A Look Inside the Mind as it Thinks Outside the Box

Creativity is in everything and in everyone; it’s essential to humans, and it’s possible in all areas of human life. It’s the engine and the reason of each of humanity’s greatest achievements, and it’s definitely the one difference that will always grant us an undeniable power over automation and AI.

British author, speaker and international advisor on education in the arts, Ken Robinson, has defined creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value”.

Researchers have tried a variety of techniques to tease apart the mechanisms behind the creative process, involving examining the world’s most creative people in the hopes of finding reliable patterns; quizzing people about when and where they feel most creative; and also asking people to produce new ideas for cases such as thinking up uses for a brick or finishing a story when the first sentence has been provided.

While defining creativity remains an open debate, it is possible to highlight several important traits involved in the creative process, such as the state of total absorption in a task, aka ‘The Zone’.

The Zone

At times, we are sucked into what we’re doing to such an extent that we forget about everything else. Our sense of time is lost, even our sense of self can disappear. We become a ball of energy intent on succeeding at whatever it is we’re doing. It’s what a guitarist enters when shredding their way through an improvisation, or an NBA player who gets on such a roll they just can’t seem to miss.

"Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz."

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined this state “flow”, or what is colloquially known as “the zone”. He moved to the US when he was 22 to explore what made people happy, and time and again it appeared that people were happiest during these experiences.

It’s not only happiness that follows from flow. It’s also been associated with greater wellbeing as well as enhancing motivation and productivity. We also generally experience deepened breathing and a slowed heart rate. And of course, increased levels of flow have been linked to higher levels of creativity.

One characteristic of flow is the sensation of effortless attention. At most times we are required to invest some level of effort to keep our mind on task, but not here. In flow we give up control and simply “go with the flow”. We also lose what’s often termed our inner critic, that voice in the back of your head constantly criticising what you’re doing.

In flow we are achieving more while thinking less, and this benefits our creative muse. Thinking is rigid and predictable when we apply too much effort. Relaxing the mind and reacting to our task intuitively often leads to surprising results.

But the key here is that we need to be fairly experienced to reap the benefits. An unskilled guitarist isn’t going to hit the right notes whether they’re acting on intuition or trying to recall old music theory classes. There is an ideal balance between ability and task difficulty that needs to be met for flow to occur. On the easier side of this balance lies boredom, and on the other side frustration.

This all makes flow a rather difficult state to enter on purpose. We must first gain experience and refine our intuitions, then we must engage in a challenge that is on the outskirts of our abilities.

Spanish guitarist, Paco de Lucía is a great example of flow state.. Source: veojam.com


It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to do, if you’re going to do anything, you will need some level of motivation. While that should be obvious enough, it appears that when it comes to creativity, the reasons behind your motivation play a significant role.

Motivation can be divided into extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is the carrots and sticks, or rewards and punishments. When we do something because we want to be paid for it, we’re acting on an extrinsic motivator. Intrinsic motivation arises within the individual, it’s the desire to do something for the sake of doing it.

It’s the intrinsic type of motivation that lends itself to greater creativity. American academic Teresa Amabile found that writers were more creative when spurred by intrinsic motivation, and has used this and other findings to define the Intrinsic Motivation Principle of Creativity. She writes, “people will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself—and not by external pressures”.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation appear to promote different styles of thought. Gestalt psychologist Carl Dunker created the candle problem, which was published posthumously in 1945. In this task, puzzlers are given a box of thumbtacks, a candle, and a book of matches, with the goal of fixing the candle to the wall in a way that when lit, the wax won’t drip onto the table below.

Solving the problem requires breaking free from what’s been called functional fixedness, a cognitive bias that limits a person to use objects only in a particular way. When looking at the box of thumbtacks, we have to recognise that the box is not just a container but a piece to the puzzle. When tacked to the wall, the box can support the candle and collect the wax.

“People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself—and not by external pressures.”

Teresa Amabile

In 1962, Sam Glucksberg made the puzzle more interesting. He decided to pay half of his participants for a correct answer while the other half would receive nothing. He then split these two groups in half again, with some people finding their thumbtacks inside the box and the other half outside.

Leaving the tacks outside makes it obvious the box is not simply a container. Less creative thought is then required to solve the puzzle. When this is the case, the monetary incentive propels participants to finish the problem faster than those not getting paid. However, when the tacks are inside the box, the money incentive becomes a disadvantage, those not getting paid find the solution quicker.

Extrinsic rewards appear better suited to straight-forward, logical type processes. Creative processes are better served by intrinsic motivation. But things don’t stop there. In some situations, introducing extrinsic rewards to an activity that is usually performed without them can erode what intrinsic motivation there was to begin with.

In a 1973 study, children who showed interest in a toy were split into three groups: one was told they would now be rewarded for playing with the toy, another was not told but surprised by a reward, the third was told nothing and rewarded nothing. When the rewards stopped, the children in the first group stopped playing with the toy, despite having enjoyed doing so for nothing before the experiment began.


Even the best artists get stuck staring at a blank page or canvas. There are times when no good ideas surface, no solution to our problem. At these moments we need more than motivation, we need inspiration. There are a few ways to go about finding it.

"Give me two hours a day of activity, and I'll take the other twenty-two in dreams."

Salvador Dalí

One method is to turn your back on what you were doing and find something unrelated to occupy your mind. During this downtime you are likely to find your mind going for a wander. While daydreaming sometimes gets a bad rap, viewed as something only lazy people engage in, there are several advantages for a mind free to disconnect from the real world.

Chief among them is creative incubation. Taking some time off from a problem lets it stew in the back of the mind, outside your awareness while still undergoing some level of processing. At a later time, if all goes to plan, you might find one of those mystical a-ha moments while you’re in the shower, as it did for the writers and physicists in this study.

Oddly, it turns out that simple undemanding tasks facilitate mind wandering. Having a shower, washing the dishes, mowing the lawns, are better activities for mind-wandering than sitting and staring out the window. Sometimes the best way to find inspiration is to do something slightly boring.

Dalí went a little deeper into the dream world to find his inspiration. He would sit in his chair to take a nap while holding keys in his hand. An upside-down plate was positioned below the keys so that when we would drift off into a gentle slumber, he would drop the keys, make a loud noise, and wake himself up. With luck, whatever dream was circling his mind fresh at that point would provide fodder for his work thereafter.

'Dream caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate a second before waking' by Salvador Dalí, 1944. Currently exhibited at Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Another form of inspiration can come in the form of psychedelics. Many artists have used drugs to manipulate their minds in weird and unexpected ways. As the stigma around certain drugs softens, research has begun exploring the effects they have in more rigorous ways. So far, it seems, psychedelics have a significant positive effect on creativity.

One study exploring the effects of psilocybin mushrooms on personality traits found that neuroticism decreased while extraversion and openness increased. Openness is precisely what it sounds like—a willingness to try new things and think in different ways, and it’s been linked to creativity, aesthetic appreciation, and imagination.

Finding Your Creative Zone

Despite what some people lament, we are all creative, it is a defining feature of being a human. We can think in different ways and combine percepts in strange ways that could never happen in reality. While creativity comes in many shapes and sizes, and the research has barely scratched the surface, it is reassuring to know that we already have a few techniques to spark a flurry of ideas.

Article written by Sam Brinson