Creativity Element 13: Thinking and evaluation

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Creativity Fourteen is a series of articles that explores the value of creativity for individuals and teams, starting from the fundamental principles.
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The second piece of the expansion-convergence model is the convergence phase, which happens when the current status of the creative work is observed, analyzed, and evaluated against the goal.

Even if it’s a phase, it can happen formally only once, but it’s more likely to happen many times in the mind of the individual. When recurring, it can be compared to a critical eye that overlooks the creative process. There are two potential boundaries in this analytical overlook.

The evaluation can be too loose. When this happens the creative process fails because it keeps exploring and expanding with new ideas and, in a state of constant change, it’s not able to converge on the initial goal. A multitude of ideas are generated, but the convergence toward the goal, with the selection of the useful ideas, doesn’t happen in full or at all.

A way to deal with this is to start building an habit of taking note of all the discoveries done to come back to them later, thus freeing up the mind to re-focus on the original goal. Noting down ideas might seem like a trivial act, but it’s often very powerful in freeing the mind from the weight of keeping all these great ideas around.

On the opposite side, the evaluation can be too strict. This constant imposition of the limitations and requirements of the goal blocks the generation and exploration of new ideas. The story lacks richness, the painting lacks depth, the design lacks polish, and so on. The outcome is often dull and “unoriginal”, as it’s driven by strict factual requirements.

When I saw this happen the strictness was generated by the fear of losing control, even if it was just control over one own’s ideas. Sometimes this is just due to inexperience: in trying to reach the goal people try too hard and they end up being too strict and not allowing ideas to happen.

Creativity is a wild mind and a disciplined eye.
— Dorothy Parker

There are however many ways to achieve this balance: the evaluation has to happen, but the “when” is up to the individual.

For some people this means to be almost completely without limits and then reining back the best ideas with checkpoints of some sort over time. For other people it is instead a constant dance in and out, limited and unlimited. Both moments are present, and it becomes important not be too strict, nor too open.

There’s also emerging evidence about how the expansion-convergence model, while not describing properly discrete phases, is a reflection of an actual interplay of our brain’s default mode network (DMN) with the executive control network (ECN), which engages in cognitive tasks such as attention, memory and integration of relations. The metaphor of the internal analytical eye during the creative process is thus quite apt at describing the inner selection and guidance the executive control network takes care of, while keeping the default mode network activating in alternation.

Cognitive control may support divergent thinking by inhibiting unoriginal ideas and shifting attention to different semantic categories.
— Beaty, Benedek, Wilkins, et. al. (2014) Creativity and the default network: A functional connectivity analysis of the creative brain at rest.

Learn to recognize this analytical eye at work, and manage it.