To recruiters’ ears, “out of the box thinking” is magic, no cliché. Even when the job you are applying for is mostly routine, with a protocol that makes you fear some robot taking your place not too far in the future. But, this is with good reason—research by Nesta, a UK-based innovation research organisation, finds that it is creative jobs that will resist automation most successfully in the future. As it is, a fifth of the jobs today in the US call for the employee to have key creative skills. This doesn’t mean we are looking at a future where the only employment is in design or art or music or acting. What is means is that even routine employment, say, managing operations, is going to require that prosaic “out of the box” thinking. Now, creative thinking, you would assume, is innate—actually all “nature” with “nurture” playing just a facilitative role. That would mean all of us who are dour, process/protocol/reasoning-driven professionals will be shown the door, right? Well, not exactly. New research from the Queen Mary (University of London)—a public-funded research institution in the UK—says it may be possible to turn up an individual’s creative thinking. But, like all good things, it comes with a catch. It will require suppressing activity in the part of the brain that is involved in planning and reasoning and houses your working memory. Earlier, in a research by Australian scientists—as per a report in The Guardian—small amounts of electrical stimulation to the brain made participants three times more likely to solve puzzles than those who had not received the electrical stimulus. The Queen Mary research takes the Australian research further.
Sixty participants, 47 of whom were women, were given on-screen computer puzzles with “matchsticks” that had to be moved to create and equation that was correct. Say, the problem IV = III + III would require a person to move one matchstick in the LHS (left-hand side of the equation) to read as VI = III + III. The Queen Mary research, published in Scientific Reports, gave the subjects four different types of matchstick problems that would require creative thinking. The hardest one would involve junking fixed ideas, such as “mathematical signs can’t be morphed”—the solution, in this type, to IV = III + III would be III = III = III. It might seem like what a child would offer as solution, at the first instance, but getting there is difficult for a brain conditioned to think of mathematical figures and symbols as immutable. After attempting to solve 12 such matchstick problems, the subjects were split randomly into three groups and electrodes were placed on their scalps. The experiment banked on a non-invasive stimulation called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)—negative stimulation dulls neural activity while positive stimulation gives it a boost—given to the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—the area that controls reasoning and working memory. One of the groups received a brief dose of current, followed by 15 minutes of zero stimulation (this was called the “sham” stimulation). Of the other two, one received 15 minutes of negative stimulation while the other received positive stimulation. Upon being given a different set of problems that involved creative thinking, 32% of those who had received negative stimulation solved the toughest problems at the first instance, compared with just 5% for those who received positive or sham stimulation.
One of the co-authors of the study, Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, says suppressing reasoning led to the constraints over creativity to ease. It is perhaps that the right electrical stimulus caused the brain to rely less on the old rules, that are learned and derived, and instead “create” new rules that allow you to look at a problem in a radically different manner. But, the negative stimulation group struggled with the set of matchstick problems they had been given earlier, showing that the experiment jolted working memory. So, if your job needs you to be creative and juggle it with remembering thirteen other things, tough luck. Further research may, some day, tell us whether this is a trick of evolution—to offer a just chance for an individual’s survival if reasoning gets impaired.