Step 2: Moving from unconscious to conscious levels


Inspired by Wallas, Osborn, and Sawyer models of creativity, students visualized their personal creative process and discussed their most common mental blocks at each step.

My previous post discussed the impact of coloring books in students’ creativity and argued for breaking the rules as the first step for reconnecting with creative thinking. This post examines having a deep understanding of your own mental processes as a second step. Cognitively, certain mechanisms (deactivation of pre-frontal cortex, increase of alpha waves) need to occur to activate the parts of the brain that generate what is called a cognitive state conducive to creative thinking (defocused attention, free associative thinking). Understanding these mechanisms and the practices that help deactivate the pre-frontal cortex and increase alpha waves can help achieve this cognitive state. Gaining awareness about these activities can help “manipulate” them to achieve “creativity on-demand” rather than waiting for a creative idea or insight to come while in the shower. In other words, this awareness helps move creativity from unconscious to conscious levels of thought.

Two ways to increase self-awareness and better understand personal creativity are (1) practicing metacognitive strategies and (2) gaining familiarity with the creative process. In my Creativity Seminar, students practice both; these are some learnings:

1. Metacognition: Metacognitive strategies (Starko, 2016) help think about thinking. While these strategies are often used in the context of education to teach students how to learn, they can also be used in the context of creativity as reflective activities to expand awareness about specific cognitive mechanisms needed for creative thinking. Each week, students embark in activities that “guide them to consciously, and with increasing independence, recognize when and how to employ cognitive strategies that work best for them across various situations” (Wilson and Conyers, 2016). Some of the activities encourage them to challenge social constructs by breaking assumptions, and to develop sensitivity by slowing down and “sensing” around, while others are more introspective activities asking students to pay attention to their thoughts and words used.


With different terminologies, the resulting process diagrams indicate common steps: (1) problem identification (what is the issue, problem origins, etc.), (2) break down problem, learn and examine, (3) brainstorm, generate ideas, (4) Incubate, take a break, reflect, (5) organize into categories, choose or combine ideas, select one or two ideas, (6) execute idea, make idea tangible, make stuff, (7) receive feedback, communicate idea, (8) revise, make changes.

2. Creative process: Early on in the course, students work on analyzing their own process and identifying core steps. In preparation for this session, students analyze three creativity models: Sawyer’s, Osborn’s, and Wallas’s, and watch MacGyver clips (one of my favorite shows!) . As a result, while each student process is depicted in a unique way, steps are labeled with similar terminologies. On a second layer of analysis, students indicated what specific mental blocks (as in A Whack on the Side of the Head) they frequently experience at each step. Some revealing data points and interesting findings are:

  • Three common mental blocks: Wanting to find “The right answer” seems to be a highly common mental block towards the end of the process amongst students as 14 out of 15 mentioned it. This was followed by thinking “That’s not logical” (12/15) and wanting to “Avoid ambiguity” mostly in the middle part of the process (9/15). Thinking that “That’s not my area” emerged as a common mental block at the beginning of the process (5/15), which could be an indicator of people’s apprehension to work on new or unfamiliar subjects.
  • Middle stage is the most challenging: Overall, 14 mental blocks were indicated at the beginning, 24 mental blocks specified in the middle steps, and 16 mental blocks described towards the end of the process. These results seem to support the fact that the middle part of the process is what demands more imaginative thinking and a cognitive state that allows free associative thinking while suspending judgement. Stop judging while generating ideas is one of the most challenging behaviors to relearn.

Scientifically speaking, 15 students is a small sample, but not surprisingly these results are in line with behaviors and responses from another much larger sample of students (133 students who took my creativity classes in the past) and expand prior creativity studies. To me, this data is extremely valuable: findings could be seen as areas where creativity classes could focus on and students’ behaviors that need further support.

– von Oech, R. (2008) A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative. Grand Central Publishing.
– Wilson, D & Conyers, M. (2016) Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
– Starko, A.J. (2016) Creativity in the Classroom: Schools of Curious Delight (6th Edition). Routledge.



  1. Pingback: Step 3: Using Analogies | Mapping Complex Information. Theory and Practice

  2. Pingback: Creativity ≠ Design | Bridging Theory and Practice

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