsely assumes that a collaborative environment is necessarily more amenable to creativity than an adversarial one. In summary, these four rules are the product of misconceptions and wishful thinking.

Osborn was particularly emphatic about his third rule, “Go for quantity.” Writing about his own experiences with brainstorming in a business setting, he enthused:

“One group produced 45 suggestions for a home-appliance promotion, 56 ideas for a money-raising campaign, 124 ideas on how to sell more blankets. In another case, 15 groups brainstormed one and the same problem and produced over 800 ideas.” (Osborn, as quoted in Quiet, pg. 87)

Large numbers such as these are only superficially impressive, because they do not take into consideration the quality of those ideas. It is no doubt possible to conjure up thousands of cockamamie solutions to any given problem; the set of possible ideas is literally infinite. Ultimately, however, a single quality idea is worth more than ten-thousand terrible ones. Nor do Osborn’s numbers tell us whether people working in isolation would have generated more ideas. Astonishingly, Osborn does not comment on either of these two alternative possibilities.

Like many of my peers, my earliest experiences with brainstorming occurred at school. During these sessions, I remember feeling exasperated by the “be freewheeling” rule, which seemed to result in many irrelevant digressions. I can also recall a few instances in which I wanted to violate the “non-judgmental” rule. This was not (necessarily) because I was an arrogant jackass, but because I genuinely thought rebutting my peer’s point would improve the overall conversation.

When I read Quiet, I was gratified to discover that my own attitude toward class participation is the norm in East Asian culture. Quoting an Asian student who was astonished by the permissive attitude of the American university she had attended:

“…. At UCLA, The professor would start class, saying, ‘Let’s discuss!’ I would look at me peers while they were talking nonsense, and the professors were so patient, just listening to everyone.” She nods her head comically, mimicking the overly respectful professors.

I remember being amazed. It was a linguistics class, and that’s not even linguistics the students are talking about! I thought, “Oh, in the U.S., as soon as you start talking, you’re fine.’” (Cain 185)

Whereas American education emphasizes participation, East Asian culture emphasizes restraint. Cain cogently explores how this particular difference reflects a more fundamental difference in how each culture regards introverted and extraverted traits. As I alluded to earlier, contemporary American society is engrossed with extraversion. Having experienced the American educational system firsthand, I am quite familiar with the ways this system sometimes fails to foster curiosity, rationality, and civic virtue. However, this may simply be an instance of the grass always being greener on the other side. Because I never personally experienced a more restrained educational environment, I cannot readily conceive of its potential downsides. 

According to Cain, “Osborn’s theory had great impact, and company leaders took up brainstorming with enthusiasm” (87). The popularity of brainstorming in the business community coincided with the growing recognition of creativity as a legitimate subject of inquiry among psychologists, who were understandably eager to assess which creative exercises were most effective, and why. “There’s only one problem with Osborn’s breakthrough idea,” Cain notes witheringly, “group brainstorming doesn’t actually work” (88)

How did researchers demonstrate that group brainstorming doesn’t work? And why did the practitioners and popularizers of group brainstorming not recognize its ineffectiveness?

If you were a researcher, how would you design an experiment to test whether brainstorming actually accomplished its stated goal of enhancing creativity? It wouldn’t suffice to look at case studies of group brainstorming, as Alex Osborn did. You would have no control group, and hence no basis for concluding anything about the effects of brainstorming. The question becomes what kind of control group is best. Ideally, the only difference between the control group and the experimental group would be the presence or absence of people. Therefore, you would need to compare group brainstormers against an equivalent numbers of individuals brainstorming in isolation. For example, you might compare the solutions generated by a group of six people who worked for one hour against the compiled solutions of a nominal group consisting of six individuals who each spent an hour working on solutions in isolation. In the coming paragraphs, I will be speaking generally about how one might design an experiment, as though the project was purely hypothetical. This is educational sleight-of-hand. For all intents and purposes, I am summarizing Donald Taylor’s landmark study, “Does Group Participation When Using Brainstorming Facilitate or Inhibit Creative Thinking?” (1958), which was the first to rigorously compare group brainstorming against nominal groups of individuals who worked independently.

To compare the real groups against the nominal groups, the experimenters needed an operational definition of creativity, the mental faculty that group brainstorming allegedly enhanced. In their analysis of the results, the experimenters assessed not only the sheer number of ideas, but also their overall quality. But, whereas the total number of ideas is easily measured and entirely objective (just count them), the notion of quality is not so easily judged. In part, this is because quality comprises multiple abstract things that might be present or absent in different amounts. In psychological research, it’s useful to subdivide quality into components with more restricted definitions. These might include novelty, generality, effectiveness, and feasibility. If you assess each of these components individually and then pool those assessments, the composite score will be a good indicator of total quality.

But wait! Even if terms like novelty and feasibility are more narrowly defined than quality, aren’t such criteria still subjective? Aren’t objective facts the only solid basis for scientific generalization? Well, as it turns out, the use of subjective measures is ubiquitous in psychological research. Cognitive scientists don’t elide this problematic issue, either. To the contrary, for any given study, the researchers must establish that the subjective measures are more valid than mere opinions. One method of demonstrating this is through inter-observer reliability, meaning that different observers of the same measurements agree (if not totally, then to a significant extent) on what scores those measurement deserve. Consider the assessments of solution feasibility in the studies of brainstorming; if multiple evaluators independently give the same feasibility scores in ninety percent of cases, then you can have confidence that their judgments converge on some universal standard of “feasibility.” However, if the evaluators arrive at wildly different determinations of feasibility –say, with only a fifteen percent overlap in their judgments– then it would be no firm basis for comparing the real groups against the nominal groups.

In order to test the effectiveness of brainstorming as a creative exercise, the researchers needed to create a standardized creative task. The problems featured in Osborn’s case studies could not be used because those problems were specific to the type of business where the study occurred. It would not make sense, for example, to ask non-engineers to brainstorm creative solutions to an engineering problem. One would expect the quality of their solutions to be poor irrespective of whether they worked in real or nominal groups. An engineering problem presupposes a lot of knowledge and experience that the participants of most psychology experiments simply do not have. Of course this problem isn’t unique to engineering. Any problem that requires specialized knowledge is inappropriate for general experiments. Consequently, researchers needed to invent problems that didn’t demand specialized knowledge. The problems also needed to admit many possible solutions, which could be readily evaluated for feasibility, novelty, generality, etc. Here are abridged versions of the three problems used by Taylor, et al. in their 1958 study:

  1. The Tourist Problem asked “How can the number of European tourists coming to the U.S. be increased?”
  2. The Thumb Problem asked for a list of pros and cons that would arise if people had an additional thumb.”
  3. The Teacher Problem asked how to insure continued educational efficacy, given population increases.” (Runco, 366)

These particular problems have been recycled for future studies of creativity. If you’d like to read the full version of these three problems –and test your own creativity– follow this link to take my Creativity Test!

I’ve already given you the upshot of this research: group brainstorming doesn’t work. But now, having sketched out the experimental methods, I can state the results more precisely: the nominal groups came up with significantly more solutions than the traditional groups, and the quality of their solutions was significantly higher. As Taylor wrote, “[t]o the extent that the results of the present experiment can be generalized, it must be concluded that group participation when using brainstorming inhibits creative thinking.” (23)

Taylor and his colleagues used undergraduates as participants. Since then, the ineffectiveness of group brainstorming has been demonstrated in a variety of experimental populations, from students to corporate managers to military strategists. Susan Cain discusses a study that examined the possibility that maybe group brainstorming would prove effective if all the group members were extroverts. The study compared business executives, a population the researchers expected to be extroverts, and research scientists, whose inclinations were expected to tend introvert. The scientists and the executives both performed better as collections of individuals than as a singular group, thereby falsifying that hypothesis.

It gets worse. Not only do groups inhibit creativity, but “performance gets worse as group size increases: groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which do worse than groups of four.” (Cain 88) The social factors that undermine group brainstorming are cumulative. But what are these pernicious social factors? There are three main culprits:

  1. Social loafing: “in a group, some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work.”
  2. Production blocking: “only one person can talk or produce an idea at once, while the other group members are forced to sit passively.”
  3. Evaluation apprehension: “the fear of looking stupid in front of one’s peers.” (Cain 89)

In the face of these three social forces, Osborn’s four rules were not really safeguards at all. Of all the sins against rationality one can convict Osborn of, it was his expectation that his explicit rules would be sufficient that I find most egregious. How hard would it have been to test this strategy by having some groups receive explicit instructions, and other groups receive null or contrary instructions? Why did he not consult with psychologists before proclaiming that his pet method was effective? Instead, he made an end-run around the scientific process, and we are now living in a world where his counterproductive method is the prototypical creativity exercise. It’s supremely ironic: because of Osborn’s overwhelming enthusiasm for creativity, the world is now less creative place than it might otherwise be.

This notion of groups performing worse than an equal number of individuals reminds me of a humorous anecdote from Jewish history. As the story goes, 70 Jewish scholars were sequestered in separate rooms and asked to translate the Torah from Hebrew to Greek. Miraculously, every scholar produced the identical translation! However, we shouldn’t be too impressed that all of the scholars independently arrived on the same translation. The real miracle would have been if they had produced the same translation after having been put in the same room.

For many people, the ultimate counterevidence to the experimental failure of group brainstorming would be recent online collaborative enterprises such as Wikipedia, Metafilter, and TV Tropes. This is a reasonable objection that is best addressed by highlighting the psychological differences between in-person and online social interaction. As Susan Cain puts it, “we fail to realize that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all its own” (89). In my opinion, Cain’s characterization of online collaboration as “a form of solitude all its own” is stretching a precise term like ‘solitude’ too far into metaphor. It would be more precise to say that, in many crucial respects, the cognitive experience of collaborating with thousands of people in cyber-space bears a closer resemblance to solitary thought than it does to an interaction with far fewer colleagues in the physical world. Importantly, the social forces that undermine group brainstorming –social loafing, production blocking, and evaluation apprehension– are exacerbated by cues associated with occupying the same physical space as another person. If these social forces were triggered by the mere presence of another human mind, one would expect no difference between online and in-person collaboration. However, the human mind evolved in a context where all interactions were visceral interactions; our ancestors never had to cope with community archiving projects, social networks, or massive multiplayer online games. Insofar as modern circumstances differ from the ancestral environment, we should expect a mismatch between our intuition and our expectation of how a rational actor ought to behave. As Susan Cain writes, the real problem arises when “we assume that the success of online collaborations will be replicated in the face-to-face world.” (89) Here, as elsewhere, evolutionary science points the way to enlightened personal beliefs and public policies.

It is worth noting the more sophisticated modern advocates of “brainstorming” generally do not espouse Alex Osborn’s original rules. Indeed, “brainstorming” now refers to “not just one tactic but a method for divergent thinking in groups” (Runco 365; my italics). These modern variations on group brainstorming have been evaluated, and they, too, have been shown to be less conducive to creativity than allowing individuals to devise creative solutions in isolation. Since Donald Taylor’s 1958 study debunking group brainstorming, “[d]ozens or even hundreds of other studies have found much the same,” (Runco 366) including a 1991 meta-analysis. In spite of the counterevidence, Osborn’s original methodology is still being used by business consultants and teachers. In part, this is a reflection of a being uninformed about the empirical failure of group brainstorming. But it is also emblematic of our culture’s preference for extraversion over introversion, which Cain calls the extrovert ideal.

Given the lack of evidence for group brainstorming, its continued popularity is hard to fathom. According to Cain, the most compelling explanation is emotional. “Participants in brainstorming sessions usually believe that their group performed much better than it actually did, which points to a valuable reason for their continued popularity—group brainstorming makes people feel attached,” which is “a worthy goal, so long as we understand that social glue, as opposed to creativity, is the principal benefit.” (Cain 89)

To call brainstorming a “worthy goal” whose “principal benefit” is “social glue” is to damn it with faint praise. Although I agree that people enjoy group brainstorming mainly because of socially harmony, this is somewhat distinct from the impression people get that it stimulates creativity. This perception of effectiveness is real, even if it is ultimately the result of a cognitive illusion borne of a failure to imagine how much better the results would have been if the group members had pooled their results after having spent an equal amount of time working in isolation.

And yet, the evidence that brainstorming fosters camaraderie is undeniable. Isn’t that reason enough to practice brainstorming? That depends, but its worth noting that if your principal defense of group brainstorming consists of pointing to one of its positive byproducts, you have all but conceded that brainstorming doesn’t achieve its stated goal of enhancing creativity. After all, if the evidence supported it, why not make that the centerpiece of your argument?

Furthermore, social psychologists have shown that there are alternative ways to trigger the cognitive processes that underlie interpersonal bonding without sacrificing creativity. Moreover, positive feelings toward another person can be promoted by arbitrary and trivial stimuli. For instance, in one highly cited study, researchers showed that tapping your finger in synchrony with a stranger engendered a sense of social affiliation, more so than if the stranger tapped asynchronously or not at all (Hove & Risen, 2009). If one can foster positive social emotions through simple activities such as tapping fingers, swaying in unison, or eating communally, why would you continue to use brainstorming, which is tantamount to squandering the creative potential of your team? To place creativity in opposition to group harmony is to construct a false dilemma in which group brainstorming is the only way to maintain both creativity and social harmony. (If you disagree, I encourage you to find a clock and spend five minutes thinking up viable alternatives.) But it is entirely possible –and indeed optimal– to make your employees feel attached while also maximizing their creative potential. To quote the psychologist Adrian Furnham, “[i]f you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority” (Cain 88-89).

In spite of all its shortcomings, group creative efforts do have the potential to circumvent individual bias. When one feels pressure to distinguish him or herself by generating useful ideas, it is in every individual’s self-interest to spot the absurdities, false assumptions, and possible consequences of their co-workers’ ideas. In short, the group’s ethic would need to be somewhat adversarial. Brainstorming, by contrast, was designed to be as non-adversarial as possible (“Criticism is ruled out. Adverse judgment of ideas must be withheld until later.”). Clearly, there is a sweet spot on the competitiveness scale: adversarial but not ruthlessly competitive.

When I wrote about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s five-minute Timer Task, I introduced it was the first creative exercise I had ever encountered that was explicitly geared toward promoting rationality. This, it turns out, was not true. While compiling notes for this essay, I came across a passage from Daniel Kahneman’s masterpiece, Thinking Fast and Slow, that explored a creative exercise known as the premortem:

The procedure is simple: when the organization has almost come to an important decision but has not formally committed itself, [the psychologist Gary] Klein proposes gathering for a brief session a group of individuals who are knowledgeable about the decision. The premise of the session is a short speech: “Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.” (Kahneman 264)

Whereas a postmortem is an inquiry into why something failed after it has already failed, the premortem asks us to imagine that the project has already failed, and the task is to explain (i.e. speculate on) what went wrong. Kahneman explains that “[t]he premortem has two main advantages: it overcomes the groupthink that affects many teams once a decision appears to have been made, and it unleashes the imagination of knowledgeable individuals in a much-needed direction.” (264) Our cognitive stance tends toward unrealistic optimism. Pessimism is so anathema to the human mind that people’s “worst case scenarios” are usually slightly better than what eventually happens. The premortem encourages maximum pessimism. In this respect, the premortem is a bit like writing a dystopian story about the worst case scenario of your plan. For instance, is there a possibility that your company’s latest kitchen appliance will lead to a zombie apocalypse? If a member of the group can articulate a compelling scenario for how this might happen, the premortem would have succeeded in averting eldritch horror, civilizational collapse, and the decline in your company’s market value.

Unlike Yudkowsky’s Timer Task –but like group brainstorming– the premortem is a group exercise. Although the effectiveness of the premortem must ultimately await empirical verification, there are strong theoretical reasons for supposing that the social component might actually enhance the creativity of the participants by “encourag[ing] even supporters of the decision to search for possible threats that they had not considered earlier” (Kahneman 266)

Brainstorming fostered an expectation about the sort of environment that is most conducive to creativity (i.e. a participatory group). More subtly, however, it created an expectation for the kind of problem that is amenable to deliberate creativity. The typical brainstorming problem is one that has a huge pool of possible answers, all of which are underdeveloped at their inception but can be elaborated upon. Business strategies fall into this category of problem. There are some creative problems that defy group brainstorming. One of the unacknowledged casualties of brainstorming’s popularity has been the application of creativity to our personal problems. This takes us back to Yudkowsky’s creative exercise, the Timer Task, which I praised for channeling creativity into circumventing a specific cognitive bias, the false dilemma. But creativity is rarely put forward as a solution for general personal distress. Some personal issues cannot be attributed insufficient rationality. One such issue is mindfulness. To be sure, rationality and mindfulness share certain values, and practicing one can improve your performance in the other. Yet there is still a facet of mindfulness that is profoundly difficult to capture in rational terms. Even for the procedural practice most associated with mindfulness, meditation, there comes a point beyond which your success isn’t a matter of knowing more, but of using your attention differently. That capacity to induce your mind into a more psychologically desirable state arguably involves creativity, but not the same kind as brainstorming or the Timer Task.

Brainstorming is a metaphor that says a lot about our perception of what happens in the mind when we engage in creative thought. The implication seems to be that being creative requires deviating from a calm, rational, orderly state of mind. In this view, creativity is a sort of salutary chaos that shakes up ossified patterns of thought. An alternative interpretation is that brainstorming involves tapping into a latent “storm of creativity” that exists below the surface of our awareness. Truly, anyone who has ever tried to meditate can attest to the tempestuousness of our mental baseline. And unlike the whimsical ‘tempest in a teapot,’ a storm is vast, chaotic, and unknowable. My subjective experience of meditating literally includes snatches of language floating unbidden into my visual field, not unlike debris tossed around by a storm. Despite my misgivings about group brainstorming as a creativity-enhancement technique, I find the underlying metaphor of creativity as a storm to be quite captivating.

I wondered, however, whether there were other, potentially better, metaphors for creative thought. In fact, I went and set a timer for five minutes, and tried to think of creative alternatives. Here are the only two viable options I came up with:

  • Imagine that you are standing on the ocean shore, watching the tide go in and out. The incoming tide represents new ideas floating into your head. When the ideas are in mind, it is as though they are objects floating beside your feet. If you think the idea is promising, you keep it. And if you dislike the idea, let the tide flush it away. This metaphor is compatible with meditation techniques that emphasize the breath, which flows inward and outward like a tide.
  • Searching your mind for creative solutions is analogous to digging through a junkyard, and setting aside the useful items you find. (If wading through garbage doesn’t suit your fancy, imagine doing the same thing in an arcade-style claw game.) As with junk, the vast majority of ideas you find will be useless, making it necessary to develop a systematic search process.

If you have any suggestions for alternative metaphors for creative thought, let me know in the comments. Also, for those of you who are familiar with other languages, with what metaphors does your language handle creativity?



brainstormer. (n.d.). Random House Unabridged. Retrieved September 04, 2015, from website:

brainstormer. (n.d.). The Dictionary of American Slang. Retrieved September 04, 2015, from website:

Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York: Crown.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Harper Collins.

Hove, M. J., & Risen, J. L. (2009). It’s All in the Timing: Interpersonal Synchrony Increases Affiliation. Social Cognition, 27(6), 949–960.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Kaufman, S. (2012, January 14). After the Show: The Many Faces of the Performer. Retrieved from

Landrum, G. (2004). Entrepreneurial Genius: The Power of Passion. Brendan Kelly Publishing.

Runco, M. (2014). Creativity Theories and Themes : Research, Development, and Practice. Amsterdam: Elsevier Academic Press.

Taylor, D., Berry, P., & Block, C. (1958). Does Group Participation When Using Brainstorming Facilitate or Inhibit Creative Thinking? Administrative Science Quarterly,3(1), 23-47.

Yudkowsky, E. (2007, May 6). The Third Alternative. Retrieved from


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