Creativity is about associations

Recent research into creativity and innovation among early hominids suggests that technological innovation became possible with larger brains and an expanded prefrontal cortex, which allowed them to make more associations between ideas and then more complex connections between these ideas. Creativity in modern humans results from the exact same process.

In its essence, creativity is the production of a new idea that results from a new combination of existing ideas.

The Reese’s example

A simplistic depiction of this phenomenon is perfectly captured in a long-running series of TV commercials for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. One stranger eating chocolate inadvertently collides with another who happens to be holding an open jar of peanut butter. Predictably, the chocolate lands in the peanut butter and by contrived chance, the pair has created a new taste sensation. This chocolatey treat in the familiar orange wrapper is the innovation that brings in over $500 million in annual sales for Hershey’s.  Even the slogan “Two great tastes that taste great together” perfectly encapsulates the fundamental principals of association resulting in creativity and leading to innovation.

Most innovations that dominate the material world around us are the result of associations of pre-existing ideas, objects or concepts.  Even the motor car as we know it today came about as various inventors experimented with combining motors of all types with wheeled vehicles.

Banks of ideas

Given this principle, it is obvious that creativity and the innovation that follows is only possible when associations can be made.  The richer the bank of potential ideas to associate, the better the chances of engaging in creative thinking.

Deposits to this bank can be new experiences, knowledge, suggestions, observations, and emotions, to name a few.  It makes sense then that people with a greater potential for creative thinking are those who are continually confronted with new and diverse experiences. Inversely, individuals who stick to familiar and well-worn routines will think fewer new thoughts and will have less data for new associations and ultimately less creative potential.

A simple rule for increasing creative potential: expose yourself to as many new situations as possible. 

Diversification of types of associations

While we can increase the number of associable thoughts in our brains, we can also diversify the nature of the associations. Most individuals think in certain patterns and those patterns differ from person to person.   Interaction, discussion and brainstorming force us to connect ideas and create associations in ways that we could not without this interaction.

People from different cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds will express different ideas in different ways. This is also true when it comes to differences in education and socioeconomic status, so while a person’s creative potential is enhanced through more experiences and more diverse experiences, so is it enhanced through interaction with a greater diversity of people.

A Harvard Business Review article examining the state of creativity and innovation in America claims that the golden age of creativity in the US started right after the end of WWII.  It argues that a booming economy, openness, and massive waves of immigration allowed the US to attracted talented people who set about a frenzy of creative thinking and innovation.  Statistics prove the authors right, but their explanation misses one key factor: the influx of people from all over the world brought not just talent but also unprecedented diversity of people converging in one country.  The richness of so many different experiences, perspectives, religions and languages contributed immensely to the bank of possible new associations.I

Another simple rule to increase creative potential: interact with a diversity of people.