Creative Problem-Solving

It was one of my more philosophical days, so I googled “problems in today’s world” and a myriad of lists popped up. The gist of these lists were this: Lack of economic and employment opportunities, lack of food and water security, lack of safety and well-being, lack of education, religious conflicts, government accountability….

In other words, nothing new. I recently had a conversation with a friend about the science behind sleep. What happens when we sleep is actually crucial not only to the way we recover and rejuvenate, but also to how we learn. This sparked my interest and I began reading more, and I came across the connection between sleep and creativity.

Ultimately, if we sleep more, the world’s problems will be solved. But not because we will all be less grumpy! The way sleep affects creativity gives insight to creativity itself, which gives more insight to how problems are eventually solved (yes. Creativity is the act of problem-solving. If you’re solving problems, you’re creative. If you ever find yourself saying you don’t have any creativity, and that tapping into your creative side won’t affect your life, stop it.).

Dutch scientists Simone Ritter, Madelijn Strick, Maarten Bos, Rick van Baaren, and Ap Dijksterhuis all took part in conducting a study about aforementioned relationship between sleep and creativity. The study was interesting and you can sure check it out here, but what I liked was how they approached the definition of creativity. Here are some blips from the study:

“The creative process… entails the formation of associative elements into new combinations.”

“a creative idea has to be both useful and novel”

“Creative thought, like insightful behavior, often considers a mental restructuring of information, which in turn leads to the generation of novel associations between concepts”

Creative problem-solving is “the integration of unassociated information” with the original problem.

Psychologist Joanne Cantor writes that

Researchers looking inside the brain while people solve insight problems have noted that the areas of the brain that become active first are focused in a small area. But after a period of tight focus on the problem and just before the aha! moment occurs, they observe a state of brain relaxation, which loosens the tight focus and makes the brain more likely to make new and distant connections between previously unrelated areas. Relaxing the brain's focus then, seems to be essential for insight.

I didn’t want to pay for access to the Sleep Inspires Insight study, but luckily the abstract gave me the blips I needed:

“Insight denotes a mental restructuring that leads to a sudden gain of explicit knowledge allowing qualitatively changed behaviour”

“Sleep consolidates recent memories and, concomitantly, could allow insight by changing their representational structure.” 

Sorry about all the quotes. I was excited by the idea of new ideas coming from making new connections between old ideas. We have what we need, now we just need to make the right connection. The solution to violence? Self-sufficiency. The solution to an education gap? More trade schools. The solution to government transparency? Language immersion programs. All possibilities.

The Bauhaus was an institute of design in Germany in the 20s and 30s. It found a problem in the art world: that too few people had access to good art. Art, said founder Walter Gropius, existed in “complacent isolation.” They approached this problem in a few ways. First, they integrated everything. Gropius wrote in the school’s manifesto that “the ultimate goal of all art is the building!” The school was broken up into multiple different workshops. Students were instructed in all fields before they chose a specialization. Art wasn’t just paintings, but also woven tapestries, furniture, photography, and much more.

Second, they shifted the value of art from novelty to function. People can’t justify an expensive wall decoration, but everyone needs chairs. So why not make the chairs beautiful? This approach helped both the consumer and the artist. The manifesto says:

When a young person who senses within himself a love for creative endeavour begins his career, as in the past, by learning a trade, the unproductive “artist” will no longer be condemned to the imperfect practice of art because his skill is now preserved in craftsmanship, where he may achieve excellence.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you the geekery. These artists found an issue around which they built their success.

On a more personal level, if there’s a problem in our lives, there is probably a solution that we have access to, but just haven’t tried yet. My love Eric has found himself as a contingent worker for a big company that has money to burn and never-ending ladders to climb. Being some one not even considered as a full-time worker despite 50 hour weeks, Eric has of course had some discouraging weeks. Among his frustrations was a lack of official training of these contingent workers on the part of the company which left him feeling useless and burdensome for some time. His solution? He started compiling a survival guide for new workers with tips on how to get the some times tedious work done. Now he is being useful, and his action will forever change the experience of those after him for the better.

Here’s an exercise. Write out all the “problems” in your life. Mine would look like this: No job. No printing press. Unorganized. No sales at vendor show. No clientele. Bad cook. Kills all plants. Painful bunions. I’ll stop there before I get depressed.

Now, for 5 minutes, don’t let your pencil stop moving and consider each problem. This is called stream of consciousness. Write down every solution, good or bad, that comes to mind. They may be obvious at first. No job? Start over and get a new degree. But some times the obvious ones are out of reach for now. The idea would be to gradually draw that list down from the unobtainable, to that which you can start today. Here’s mine: No job? Start over and get a new degree…without going into debt. Earn money. Use current degree. Make a product that people want. Start with gifts and stuff you can use. Baby products with prints on them to make them yours. Post it. Share it. Start taking commissions. Use money to fund further projects. Expand inventory. Buy a press. Rent out press. Fund schooling.

You get the idea. Now I’m excited to start making those hand-printed diaper clutches! Happy problem-solving!