Sept. 25, 2006
By Mary Reed
Why is it that so many of our best ideas occur to us while we're in the shower? The answer may be more scientific than you think -- and might encourage you to take longer showers.
Steven Berlin Johnson, author of "Mind Wide Open" and "Everything Bad is Good for You," shared his recipe for creativity with an audience of mostly printmakers when he delivered his keynote speech last night at Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium for the Mid American Print Council's conference "Forging Connections."
According to Johnson's research and thinking, creativity = time + persistence + accidents + diversity. Both individuals and organizations can encourage environments that foster creative thinking, he said.
On an individual level, Johnson learned while conducting an experiment on himself using magnetic resonance imaging technology, he believes that the brain functions best when it is showing the least activity. This brain state allows for good ideas to happen. Citing the oft-repeated idea that humans only use 10 percent of our brains, Johnson said "of course, the point is, we don't want to use 100 percent of our brains."
Hence, the shower, the airplane, sleep, surfing the Web and so on. Johnson refers to many of these activities as "productive wasting of time."
Bureaucracies, as you might imagine, often have a harder time fostering creativity. "The problem with a lot of workplaces," Johnson said, "is things are very finite and fixed … like 'to do' lists." What we need, he suggested, are "to mull" lists.
For example, when Johnson saw an overhead map of 19th century Hamburg, Germany, he couldn't help but notice the striking resemblance in shape to the human brain. He had been thinking about writing a book about the brain, or a book about cities. He got the "half-baked" idea to write about brains and cities – which many months later turned into the basis for his book, "Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software."
"The problem with good ideas," Johnson said in the context of a workplace bureaucracy, is that they are fragile and easily vetoed; they take time to evolve; they require multiple minds; and they usually arrive via accidents. But "the conventional light bulb theory doesn't work," he maintained.
Along the same lines, "the trouble with groups" includes their herd mentality; they are quick to veto; brainstorming sessions are too short; and they are usually not diverse enough in thought.
Some companies, however, have responded to these issues and encourage employees to create brain states that will foster creativity. Google, for example, has created a policy where engineers are required to spend 20 percent of their work time on personal technology projects. This system is credited with helping create Google News, Google Suggest, Google Financial and more.
The Internet, Johnson said, is home to "idea democracies" that invite a creative audience to help contribute to content.
Another example of an idea democracy is New York City's 311 service, an auxiliary to 911 that encourages citizens to call the city to report problems but also to ask questions and share information. Callers become "the eyes and ears on the street for the city government (where they identify) what are the pressing issues, what are the answers that the city needs right now."
Workplaces can encourage input from employees in a similar forum by having anonymous, online public suggestion boxes. "It's a low-risk way to float trial balloons," Johnson said.
Anita Jung, a former Ohio University School of Art faculty member and now associate professor of art at the University of Iowa, agreed that creativity manifests itself in down time or play time, especially in our "information saturated" culture. "I think (the keynote) is reflective of this larger conference to bring us together to bounce ideas off of each other -- this is doing what he's describing," she said.
Mary Reed is a writer for University Communications and Marketing.