Be a more creative problem-solver: Unlearn what you know


Overview of how the brain works, and factors that influence the creative process.

Creativity and innovation have become common place. But, paradoxically, there seems to be great confusion around both terms to the extent that ‘definitions about these terms vary widely’ (Kaufman and Sternberg, 2010). In some cases, creativity and innovation are used almost interchangeably (Berns, 2008; Seeling, 2015), while in others creativity and innovation are clearly described as different terms. This lack of clarity and, sometimes, misuses of the terms motivated me to gain a better understanding. These are my working definitions of the terms:

  • Creativity: ‘The interaction among aptitude, process and environment by which an individual or group produces a perceptible product that is both novel and useful as defined within a social context’ (Kaufman and Sternberg, 2010).
  • Innovation: The development and implementation of an idea or solution that must be used beyond experimental conditions (e.g. a lab); it should have a commercial element and value to others. An innovative idea does not necessarily have to be creative or novel, it can simply involve ‘small tweaks to existing processes, products or interactions’ (Shawn Hunter).

In short, both concepts are related but refer to different things. Creative ideas go beyond the right solution; they are original ideas (sometimes described as the second or third right answers), but not necessarily innovative. In most cases, you do need creative thinking to achieve innovative solutions, although you can innovate by just making a small change if a third party finds that change valuable. Innovation occurs only if one (or various) ideas get executed and implemented, and that becomes business success.

Now that we have shed some light on the differences between creativity and innovation, let’s have a closer look to the former. To some extent, as designers we are seen as artists, and the word creativity sounds highly familiar to us. But what does a creative idea involve? Are we actually thinking creatively? Can everyone one be creative?  

Berns (2008) describes a creative person as an iconoclast: a person who challenges assumptions and beliefs, and ‘does something that others say can’t be done’. He sees creative people as different people, because their brains respond to the following functions in a different way:

  • Perception: seeing the same things as everyone else but putting aside assumptions to see with different eyes and through different lenses
  • Fear: not being afraid of uncertainty or public ridicule
  • Social intelligence: being able to sell or convince others of their different ideas

In line with Berns, Kaufman and Sternberg (2010) describe creativity as a process involving the definition and redefinition of schemas or frames (i.e. knowledge constructions or structures). Thinking creatively involves breaking patterns, rediscovering what we have learnt so far, looking beyond what we think we know, and expressing those thoughts aloud. Various internal and external factors (here and here) play a key role in encouraging and hindering creative thinking, but what is the role of our brains in this equation? 

Energy is a limited resource

Interestingly, the brain can be described as lazy in the sense that it tends to look for short-cuts to help use little cognitive energy in efficient ways. Technically, this is not an act of laziness but a natural response to economise energy: the brain has a fixed amount of energy to perform a wide range of functions. Familiar stuff (e.g. memories, habits) does not require the brain to invest much cognitive energy, because we have already developed frames to make sense of those situations. On the other hand, when we encounter something new or unfamiliar the brain needs to create those frames from scratch, using larger amounts of cognitive energy.

When we are trying to solve a problem, we normally first rely on our stored frames to find the answers and come up with solutions. This is the strategy the brain follows to consume less energy, and this is why, in many cases, we are reluctant to keep looking for an answer or a solution once we have found one that works: we would need to use additional energy in the creation of yet another frame.

Going back to the beginning

Children are ‘naturally draw upon imagination and curiosity’ (Seelig, 2015). Consequently, using von Oech’s (2008) word, they have less locks and are more creative than adults. To some extent, the more educated we are, the more restricted our imagination is, and the more self-conscious and judgemental we become. Our educational system is based on the concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, teaching us rules about the world, and how to make connections in response to a ‘right answer’. As a result, we all learn a conservative way of thinking and finding pattern to avoid mistakes, errors and failures.

Naturally, to deal with every day stuff in an efficient way (i.e. minimal energy use), the brain creates ‘routine thought paths’ (von Oech, 2008). These paths are our daily patterns and habits: all those things we do since we wake up until we go to sleep (e.g. brush teeth, have breakfast, how we go to work, etc.). We perform these activities and approach situations in the same way, most likely, following the same steps everyday. Once we have learnt a process, adopted a perspective or are comfortable doing something in a certain way, it becomes ingrained into our unconscious part of the brain (i.e. frames are created and stored), and it is hard to change (i.e. new frames would need to be created) unless the situation forces us to do so. If we did have to experience change because our current approach doesn’t work anymore or we need to improve a situation, we could acquire new knowledge to create new frames, or recycle stored knowledge (e.g. look for different ways to connect old ideas) to re-frame old frames. For von Oech (2008), new ideas are discovered, when we shift ‘the contexts in which we think about’ the knowledge we have.

To some extent, we are all prisoners of familiarity. Thinking creatively implies to break our conservative ways of seeing and thinking. To enhance creativity, we should learn from children’s curiosity and lack of fear to ridicule and making mistakes. In other words, we need to un-educate ourselves to ‘unlearn what we know’ (von Oech, 2008).


– Berns, G. (2008) Iconoclast. A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently. Harvard Business Review Press
– Kaufman, J.C. & Sternberg, R.J. (2010) The Cambridge handbook of creativity. Cambridge University Press
– Seelig, T. (2015) A Crash course on creativity. HarperOne
– von Oech, R. (2008) A whack on the side of the head: How You Can Be More Creative. Grand Central Publishing


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