This month is Science Federation Ireland’s Science Week, and we are really pleased to have been chosen to help inspire students around Ireland with the wonders of science. Braintastic! Science will be popping up Galway, Limerick and Sligo, delivering our spectacular science shows in schools to over 6000 students, and we are also taking part in SFI’s online Primary Science Shows. You can watch Susie in the studio here, and we have also provided a number of brain teasers, which you can see on SFI’s twitter feed. These are designed to encourage creativity and problem solving- two abilities vital for careers in STEM. So I wanted to take this opportunity to explore these topics. What is creativity? How can scientists measure it? And what is going on inside the creative brain?
Creativity actually isn’t as mysterious as it seems- a creative idea is one that is novel (i.e. no-one else has thought of it) and useful, or valuable. What exactly valuable means is different depending on what area you are working in- the value of art, for example, is subjective, while if you are looking at creativity in problem solving, it might be much clearer whether a proposed solution works!
There are two main elements to creativity, and both are important for the creative process. The first is divergent thinking. This is where you come up with lots of ideas, as quickly as possible. Then, you have to whittle them down, to find the most appropriate, useful or novel ones- this is convergent thinking. These two processes use slightly different brain networks. Divergent thinking relies on the hippocampus- a brain region usually associated with memory. But it turns out that imagining possible futures involves similar brain processes, and regions, to remembering the past. And it’s by remixing elements from your memory and imagining them in different ways, using your hippocampus, that you can come up with these new ideas. Then, the frontal lobes step in, to sort through all these ideas and analyse which will actually work.
One question I get asked a lot is whether some people are just more creative than others, or whether you can improve creativity in problem solving with practice. As with most skills, it seems there is an element of both. Some people do seem to have a talent for divergent or convergent thinking (I am much better at logic puzzles than I am at tasks involving coming up with lots of unusual ideas!). But there is also evidence that to be creative in a field, it helps to be an expert in that field. To be a great, creative painter, you first need to know the basics of how to use brushes and paint. To be a creative musician, you first need to learn how to play. And to come up with amazing, creative insights in science, you first need to learn the basics of your field.
When I interviewed creativity expert Professor James Kaufman (University of Connecticut), he told me that he believes everyday creativity can be developed & improved:
“I think that with enough effort, time, practice and revisions, I think everybody has that potential”
This isn’t really surprising, knowing how flexible and changeable our brains are. We have the amazing privilege of brains that change based on our experiences, so we can tailor them to become better problem solvers, artists or scientists- whatever we have a passion for!
So if you’d like to test out your divergent thinking skills, and practice using creativity in problem solving, why not head to the SFI website, and have a go at our Braintastic! Brain Teasers.
We’d love to hear how you and your students got on, so do drop us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or tag us on social media @BraintasticSci.