When people are asked to “think creatively” they quickly get stuck in a rut; the subject they’re trying to think creatively about constrains their imagination and consequently their ideas are much less creative than they might otherwise be. In studies conducted by Thomas Ward at The University of Alabama, participants were asked to draw animals from an alien planet; nearly all the animals that people drew resembled animals from our own planet Earth. By thinking of “animals” they were led down a path of sensory organs, limbs and body shapes that broadly conformed to their existing experiences.
Your brain automatically calls up information relevant to what you’re thinking about; even the act of deciding not to think of something causes your brain to act against you, providing an image of the very thing you want to avoid.
Try this - don’t under any circumstances think of an elephant…
See? You probably now have a picture of an elephant in your head. Even if you don’t have an accurate memory to recall (say a pink elephant), your brain will usually construct a helpful picture for you to consider. And that’s not good for creative thinking.
If you want to change the way you think about a creative problem, then you need to change what you’re thinking about. You need to frame the problem in a new way so that your brain pulls different images from your memory helping you to see things differently.
One way to do this is to find the essence of the problem you’re trying to solve. Had the students in Alabama thought about “life” rather than “animals” they might have been more creative in their interpretation of the problem and therefore in the solutions they came up with. If thinking about the essence of the problem doesn’t generate enough new thinking, try broadening your thinking even further and see where that takes you.
Go wide; maybe “life” could lead you to “life on Mars”, leads to “Mars Bar” leads to “chocolate” then to the different states of chocolate (solid or molten) which might lead you to conceiving animals which have a fluid form depending on their environment…
In the end, remember that your creative output depends on where you start. So the first rule for thinking creatively is not to think differently, it’s to think of different things.