The Social Spark: How Conversation Triggers Creativity and Insight
January 30, 2018 | Karen Nestor
The sudden flash of insight that comes in an aha moment brings a sense of satisfaction that humans have valued since mythic times, when Archimedes shouted “Eureka!” after discovering a solution to a real-world problem. Such moments change individual lives and also provide breakthroughs in the world of work. St. Paul reinvented his life when he was knocked off his horse. Sir Isaac Newton theorized gravity when he saw an apple fall. Tchaikovsky said, “Generally, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. . . It takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches and leaves, and finally blossoms.”
Psychologists describe aha experiences as times of intense insight. In their book, The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain, John Kounios and Mark Beeman define insight as “the sudden experience of comprehending something that you didn’t understand before.” As with so many powerful human traits, the question is whether we can nurture this kind of creativity in individuals.
Popular business literature usually emphasizes solitude or reflection as a way to increase creativity by nurturing aha experiences. But this focus on the individual may miss an important point: social connections also create a hospitable and powerful environment for creative thought.
MRI experiments have found that an aha moment lights up the same part of the right brain that reacts when someone is engaged in comprehending a story. I too have experienced aha moments – and have witnessed them in others – when discussing a piece of literature lights a spark of complicated understanding that changes my perspective on something important.One Books@Work participant who works on the shop floor in a manufacturing plant described how stories can change our understanding of the world around us. While discussing Hemingway, she began to “read the story behind the story.” Suddenly, she saw her relationship with the men she supervised in a new way: “Honestly, it’s shocking. It’s there. It’s like Wow! You guys aren’t telling me everything, are you? I am shocked at how the [men] have looked at it differently than me. In our discussion, I’ve gone, Aha! Wait. I’ve never looked at it like that!”
Kounios and Beeman assert that insight often emerges from a break in the action that seems unrelated to the insights that later emerge. Rather than in moments of analysis or focused work, aha moments occur more often in conversations that unexpectedly connect something unusual or unfamiliar to important issues. When we think about a situation that occurs in a story, we have the opportunity to change our mindset about things that occur in our lives.
In a recent Books@Work session with police officers and members of the community they serve, an officer had an aha moment about his personal work history during a discussion about Chinua Achebe’s short story “Dead Men’s Path.” In the story, an ambitious young man named Obi becomes the new headmaster of an African school. But in executing his vision for the school, Obi ends up alienating the local priest and villagers who surround it. Upon reading the story, the officer shared that he, like Obi, was once too zealous and too focused on rules and regulations. In the session, the officer acknowledged the role of his former partner, also in the room, played in helping him to see the nuance he needed to adopt as he matured in his role.
For another participant in the room, Obi’s experience served as an important mirror, but triggered her own reflections of balancing new ideas with old traditions. She could see that Obi was well-intended, as she was when she took over a team in her work. But she also recognized in the story the need to communicate new initiatives and procedures with patience.
We don’t always get the results we want from sticking to our usual work processes. But solitude or a change of scenery may not be sufficient in triggering creativity; sometimes we just need a space and an opportunity to interact with others, to share ideas and hear new perspectives. Often, social connection is the best incubator for the kinds of innovative ideas that transform our lives.
Image: Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, Sparks (III), 1906, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org
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In more than four decades as an educator, Karen Nestor has taught at every level from early childhood through graduate school. Karen is a member of the Board of Books@Work.