Creative Thinking: What is it and how to improve it

Creative thinking is the ability to think in new and original ways. It means straying from traditional ideas and creating alternative solutions. Learn about the different scientific discoveries involving creative thinking and how we, as humans, are able to come up with new and original ideas.

Creative Thinking
Creative Thinking

A physics student was asked: “How could you use a Fortin barometer to measure the height of a building?”

The student answered: “Go to the roof of the building with a really long rope. Tie the barometer to one end and hang it off the side of the building. Make a mark in the rope when the barometer hits the ground, and then measure the distance. The height of the building will be the length of the rope from the barometer to the mark.”

The student’s answer wasn’t wrong, in fact, it could easily provide an accurate answer, and he was able to do it without using any physics at all. The teacher gave the student another chance to answer the question properly, using the formulas they had learned in class. A few minutes went by, and the student hadn’t written anything down. The professor later asked him if he didn’t know the answer, to which he replied, “I have a lot of answers, actually. I just don’t know which is the best”.

The student finally wrote an answer: “Climb to the top of the building and throw the barometer to the ground. Calculate the amount of time it takes for it to fall to the ground, and apply the distance and velocity formula. This will show you how tall the building is.”

The teacher asked what other answers the student had come up with. He said that he had a ton of other possible answers to the problem, none of which involved using the barometer for its traditional use. The professor asked the student if they knew how to use a barometer. He replied, “of course I do! But my teachers have taught me how to think out of the box”.

This is a great example of creative thinking. They say that this student was Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist who went on to with the Nobel Prize in Physics.

What is creative thinking?

We all have the potential to be creative. You might think that being creative means doing creative things, but a creative thinker doesn’t always end up in creative roles. You could think of creative thinking as taking an alternative way to get to the same answer. Creative thinking implies the use of lateral or divergent thinking. In other words, ignoring preconceived, “normal” ideas, and thinking of original, alternative ideas.

Humans have convergent thinking and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is used to bring together ideas. Divergent production abilities are those which are not guided by rules or conventions, but capable of generating new solutions to a problem. That is why divergent thinking is important for creative thinking.

Creative thinking is defined as personal, imaginative thinking which produces a new, novel and useful solution.

Creativity is the ability to make or do something new that is also useful or valued by others -Gardner

A consulting firm in the 70s-80s asked their clients to solve a 9-point puzzle. The goal was to connect all 9 dots using 4 lines, without lifting up the pencil, and without going over the same line twice. To successfully complete the task, you have to think outside the box!

We usually associate creativity to arts and leisure, but we use creative thinking in every task. You might not realize it, but using creative thinking in different situations can help you achieve better results in both mundane and important tasks. Lateral thinking can help you at work, but also comes into play when you’re at home or at the supermarket. You’ll see that improving your creative thinking will make it easier to write a report for your boss, cook a meal, and even help raise your children better.

4 stages of Creative Thinking

Creative thinking involves four stages:

1- Preparation

In this phase of creative thinking, the person has to formulate the problem and collect all the information needed to find new solutions. If after days, weeks or months of having done this and no solution is found, the person goes on to the next stage.

2- Incubation

During this stage of creative thinking, the person stops thinking about the problem directly and unconsciously the creative thinking process starts doing its job. Therefore, the contemplation about finding a solution to the problem is still going on while the thinker is busy doing other activities like reading, playing games, etc.

Boost Creative Thinking
Boost Creative Thinking

3- Illumination or Insight

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Insight as the power or act of seeing into a situation. In this stage of creative thinking, the creative ideas happen suddenly. It’s the light bulb illuminating or suddenly turning on like in cartoons. The obscure problem becomes clear and the solution is similar to “aha (eureka) experience”.

4- Verification

In the previous stage, we found the solution, however, this solution has to be verified to see if it adjusts to the formulated problem. Hence in this last stage evaluation of the solution is done. If the solution is not satisfactory the thinker will go back to creative process from the beginning. If it is satisfactory, the creative thinking process will be successful.

Neurophysiology and characteristics of Creative Thinking

Scientists John Kounios from Drexel University and Mark Beeman from Northwestern University have used fMRI machines to look into creative thinking.

  • Brain activity linked to visual processing shuts off 300 milliseconds before creative thinking (this is like closing your eyes to suppress and block out stimuli). This shows that creative thinking requires introspection.
  • Creative thinking is accompanied by a burst of activity in the right temporal lobe (right above the ear). The right temporal lobe is the area of the brain that is associated with distant space and time concepts. These links to past memories work with stimuli from the present, which favors new and original thinking.
  • Alpha waves extend from the right hemisphere to gray matter, which helps create associations. We usually see alpha waves when we are relaxed or close our eyes. The appearance of these waves is an important part of creative thinking. According to Martinez Otero “The insights…are related to moments where there is a change in alpha activity and little concentration”.

Wandering minds favors creative thinking. The times when we are most creative are usually when we’re most relaxed or distracted. The brain is able to organize which tasks it deems to be most important or complex and allows us to do simpler tasks without using many mental resources. This is why it’s important to find the time to let your brain relax and give it the opportunity to let your creative thinking get to work.

Characteristics of Creative Thinkers

  • Communicators: Having good communications skills is important since you need to express out of the box ideas. This requieres confidence and high self-esteem.
  • Open-minded: Being creative means you might meet people with certain restraints, therefore you have to be openminded to new ideas and to accept rejection.
  • Risk-takers: The same way you have to be open-minded, you have to take risks to prove your different creative ideas. These risks will allow you to reach intelligent and original solutions.
  • Knowledgeable: You have to be able to understand and think about different situations and this requiers general knowledge in order to see the full picture when facing a problem.
  • Flexiblility: The ability to adapt to new situations is basic when being creative. Having flexibility requires training your cognitive skills and brain training. CogniFit helps you train planning, inhibition and other abilities that can help you develop creative thinking.

10 exercises to Boost Creative Thinking

Everyone has the potential to be creative, but it seems that creativity usually sparks at an IQ of about 120. But don’t worry! Creative thinking can be trained and improved. Below you’ll see 10 ways to boost your creative thinking and create new and original ideas in no time.

creative thinking
Boost creative thinking

1. Everything goes in creative thinking

People with developed creative thinking don’t believe in “bad ideas”. This ability to take any idea as a possible solution is called cognitive “dis-inhibition”. They don’t allow for internal judgment, and they let their creativity flow. Doing this means relaxing the filter that says “yes” or “no” to your ideas, like the study that Shelley Carson (Harvard) conducted.

Brainstorming allows us to propose ideas without judgment or fear of rejection- all ideas are good ideas, which allows us our ideas to flow freely. Researchers at the University of California saw that brainstorming allowed the participants to propose ideas that wouldn’t have been accepted in other settings, which shows that by creating an environment where creative thinking is encouraged, it is likely to thrive!

2. Relax

Creative thinking works better when you’re relaxed. The alpha waves that we mentioned before are present when we’re relaxed, and they’re the key to creative thinking. Allow yourself the time to relax and do some relaxing activities, like taking a nice bath or a long walk.

Psychologist Paulette Kouffman believes that water therapies, where you allow your body to float in a pool of Epson salt, increase creative thinking in university students. Also, monotonous tasks, like copying sentences, has also been shown to improve creative thinking, according to researchers at the University of Central Lancashire.

3. Distract yourself

Creative thinking works better when you’re not focusing all of your attention on one thing. Concentrating on a single task is helpful when you only have one task to work on, but ignoring other stimuli and not letting your brain “breathe” hurts the most creative part of the brain. Joseph Kasof, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, says that allowing some part of your mind to wander is linked to creative thinking.

While you may think of distractions as a bad thing, it can actually help you activate your creative thinking and make you more productive. For example, working in a noisy place might help creative thinking. A study at the University of British Columbia put this theory to the test by creating three different situations. The goal was to conduct a brainstorming session in different environments (quiet, normal, loud). The study shows that medium noise level, about 70 decibels, was most conducive to creativity. A loud environment will cause too much distraction, while a quiet place doesn’t allow the brain to distract itself enough. Try to work somewhere with moderate noise, like a cafe.

4. Be a kid again

Innovating is a must for creative thinking. As children, we never stop creating, imagining, and learning, but as we age, we lose this ability to favor rules and guidelines. When you’re stuck in a situation where you’re not sure what to do, ask yourself how a child might think about the situation. Experts Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin from the University of Cambridge say that the best way to think like a kid is to act like a kid. Bring the joy of playing back to playing.

There are many different ways for adults to “play”, and bringing games and activities into the office is a great start. Google is the gold standard for these types of business practices. The Google office has slides, Foosball, pools, and even indoor rock climbing to help its employees relax throughout the day.

5. Make a collage

Cut out pictures in magazines and put your ideas together to create something! Maybe make a plan before you start, so that once you’re “in the zone”, you can let your brain relax and let your hands work.

6. Socialize

Creative thinking requires that we use different perspectives to enrich our outlook on life. Surrounding yourself with people from different background and cultures help you expand your world outlook and help you create new ways of looking at the world.

Professor Epstein recommends not only making friends from different places, but visiting and getting to know places, things, foods, and traditions from cultures other than your own.

7. Don’t be afraid to fail

Creative thinking often started as a frustrated “there’s no way I can do this”, and ends in the “aha!” moment when you finally get the result you’re looking for. Don’t be afraid to look for answers in places you didn’t think you would find them, Creative thinking requires training, and if you’re just getting started, you need to be careful not to stress yourself out by looking for the perfect answer.

creative thinking

You might find that something that sounds like a great idea one night doesn’t seem so great in the morning. If this happens, don’t let it get you down. You’ll have to experiment until you get the answer.

8. Get some sleep

Don’t lose sleep over trying to find the right solution to a problem. Our brains need rest to work well, and creative thinking requires that our brains be working as well as possible. Ullrich Wagner from the University of Lübeck (Germany) suggests between 6 and 8 hours of sleep a night.

Harvard Medical School psychologist Diedre Barrett saw that students who were well-rested performed better while studying. She also saw that students who thought about the problem they wanted to solve before going to sleep had an easier time coming up with answers when they woke up.

9. Be happy

Being happy favors creating thinking more than sadness. People often think that artists are inspired or write about sad memories or melancholy events, but that’s not really true.

Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi from Claremont University discovered that happiness and creativity work together, and Karen Gasper from Penn State University has argued that when we’re happy, we’re more likely to associate words, diagnoses, or problem solve, while sadness has the opposite effect.

If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense if you think about someone suffering from depression. They are likely to have a short attention span, and have a hard time focusing on one problem or through. Happiness is key to creative thinking.

10. Walk to activate creative thinking

Exercise, in general, has been shown to improve creative thinking, but walking is the most conducive.

A study at Stanford University was set up to test how walking positively affected creative thinking. Four different conditions were created: walking on a treadmill, sitting and looking at a blank wall, walking outside, or sitting outside. Researchers then tested each subjects lateral thinking, or the ability to create new and original ideas, and saw that those who were part of either “walking” group had higher creativity levels than those who were part of the “sitting” group.

Any questions? We’d be happy to answer. Leave me a comment below! 🙂


Cropley, A. (2006). In praise of convergent thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 18(1), 291–404.

Gardner, H. (1993). Creative minds. New York: Basic Books.

Kaufman, J. & Baer, J. (2006). Creativity and reason in cognitive development. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kim, K. (2006). Is creativity unidimensional or multidimensional? Analysis of Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 18(1), 251–259.