The Messiness of Imagination

– Andy Wade –

deskYes, that’s a picture of my desk. If you read my last post about the mess in my garage you might be expecting a similar article here. But you won’t find it! The mess on my desk is quite different from the mess in my garage and that’s a good thing. In fact, I have studies to back me up!

To be honest, it’s difficult to find tools in my garage and it’s not safe to move around in there. But on my desk, as messy as it appears, I know where things are and, if I put them away, file things neatly in drawers, I’ll be lost!


I’ve lamented this state of affairs. I’ve heard it’s not the most efficient approach to life. But it works for me. Happily I ran across this article the other day, part of which read:

Environments have historically played a major factor in how creative our minds are. For example, when he was trying to create the first polio vaccine, medical researcher and virologist Jonas Salk went to the monastery at the Basilica of Assisi in Umbria, Italy and explained in his later days that this environment change helped contribute to the discovery. It doesn’t necessarily take such a massive change to prompt creativity; rather, the key to a more creative state of mind can be found right at our desks.

The article went on to cite a CAVEAT (I would have been happy just stopping with the words above!)

“When you’re generating ideas and concepts, it could help to have a messier desk. However, when you’re trying to be productive, getting a specific task accomplished, or simply need to execute on a creative concept, cleaning your desk can “trade in” your creativity for efficiency.”

OK, I know this one from practice too. The reality is that when I’m working on paying bills, figuring out taxes, or implementing some grand plan, I move my operations out to the dining table (much to my wife’s concern). I need a big, clean space to operate, to sort out all the pieces and put them in the right order. For this reason, the folks over at CREATING SPACE FOR IMAGINATION

All this got me wondering about what else in our environment stimulates, or dulls, the creative juices. Belle Beth Cooper suggests that we need to pay attention not just to the things in our environment but to the sounds and temperature as well. She speaks about the three parts of our brain that must make connections for the creative process to flow:

  • The Attentional Control Network helps us with laser focus on a particular task. It’s the one that we activate when we need to concentrate on complicated problems or pay attention to a task like reading or listening to a talk.
  • The Imagination Network as you might have guessed, is used for things like imagining future scenarios and remembering things that happened in the past. This network helps us to construct mental images when we’re engaged in these activities.
  • The Attentional Flexibility Network has the important role of monitoring what’s going on around us, as well as inside our brains, and switching between the Imagination Network and Attentional Control for us. (IBID, for those keeping score)

Basically, creative ideas are just our brains making connections between information we’ve gleaned from the world around us. Our brains are simply taking old information and mashing it together in new ways to form new ideas. I like to think of the brain as a nueron supercollider.  In fact, recent studies are calling into question the whole concept of left-brain/right-brain thinking. Last year on the Scientific American blog, Scott Kaufman writes:

Scientific AmericanThe latest findings from the real neuroscience of creativity suggest that the right brain/left brain distinction is not the right one when it comes to understanding how creativity is implemented in the brain.* Creativity does not involve a single brain region or single side of the brain. Instead, the entire creative process– from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification– consists of many interacting cognitive processes and emotions. Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task. Importantly, many of these brain regions work as a team to get the job done, and many recruit structures from both the left and right side of the brain. In recent years, evidence has accumulated suggesting that “cognition results from the dynamic interactions of distributed brain areas operating in large-scale networks.”

But for “dynamic interactions of distributed brain areas operating in large-scale networks” to happen effectively, the environment around us is important. I would encourage you to read Belle Beth Cooper’s article in its entirety, but here’s her quick summation:

  1. Sound:moderate noise levels increase processing difficulty which promotes abstract processing, leading to higher creativity. Or, in other words, when we struggle just enough to process things as we normally would, we resort to more creative approaches.”
  1. Temperature: “A study from Cornell University tested different office temperatures at a large Florida insurance company and found the following: When temperatures were low (68 degrees or 20 degrees Celsius) employees made 44% more mistakes than at optimal room temperature (77 degrees or 25 degrees Celsius).”
  1. Lighting: Research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology looked at the difference in creativity levels in brightly-lit and dimly-lit environments over six studies. The research found that dim lighting helps us to feel less constrained and free to explore and take risks. Two of the studies tested this feeling in particular, and found that ‘darkness elicits a feeling of being free from constraints and triggers a risky, explorative processing style.’”
  1. Space: Mentioned earlier

I’ll write more about this in another post. But I’m wondering where you are most creative? Can you relate to the studies cited above? Or is your imagination stimulated better in a different kind of environment? What element of your environment do you feel most influences your level of creativity?