Natural creativity cycle
- 1 Creativity formula
- 2 Old school: creativity cycles
- 3 Natural creativity cycle
- 4 Neural aspects of the creativity cycle
- 5 Depression and positive thinking
- 6 Creative cycle control
- 7 Impact of schooling
- 8 Employing the creativity cycle
- 9 Tools
- 10 Summary: Natural creativity cycle
This text explains a simple formula for high creativity, good learning, and a happy mind. The picture explains how natural creativity cycle works. For details see the Neural aspects of the creativity cycle.
Figure: In the natural creativity cycle there is a regular interplay between the creative processes and the consolidation of knowledge. For high creativity and good learning, those processes must proceed unimpeded. Sleep must come naturally and should never be interrupted. Waking day should also have large blocks protected from interruption, multitasking, and stress. Starting with the creative morning explosion, seeds of activation (in red) get gradually converted into a big idea that emerges on the next morning. In the meantime, learning, reasoning, and creative activations reshuffle neuronal connections. New connections emerge, get strengthened, weakened, eliminated, or are consolidated for long term storage. All steps are essential for the emergence of the ultimate big idea. For details see: Neural aspects of the natural creativity cycle
Old school: creativity cycles
Understanding the natural creativity cycle is essential for productive brainwork and creativity. The web is populated with hundreds of articles about the "creativity cycle". Those articles explain what steps need to be taken to maximize creativity. The problem with a typical "creativity cycle" is that it has been artificially concocted by creativity "experts" who provide a rigid formula for decomposing the process into well-delineated stages such as preparation, analysis, creativity, development, implementation, etc.
Each of thus delineated stages require creativity per se. What "experts" call a "creative cycle" should rather be called a "project cycle" with no specific prescription for creativity.
The problem with this traditional approach is that it is motivational and intentional. To improve creative outcomes, we naturally look for simple steps that would encapsulate the best tools and the best strategies. However, creativity is hardly controllable. It is an intrinsic and highly autonomous process that arises in neural networks in the wake of exploration and problem solving. Instead of looking for specific steps towards an achievement, we should rather foster a healthy brain environment for enhanced creativity. The rest is up to the brain itself, hard work, and a random process that calls for a bit of luck.
The traditional approach to the "creative cycle" will not be too helpful in creative efforts because of two problems:
- each project stage requires creativity on its own
- creativity is highly unpredictable and cannot be micromanaged. Its randomness underlies its power. In a creative process, unexpected associations are the source of new value
Hereby, I suggest a simple formula for enhanced creativity which can be summarized as:
- respect the natural creativity cycle rooted in brain science, and
- keep working on the problem to solve.
You can use "project cycle" stages, if you find them helpful, or you can just improvise as you feel fit.
Natural creativity cycle
The natural creativity cycle is an interplay of neurological processes that occur in waking and in sleep. This natural cycle does not come with much advice that will boost your specific creativity. I only insist that all creative people need to protect the cycle from interference with drugs, distractions, or designer schedules that disrupt individual stages. The most delicate and the most often disrupted component of the cycle is sleep. Typical cycle violations would include morning alarm clock, evening alcohol, medication, or suppressing creativity with multitasking, stress, and disruptions.
The cycle begins with natural waking after a full night of uninterrupted and unmedicated sleep. It is essential that sleep occur in the optimum circadian framework. In simplest terms, it means going to sleep when sleepy, waking up naturally, going to sleep daily in a similar time frame, and waking up at sunrise or after sunrise under the influence of natural sunlight.
In the natural cycle, for biological reasons, the best brain performance occurs in the morning. This is the time when new ideas start germinating and when best creative learning takes place. Creative learning differs from your typical learning in that the creative process may interfere with the learning process. This may slow down learning while increasing its quality and outcomes. In creative learning, you learn the subject matter and supplement that learning with your own creative enhancement. In other words, while reading a book, in creative learning, you learn the content of the book and what you invent about the book!
Focus and creativity cycles
During the day, there will be two prime oscillations between the competing brain states of focus and creativity:
- circadian oscillation resulting from natural sleep-wake cycle with creativity maximized upon waking, gradual shift towards focused thinking, and ultimate waning of both functions in readiness for the next sleep cycle
- procedural oscillation in which learning and thinking interleave (e.g. focused reading of a sentence in a book, and then thinking about it)
The diagram shows a simplified focus and creativity stages for symmetry with nighttime sleep. In reality, they will be interleaved and wane at different speeds depending on the type of brainwork employed.
Creative and consolidation components of waking and sleep stand in procedural symmetry, but are controlled differently. While there is a dedicated NREM-REM sleep flip-flop control based on specific brain centers, the switch from creative mode to focused thinking is network-based and procedural. When there is a high-value association detected in a chaos of creative activation, it may trigger placing an attentive spotlight on the association, which in turn will result in suppression of all activity associated with the creative mode.
For example, an early morning brain, after a cup of coffee, might be buzzing with ideas in many areas of interest. However, once an important idea is hit, focused analysis will demand suppressing all other ideas to provide for "clear thinking" mode. The best lossless way for tackling the competition between ideas in creative mode is note taking. Depending on the brain and the context, ideas may be too precious to get lost by suppression with focused thinking. They should better be written down before working on them individually. Naturally, in a creative individual, the stream of ideas may be too rich to fully process, and a good balance between invention and implementation is necessary. The best way of achieving that balance is to supplement the brain with incremental processing tools, like SuperMemo. See: Tools.
Anyone who can afford a siesta should avail of the opportunity. Naptime sleep differs from nighttime sleep, however, it performs vital homeostatic function that restores both learning capacity and creative capacity back to baseline. In essence, biphasic lifestyle with a siesta component helps the brain execute two wake creativity sub-cycles in a single day. This is the first siesta bonus that can literally double the creative output of an individual.
Due to the different nature of naptime sleep and its regulatory mechanisms, there are many unknowns in reference to the impact of napping on creativity. We are not sure if evening creativity is qualitatively different from morning creativity. All differences we see may equally well be explained by the change of context (e.g. morning creativity might occur in the office, while evening creativity takes place over a desk at home, there is a change in the impact of light, social life, exercise, disruption and more). As the creative process is highly unpredictable, the possibility of employing two different brain modes might be highly beneficial. This can theoretically provide the second siesta bonus: a different creative mode.
A creative individual does not need to understand what happens in sleep. Those processes are automatic and not fully understood. It is enough to stick to the healthy sleep regimen and the brain will take care of itself in sleep. However, the structure of sleep and the interplay of NREM-REM stages helps one understand the dangers of sleeping in wrong hours, using alarm clock, drinking alcohol before sleep, taking sleeping pills (incl. seemingly harmless melatonin), etc.
Sleep begins with a gradual descent into deep sleep. The actual play of neural circuits in that stage is still be be elucidated. There are many competing models, however, a consensus seems to emerge that NREM sleep is the stage when memories are consolidated for long-term storage in cortical areas. This frees working memory structures, such as the hippocampus, for more learning while awake. Without this sleep stage, declarative learning is impeded. This means that in severe sleep deprivation, the things we learned and figured out during the day may become volatile and lost in part or entirely.
REM sleep is a type of sleep that starts dominating later in the night. This might be the most under-appreciated component of the natural creativity cycle. This is the type of sleep when the brain teaches itself of what it knows with the purpose of optimizing, simplifying, and generalizing knowledge. In simple terms, after REM sleep, the things we know, we start knowing better, and as a result, we start noticing new relationships in knowledge. This reshuffling of knowledge makes it possible to invent in sleep without lifting a finger. The whole process is automatic. All we need to do is sleep. We do not even need to go to sleep with the intention of inventing. It will happen whether we wish or not.
We commit two mortal sins that destroy brain's ability to come up with new ideas in sleep:
- we damage sleep structure with medication and
- we cut the REM-rich end of sleep with alarm clocks.
Before sleep, we often take medications, incl. sleep medications. Many people drink alcohol or even smoke weed to get themselves to sleep faster (or nicer). All those factors interfere with sleep structure, and REM sleep deprivation might be the most damaging effect. Without NREM sleep we feel awful. This is why few people resort to the extreme form of time-saving: all nighters. However, without REM sleep we are just dumber. This is hard to notice. The pain is less tangible. REM sleep seems dispensable to many. This is why a huge chunk of the population gets up in the morning with the assistance of the alarm clock. I explain elsewhere that in most cases we can move the sleep phase to earlier hours, and get rid of the alarm clock for good. However, I might as well be crying in the wilderness. Even those who read my texts keep saying that they just can't afford sleeping long (e.g. using "sleep makes me feel bad" myth as an excuse). Those who save time on sleep often trade their moods and smarts for minor savings in time which they later fritter away through messing around due to tiredness and lesser mental capacity.
Natural creativity cycle can easily lose most of its potency by our interference with sleep. Late sleep, stress, alcohol, and alarm clocks are chief culprits here. If you are stuck in a creative groove, if you cannot solve a difficult problem, read this text again, and obey the rules of the natural creativity cycle. A few simple steps maintained for a few weeks can easily double or quadruple your creative potential! The returns on investment are truly exponential!
Neural aspects of the creativity cycle
This picture presents the progression of the creativity cycle in neural terms. In the diagram, dots represent memories or concepts. Connections between the dots represent associations (between memories or concepts). Memories and connections are first formed or activated in red in the process of learning or spontaneous creativity. In successive octants of the diagram, memories and connections can get weakened or consolidated. Darker and thicker connections are most stable and most durable. The picture shows how, in a single cycle of day and night, a new big idea emerges. New connections may form via deterministic inference (thinking), or via random activations typical of creativity or REM sleep.
The same idea may be represented by a different set of neurons in a different part of the brain. The memory transfer may occur during a single cycle. This is why association of ideas in the diagram should not be understood as specific neural connections in the brain.
Octant 1: Morning creative explosion: The day in a natural cycle begins with a creative explosion. The semantic tree of knowledge gets expanded in a highly unpredictable manner. The most important part of that process is random activation of concept neurons associated with ideas. On a good day, the brain should be buzzing with ideas related to one's work, or ideas irrelevant. A cup of coffee can enhance this process. Good mood is also essential as it allows of unconstrained creativity. Modern scourges of bad sleep, stress, and haste are prime enemies of morning creativity. In the picture, the underlying existing knowledge tree is not shown. Only new foci of activity are shown in red. New associations are shown as links between activation centers (edges to the knowledge graph).
Octant 2: Focused thinking: Focused work is more conducive to deductive reasoning in which the knowledge tree gets expanded in a systematic manner. For example, a creative idea, that pops up randomly, may get associated with active leaves of the existing knowledge tree. Those associations will fill the gaps needed to complete the jigsaw puzzle leading to a solution to a problem. Focus and creativity are competitive, but they are not separated into big time-span octants as shown on the picture. Those are only used to illustrate the symmetry with the learn-and-burn cycle of the nighttime NREM-REM pattern. To get a better sense of the interaction of focus and creativity, check the right margin where creativity shows in yellow and keeps waning with waking, while focused time is shown in blue. The actual interplay is even finer and some of the processes occur in parallel. The darker the shade of blue, the more tired the brain, and the less likely it is to make progress in problem solving. Sleep comes to rescue to renew the cycle.
Octants 3-4 will mirror Octants 1-2 in individuals who take a recommended mid-day nap. Naps bring the homeostatic learning capacity back to the baseline. In other words, well executed naps eliminate the network fatigue effect. Biphasic sleepers benefit of maximum creativity, alertness and learning performance in two octants in a single cycle: Octant 1 and Octant 3. In monophasic sleepers, the evening creative mode is undermined by network fatigue, and most of the improved alertness and learning capacity comes from the impact of circadian variables on the brain. Even if you do not sleep at siesta time, the brain experiences an evening revival after the mid-day slump. The picture assumes that siesta has restored the full creative mode and the main difference between Octant 1 and Octant 3 is that, in the evening, the period of prolific creativity will build upon newly formed structures of knowledge inherited from the first half of the waking day.
Octant 5: NREM sleep: Memories get consolidated in the neocortex. The picture does not reflect the fact that the same connections between concepts may move from the switchboard (hippocampus) to permanent storage (neocortex). Octants 4 and 5 may look the same, but the networks of connections may change their location in the brain. The whole fabric of knowledge becomes stable, consolidated, and gets a ticket on its way to longevity. Memories settled in the cortex will get more and more stable with each review.
Octant 6: REM sleep: Unlike focus-creativity interplay which is network-procedural in character, NREM/REM pattern operates like a flip-flop oscillator. The left margin on the picture shows a typical NREM/REM pattern for a night. For the sake of illustration and symmetry, the picture includes only four separate episodes. Octant 6 is a nighttime equivalent of daytime creativity. Random pattern activation will produce new associations and REM sleep will work like an optimizing trainer for neural networks. When woken up during REM, we often report dreaming. This may be the expression of brain's nighttime work on playing hypothetical scenarios for the sake of memory optimization and discovery. The picture shows transitory areas of red activation, which can later become consolidated into new ideas in successive episodes of NREM sleep, or enhanced in successive episodes of REM sleep.
Octant 7 NREM: Further consolidation of gains from the day and early REM sleep episodes.
Octant 8 REM: Last part of the night might be most prolific in terms of creativity. This is the time when most of obligatory consolidation and memory transfer has already occurred. This is the time the brain is allowed to play with existing memories and look for patterns and generalizations that crystallize ideas and provide new insights in problems to be solved in waking.
Finally, back in Octant 1, we wake up with a big idea.
For the sake of creativity, if only possible, we should go to sleep when sleepy, abandon the alarm clock, give up drugs and medication, avoid evening alcohol, and get as much sleep as the brain demands (incl. the recommended mid-day nap).
The presented picture had three contributors, and their zodiac constellations have been used to assemble the representation of the ultimate big morning idea. You can now follow individual octants to get a general sense how that big idea came to be: starting with a creative chaos of the early morning, focused reasoning, further layers of creative enhancement, nighttime consolidation and comparison with existing memories, nighttime optimization, and nighttime creative expansion via random pattern generation.
Depression and positive thinking
Nighttime creativity is an anti-depressant. This is not only a matter of neurohormones. You can go to sleep with a gnawing problem only to wake up with a solution. If the problem is unsolvable, you might creatively come up with an optimistic interpretation, or, at the very least, with a stoic interpretation. This can happen only if you obey the creativity cycle and ensure perfect circadian alignment of nighttime sleep. Departures from optimum sleep timing can trigger depression.
Few people realize how important sleep is for moods. People who frequently experience a depressed mood insist that sleep deprivation often makes them feel better. However, this is a dangerous belief because cutting down on sleep indiscriminately may have the opposite effect. Short sleep indeed correlates with improved moods. However, this is mostly due to that fact that the shortest natural sleep is achieved in conditions where it is timed perfectly in reference to brain needs determined by the circadian cycle. Shortening sleep by delaying bedtime will have a different effect than shortening it with an alarm clock. Both will work differently in different chronotypes and in different forms of circadian misalignment. Sleep deprivation caused by circadian disruption can have a negative neurohormonal impact on the brain and trigger a depressed mood instead. Unless fully understood in the circadian dimension, and perfected as a form of chronotherapy, wake therapy may go the way of electroconvulsive shock therapy in the annals of medical history.
When there is no additional interference from stressors, mood changes are best explained by circadian misalignment of sleep in reference to the body clock (see: Circadian disturbances in depression). For that reason, well-executed and well-protected free running sleep might be the simplest and safest sleep therapy in depression.
In addition to its impact on re-balancing brain hormones, sleep has a very important impact on positive thinking through its creative effect. The same reality is interpreted differently by optimists and pessimists. The same reality is interpreted differently by the brain in different neurohormonal states and at different stages of the circadian cycle. People with a positive disposition, or brains in the right state, may have a healthy tendency to see the glass half full. This is part of natural defenses against the brutal truths of reality that can propel an optimist through life with a happy face. A vital component of that optimistic interpretation of the world is the creative brain that can actively search for ideas that can make the reality seem more congruent and more friendly. It is the nighttime creativity that helps build up positive interpretation.
REM sleep is the prime time for dreaming. People woken up in REM sleep report dreaming. People who wake up naturally often have no recall of dreaming. Dreams are incongruent and testify to their creative nature. They are often pretty unpleasant. All nightmares serve to arm us with knowledge tools such as solutions to dangerous situations, and positive interpretations of reality. In depressed patients, circadian misalignment my expose "dreaming brain" to wakefulness, which can trigger a positive feedback cascade of dark thoughts. This is why an alarm clock may provide for a difference between a nightmare and a positive solution to a problem.
This nighttime creative search for positive interpretation is why we say we like to sleep over the worries and take a new look in the morning. This is how we employ brain hormones and creativity to see the world in better colors. Those who neglect sleep, deprive themselves of the chief weapon that might help them improve their mood.
Creative cycle control
The learn drive propels learning, thinking and creativity. The balance between focus and creativity is determined by the operations of the involved networks and brain centers, and modulated by the neurohormonal state of the brain, as well as the network fatigue.
Sleep drive initiates sleep. It is determined by the following two prime variables:
- the circadian status that determines sleep propensity and
- the homeostatic status that depends on the network fatigue.
Sleep drive makes sure that we fall asleep late in the evening. In a well-managed creativity cycle, sleep drive will also ensure sleep during the siesta period. The system of brain structures governing the sleep drive is pretty complex as depicted in the Sleep control system diagram.
The dream drive is based on NREM-REM flip-flop which regulates transitions between two stages of sleep in which the direction of flow of information in the brain reverses to serve consolidation and/or optimization of memories.
All the control components of the natural creativity cycle, if undisturbed, provide a sure way to discovery.
All those goals are achieved using a mass of tissue that takes just 1-2% of the weight of the human body. Human brain is a true miracle of biological evolution. All its asks is a bit of energy to run it and respect for its control mechanisms.
Impact of schooling
Schooling totally destroys the natural creativity cycle in a vast majority of students. There are very few exceptions of kids who are natural early risers, love school, love their teachers, are gifted, love winning, are lucky to attend good schools with good programs and a great degree of freedom, whose parents are tolerant and helpful, and who can manage their evening schedule to their own liking. In my circles, this is extremely rare, perhaps as rare as 1:100. The average is bleak. Kids have no mental power left for their own learning. Their favorite low-brain-energy pastimes range from computer games through music to messing around with friends. Many kids are saved from utter decline by spending long hours in the football field, skatepark, street workout, or on a basketball court. Evenings are devoted to surfing the web, Facebook, YouTube, gaming, and other undemanding forms of cognitive effort.
The biggest offender in the destruction of the creativity cycle is the alarm clock in the morning. It does not help that the alarm may come from a gentle push from a loving mom. Nighttime REM-driven creativity is injured. Morning creativity is gone. Daytime learning and creative thinking are lethargic. Without help from napping, evening cycle is tired and uninspired. For those few who take post-school naps, some good evening learning is possible, but the creative component is limited as most of that evening learning comes from compulsory homework.
Employing the creativity cycle
If you ever experience a writer's block or wait in vain for inspiration or your artistic muse to come, note that natural creativity cycle, health permitting, makes it possible to experience high creativity on a daily basis. All you need is to understand individual steps and timing. If you look for high creativity in the evening after a hard day's work, you are less likely to find it. Don't mistake high passion and high focus for creativity. Passionate focus is easier to come by even in a tired brain. Kids can do their homework ok in the evening, however, they will never expand creatively on what they get fed in with from textbooks. Their brain will not build new layers of knowledge and understanding. Those extra layers and connections are vital for knowledge to last and expand. Creativity determines the ultimate representation of knowledge at the cortical level. That representation determines how abstract and how applicable knowledge is. In short, without solid creative generalizations, we know things, but we are not that much smarter as a result. In passive learning, the brain is like Google, full of information and short on wisdom. All it takes to make a difference is to employ the post-sleep high creativity stages in learning. In simplest terms, learning on a fresh brain is the only highly efficient form of learning.
Many good students and most great people instinctively follow prescriptions of this text. Years of problem solving make them arrive to similar solutions intuitively. In each creative thinker's mind, those creativity cycle stages will have different names and different associations. Their modelling will differ, but they will all lead to similar actions. Most people intuitively understand the importance of sleep, or absence of distraction in creative thinking. Understanding the biological basis of the creativity cycle, as described herein, should help us be more respectful towards natural powers of the brain.
One good artificial prop in the natural creativity cycle is the proverbial pen and paper, i.e. any means for extending human memory by making notes. I favor notes made in SuperMemo. They are best made in a collection dedicated to a specific problem that is to be solved. Later on, those notes can enter the process of incremental learning and propel the natural interplay of focus and creativity in learning.
Oscillations and transient transitions between focused/analytical and creative/exploratory work are naturally supported by tools that make the learning process incremental, intermittent, interruptible, and dendritic. This means that the student is in full control of the learning pace. This allows of free semantic digressions into multiple branches of knowledge.
In the early morning, in high creativity mode, note taking may take precedence over focused processing. The gradual transition to more analytical mode proceeds naturally and is under full control exerted by the user. In simple terms, this makes it possible to collect morning ideas as notes and then process them serially with maximum attention one by one. They can also be processed in an interleaved incremental mode (e.g. in parallel with spaced repetition material).
Neural creativity is a mutation of incremental learning, where some of the creative process is run in software in direct communication with the human memory storage. In the same way as the brain runs the creative process in a semantic network of neural connections, SuperMemo, in neural creativity, explores semantic links between concepts and branches of the knowledge tree to serve new knowledge and new inspirations via a process called spreading activation.
Incremental learning is a good computer metaphor for how the creative processes in the brain dovetails with focused thinking, and learning.
Nobody has ever measured the impact of incremental learning on neurogenesis, but I boldly hypothesize that if there are any control mechanisms that we might influence, they would be definitely associated with the neural activity and restorative processes. This would mean that rich learning and creative thought combined with healthy regimen of sleep would provide the basis of the desirable effect on the brain.The present article was written using incremental writing. Incremental writing is a technique, in which learning, creative thinking, and writing become integrated into a continuous incremental learning process. In incremental writing, one can employ a form of "project cycle": (1) information gathering, (2) writing and expansion, (3) clean up and elimination, and (4) publishing. All those stages require creativity and should not be confused with the creativity cycle.
Summary: Natural creativity cycle
- adherence to the natural creativity cycle is vital for achieving high creativity on a regular basis
- efficient problem solving is not possible without adherence to the natural creativity cycle
- for high creativity, sleep needs to occur in the optimum circadian framework
- creativity cycle known from creativity literature should rather be called a project cycle with all stages requiring high creativity in the first place
- in a healthy circadian cycle, most creative brain occurs in the morning, or after a siesta
- creativity competes with focus and attention. Those different brain modes are natural and are controlled procedurally by the goals of the mental process
- morning coffee boosts creativity
- clarity of thinking declines in proportion to mental effort during the waking day
- good sleep is a natural effortless inventor
- sleep can be easily injured with evening medication, alcohol, drugs, stress, and more
- memories are shuffled around in the brain during sleep. This is part of natural autonomous creativity
- REM sleep is a natural optimizer that helps generating night-time creative breakthroughs
- alarm clocks, cannabis, and alcohol are prime enemies of REM sleep and night-time creativity
- great people, self-employed people, and retirees alike, naturally gravitate towards structuring their day around the natural creativity cycle
- sleep can be used as a weapon against depression. Wake therapy can be useful only in conditions of circadian misalignment
- optimistic brain creatively re-interprets the reality in sleep
- respect for natural creativity cycle protects the inherent property of the brain: drive towards learning and invention
- schooling destroys natural creativity cycle for most kids
- free schedules, e.g. in homeschooling, democratic schooling, unschooling, vacation, etc. favor respect for the natural creativity cycle
- for most kids, creative processes are largely blocked by teaching, homework, structured activities, and home chores
- creativity blocked by schooling results in permanent changes in the brain that undermine future creativity
- self-learning and free play are great allies of creativity in childhood and adolescence
- incremental learning is an excellent way to control the balance between attention and creativity
- incremental learning supports learn drive, dream drive, spontaneous creativity, and self-directed expansion of knowledge
- this article was written using incremental writing.