Creativity is not the exclusive domain of geniuses. — Unsplash pic via ETX Studio
Creativity is not the exclusive domain of geniuses. — Unsplash pic via ETX Studio

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PARIS, April 22 — You don’t have to be a genius to be creative in your everyday life.

In his book La Baignoire d’Archimède (Archimedes’ Bathtub), to be published by Editions Arké on May 6, Jules Zimmermann explains the creative process.

On the occasion of World Creativity and Innovation Day, the author and teacher answered our questions. 

Why are we often more creative in the shower? Can anyone be creative? Is creativity a gift, inspiration or a form of thinking exercise?

Jules Zimmermann is a teacher and lecturer who studied cognitive science at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and who has made creativity his favourite subject of reflection.

Aged 27, he has shared the results of his research in his book La Baignoire d’Archimède, [in French] from Editions Arké, coming out May 6.

In his work he explores scientific research on the subject and details techniques and methods to develop one’s own creativity.

And the good news is that you don’t need to be Einstein to have good ideas. Phew!

ETX Studio: What does it mean to talk about ‘creativity’? 

Jules Zimmermann: In psychology, it’s considered a way of thinking that is deployed when there is no ready-made solution to a challenge. When I get to a doorknob, it’s easy, I know how to open it. But when I find myself confined by pandemic-related restrictions, there’s a void. And I look for new solutions, new ways of living at home, for example, that I have not yet experienced. 

Is everybody creative?

The idea that everyone is creative, from the artist to the entrepreneur, is one that is very popular. I’m quite opposed to the discourse that we are all creative geniuses with a huge potential hidden inside us. We can all develop our creativity. This does not mean that we are all destined to be creative geniuses. This is an opportunity to eliminate the powerful notion that it’s necessary to be “successful” even in our leisure activities. I find this idea that as modern human beings we should fulfil ourselves by creating, by inventing things quite terrible. So I try to counter this idea.

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With preconceived schemas for the directions of our lives, ranging from finding a permanent job to getting married, is there any room for creativity in our lives?  

If we go even further along this line of reasoning, we have Uber and food delivery services and a host of other apps in our smartphones capable of replacing many activities we have to do. This is what we call the conveyor belt society: we sit down, we let ourselves be carried along, and we do nothing more. A bit like in “Wall-E,” that Disney dystopia where obese humans spend their days on giant armchairs, transported around by conveyor belts, watching a screen. It’s the opposite of creativity. We are no longer active, nor able to find solutions by ourselves. 

“We’re in a conveyor belt society, we let ourselves be carried along and we do nothing more” — Jules Zimmerman

Do we need to be creative these days?

We do need to be creative if we want to be independent and free! If we just follow solutions already thought up for us, we unfortunately cannot build the life we want. Therefore, there is a form of creativity that is about inventing one’s life and inventing solutions that are different to those that our parents, the culture or the society have thought up for us. 

Are there personalities naturally inclined to be creative, or is it education and environment or a particular mix of these factors? 

This is a tricky question, as we don’t have all the answers yet. But I will start with the idea of the milkshake. We know that education has a strong influence, especially the framework established by our parents. A study by the French psychologist Jacques Lautrey in 1989 titled “Classe sociale, milieu familial, intelligence,” (“Social class, family environment, intelligence,” 1989) shows that a framework that is too free or, on the contrary, too constrained does not encourage creativity. The ideal is a good balance between constraints and freedom. We also know that, in order to develop one’s ideas as a child, one needs a positive home environment. I was lucky enough to have parents who were very enthusiastic when I had an idea. In contrast, when a child presents an original idea in a family where they are told that it’s stupid or that they will never succeed, then the person will not allow themselves to take on this type of project.

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Are there other factors?

Even people who have benefited from the right family environment, all the right conditions, never develop a creative process without doing significant work. We shouldn’t imagine a spontaneous artistic work or discovery, just by walking around. It is always the result of a lot of work, associated with a certain predisposition.

Do we know what happens in our brains when we have an idea?

Not really. We are beginning to identify elements of our brain that play an important role in creativity: the complementarity between the prefrontal cortex, which is more associated with reasoning and planning, and the default areas, which create connections between unexpected elements. But we are just at the beginning.

What roles do reason and emotion play in creation?

I would like to frame it a little bit differently, between intuition and reasoning. For a long time, creativity has been thought of as divine inspiration. Already in Greek times, it was thought that the gods sent ideas into the minds of poets. So it was not a human production but something that fell onto us. This notion of inspiration is still very present. It gives the impression that it’s not something you produce, but something you draw on, like a breath of oxygen. 

And that’s not the case? 

Today there is a growing field of cognitive psychology that is opposed to this idea of inspiration. It shows, on the contrary, that in order to be creative, we activate areas of the brain that are more related to cognitive control and reasoning. Sometimes, we clearly need to be disinhibited to allow ourselves to express outrageous ideas. But we also need to resist our first ideas and to dig deeper in our thinking. To demonstrate what we call inhibition, to resist automatisms. Creativity is not only about letting go and letting your intuition speak, it is also about putting in place processes of reasoning and resistance for our most automatic, spontaneous ideas. 

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For instance? 

If I want to reinvent the fork, and I already have a very stereotypical image of the tool, I’m going to have a hard time getting away from it. If I zoom out, and want to invent a tool that brings food to my mouth, then I can imagine a kind of moving mechanism that brings it to me, like for sushi in some Japanese bars. 

The shower is often mentioned as the place where ideas come to us. Should we do our Zoom meetings in our bathrooms?

I don’t think so! (laughs) The reason they say the best ideas come from there is precisely because the shower is a privileged moment, where you have no interruptions, no tasks to accomplish, and you can simply lose yourself in your thoughts. This is called mental wandering. According to some recent studies, it is particularly stimulated by repetitive tasks that require attention. We are active, as we are soaping ourselves up, but it requires very little attention because we are performing automatic actions. It is the same for walking or washing dishes. If you start brainstorming in the shower with your colleagues, you lose the benefit of the break. With smartphones we hardly have any of these moments. The shower may be one of the last bastions of creativity. — ETX Studio



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