I just came from a short vacation to Bermuda. Speaking of vacations, what would we do without them? I find it exceptionally annoying when graduate students or postdocs refuse to take them, which might sound strange to some of you, especially if you think that professors are all about driving people mad in the lab. If you subscribe to this view, I point you to the following paper (this work should be read by everyone):
The authors make a point about two distinct processes that lead to creative thinking. There is this fast system-I, which produces intuition. There is also the more deliberate system-II, which is more analytical and leads to what we call “reasoning”. The point of this paper by Scheffer and colleagues is that the two systems are stimulated under different conditions.
System-I works unconsciously and is based on instantaneous associations, whereas system-II keeps it all in check and modifies the results coming from system-I. Here is the problem: traditional work expectations overemphasize system-II, which makes some sense if you think that decision making is all about rationality. This is wrong.
Unstructured associative thinking is critical to creativity because our web of associations is extremely complex. The authors provide a great example: “banana” is linked to “fruit”, to “yellow”, to taste, and so on. Once you have triggered one idea, others are activated and cause ripples through your mind web. It turns out that the same person would be better or worse at generating remote associations based on his/her mood and state of mind. A cheerful state tends to result in novel associations. Because intuitions arising from system-I are often wrong, there certainly needs to be a substantial contribution from system-II. But not too much… Apparently, Feynman deliberately tried to stay away from knowing previous explanations for various phenomena he had been interested in.
In closing, there is scientific evidence that suggests that creativity is directly related to our ability to trigger associations between unrelated items (and we may not even anticipate in advance which ones they happen to be). For that one needs to be relaxed. Going for a nice walk in the woods could be way better than staying in office (or lab).