creativity begins with perception

The October issue of the business magazine Fast Company, is the annual look at the “Masters of Design” –the designers, companies and ideas that are driving creative capital in corporations today. What neuroscience reveals about how we come up with new ideas is explained in an article titled “Rewiring the Creative Mind”, excerpted below.

“Creativity and imagination begin with perception. Neuroscientists have come to realize that how you perceive something isn’t simply a product of what your eyes and ears transmit to your brain. It’s a product of your brain itself,” says Gregory Berns, the author of the article adapted from his book Iconoclast. Some people see things differently. Literally. Creative people may be born that way, but we all can learn how to see things not for what they are, but for what they might be.

“Perception and imagination are linked because the brain uses the same neural circuits for both functions. Imagination is like running perception in reverse. The reason it’s so difficult to imagine truly novel ideas has to do with how the brain interprets signals from your eyes. The images that strike your retina do not, by themselves, tell you with certainty what you are seeing. Visual perception is largely a result of statistical expectations, the brain’s way of explaining ambiguous visual signals in the most likely way. And the likelihood of these explanations is a direct result of past experience.”

“That’s the secret behind the famous illusion above, by the Italian psychologist Mario Puzo. Theories of how the brain works say the perception that the lines are different in length comes from experience. In the real world, lines that converge at the top are generally parallel, but are receding into the distance. Railroad tracks, roads, and skyscrapers (seen from street level) all look like this. This view is so commonplace that your brain has become accustomed to transforming such converging lines into parallels. If you turn the figure upside down, that illusion disappears, because in reality, you almost never see lines that converge toward one another at the bottom and certainly not parallel lines that recede into the distance.”

“In order to think creatively, you must develop new neural pathways and break out of the cycle of experience-dependent categorization. New insights come from new people and new environments–any circumstance in which the brain has a hard time predicting what will come next.”