Solo and Group Creativity

Source: Fast Company, Mar 2017

The part of our brain that usually leads to our most creative ideas is called the “default mode network.” It’s what gives us the ability to relate seemingly unrelated concepts, to create novel connections, to see patterns where others see noise. This network works best when we daydream, when we’re quiet, when we’re involved in mindless tasks and are just staring off into space, not really seeing anything in the outside world. It works best when we sleep. In other words, when we’re alone.

It’s this part of the brain that the introvert camp (Cain et al.) tend to study most intensively and point to as the source of true creative inspiration. But it doesn’t work alone.

The extroverts (Sawyer and company) have a solid argument, too. One of the ways the default mode network functions is by being stimulated with new ideas. When you space out, your hippocampus starts to build new memories out of the raw material of your experiences. And when it does that, it has a tendency to throw random memory shards into the default mode network. These random shards of new memories act like sparks to the kindling of your default network, lighting the fire of what ultimately becomes a creative breakthrough.

And these new ideas most often become apparent to us in conversation with others, in a lively chat at the café, or in an argument in a bar.

the answer is that human beings are most creative when we get time by ourselves and then time with one another. The way to maximize creative potential is to flow between being alone and being in a group, and back again. When you’re alone, you’re essentially building a woodpile in your brain. Then, when you join a group, you’re igniting a shower of sparks that might light it up. Of course, you sometimes need to go be alone again in order to let the sparks you’ve started generating get close enough to the wood.

Alternating between solo time and collaboration seemed to encourage more creativity than either approach exclusively–very likely because that’s how our brains are built.

How can you put this into practice? Try brainstorming like this:

  1. Grab some large sticky notes and have everyone write down their ideas, one per note, for 10 minutes.
  2. Have them put their ideas on the wall, and everyone gets three minutes to look them over.
  3. When time’s up, everyone goes back and writes new ideas for five more minutes.
  4. The stickies go up, and everyone looks at them for two minutes.
  5. Then everyone goes back to being alone and writes out new ideas for just 90 seconds.
  6. The stickies go up one last time, and everyone looks at them for a final five minutes.
  7. Discuss.

You’ll be done in half an hour.

By breaking this process up into ever shortening intervals, you keep the creative energy flowing, maintain a structure, and allow everyone’s brains to hop between the two forms of thought that creativity requires. The time constraints force people to be concise and trust their instincts rather than overthink things. And on a more tactical level, Paulus discovered that by writing everything down, no one could dominate the group conversations, and no one had to wait their turn, only to forget their idea.

So the introverts and extroverts are both right, up to a point. What they really need is to sit down together and chat it out, then go be alone again, and rinse, repeat. They may find they have more in common than they’d thought–and probably more creative ideas, too.


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