You need an idea. A solution. A creative new way to solve a challenging problem. But how likely is it that you’ll come up with that idea?
A simple test might provide an indication of your level of creativity.
The image below is a Necker cube, an illustration designed to alternate between two mutually exclusive interpretations: A cube facing down and left, or a cube facing up and right.
Spend the next sixty seconds looking at the illustration and count how many times the cube’s orientation appears to “switch” back and forth.
The average person perceives approximately 12 cube “switches” per minute. Since I only experienced 10, that’s bad news for me.
According to a study published last year in Perception, how often the cube appears to shift orientation correlates to your ability to develop creative ideas on what psychologists call divergent thinking tasks. Not just thinking outside the box, but thinking with no box: Free-flowing, spontaneous, non-linear idea generation. The more you “switch,” the more creative you tend to be.
Yet all is not lost. Interestingly, the researchers found that priming your innovation pump by first spending a little time staring at ambiguous images can actually make you more creative.
Conflict — in this case, dealing with the fact that an image can have two orientations — activates your anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain that detects conflict and triggers cognitive control mechanisms to deal with it.
Where innovation is concerned, that activation appears to be a good thing.
As the researchers write:
In order to switch perspectives in both tasks (i.e., overcome the conflict), we may be engaging the same cognitive processes and capacities.
Indeed, we find that observing a Necker cube can improve insight problem-solving and may lead to more experiences of insight, perhaps because the Necker cube engages the capacities necessary for insight to occur.
Which means doing a little Necker cube warm-up before I try to solve a problem could actually help me be more creative.
And it might help you, too, if only because it may help you avoid blindly following one problem-solving or troubleshooting train of thought.
As the researchers write:
One of the implications of this study may be that situations which induce conflict, or conflict experienced during the problem-solving process, may be an important precedent of an insight moment.
Once a conflict is experienced between our current interpretations or assumptions and another competing interpretation or assumption, then there is an opportunity to engage control, and step aside from the existing rut to a novel perspective, which if we are lucky, is a vantage point from which we can discover the solution: “Aha!”
Because we can all use a little more “Aha!” in our lives.