To Think or Not to Think: Can over thinking stifle creativity?

It happens to everyone; the struggle to recall some bit of information or to create a new and innovative idea. All encompassing mental energy is being used to problem solve and create. The idea seems to be just on the tip of our tongue, though still out of reach. Our memory is usually very good, and with nearly unlimited capability to store long-term memories, we have experiences and information stored that we don’t remember ever encoding, and that can’t be recalled on a conscious or explicit level.

Be this as it may, at times our memory of course fails us, and we are unable to retrieve or create the valuable source of inspiration we are seeking, and we look through every problem solving technique in desperation.

That is unless; we utilize some intuitive techniques for memory enhancement and creativity.

If you have noticed, when trying to retrieving information from memory, once you avert your attention to some other task and seemingly relax your mind, WALLA!, the idea literally pops into your head. When it comes to learning, this concept is known as “insight learning,” or the sudden and spontaneous realization of information we were striving to discover. This can happen when problem solving to make an important decision, or when trying to remember necessary and relevant information.

This is similar to the “A-Ha” moment or the “eureka” experience. We have all had this experience in life. After exhausting all options we can think of, we may decide there is no stone left unturned and move on, but many times this exact moment is when we get a bright idea or rush of inspiration that seemingly comes from beyond our conscious effort.

If a Chimpanzee can do it, So Can We

Insight learning is the process that happens when a novel idea or creative outlet develops out of nowhere. It’s simply a spark of insight. Many times we struggle to pull creative insight from the recesses of our mind or we toil over not being able to realize the bright idea we have been pondering.  Though once we give up all focus on the current thought or dilemma, and avert our attention to a different and more relaxing or calming activity, we let go of the forceful nature of thinking, and the thought just pops into our mind.

A study on learning and problem solving conducted by Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Kohler exemplifies this concept based on some of our closest primate friends. Through research provided in his book The Mentality of Apes (1917), Kohler studied chimps in novel problem solving situations, such as having fruit dangling just of reach, and realized some interesting ideas about problem solving.

He found that the chimps would pick up sticks and stack boxes, and begin to create and construct the necessary structures in order to accomplish their goal. The chimps would jump up, as from a flash of insight, and begin utilizing these previously undefined tools.

Albeit this research was done in the early twentieth century, it still provides a glimpse into the sudden inspiration that can prompt decision making or recognition of an unforeseen solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem.

An interesting book to reference that discusses this concept in contemporary and applicable terms, is the “The Breakout Principle.” The book discusses peak creative experiences where one is able to utilize the full capacity of mind, while maintaining a calm and collected physiology. Essentially, the book explains, it is advantageous to obtain mental quietude or calm and collected thinking, in order to utilize this peak capability. We must let go and detach from the present issue in order to come around to a valued decision. It is funny how it seems “counter-intuitive” to follow our intuition and bypass logic sometimes.

Listening to the Intuitive Sense

These flashes of insight and inspiration are the creative impulses we all have within. Each of us has the intuition or internal navigation that provides us with the ability to engage automatically in many everyday activities. Once we learn how, we can almost automatically drive a car, play a game of tennis, or play the drums without actually thinking through the process. We engage in automatic thinking and engage in behavior patterns without conscious effort.

Now all of these activities can be broken down into logical and sequential means, but even if we are not able to explain how these activities are done, we are still able to accomplish these feats. We have an internal intuitive system that is made naturally for our survival. Great things can come when this intuition is attended to and not ignored. Inspiration is provided for our benefit and as an opportunity to grow and create.

Don’t get me wrong, critical thinking is important. I used to be one of the most overly analytical people I knew. Though if everything in life was deduced down to sheer logic it wouldn’t leave much room for imagination and creativity, or time to get things done for that matter.

We can reason in two ways. We can either think inductively or deductively. We can think from specific to general or from general to the specific. We all know of the detective Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was a master of deduction. He would look at all the clues and begin to piece together all the relevant information until he came to his solution. Though sometimes we may not have time to think things through this thoroughly, and inductive reasoning, or our intuition, takes the driver’s seat.

Critical thinking to be creative


A happy medium between logic and intuition can be viewed in the process of creative problem solving. The creative thinker usually applies a divergent thinking process, where they examine novel perspectives and think outside the box. They look for many answers or solutions to a problem and break away from linear thinking. This is opposed to a convergent thinker that is inclined and able to find only one “best” answer. Through creative problem solving a person may imagine new solutions and begin to cultivate the idea through a period of “incubation” where this idea is analyzed and developed. From this process of contemplation the idea is materialized and becomes a reality.

To be a critical thinker, it helps to be open-minded and willing to examine numerous perspectives, though if the idea is not apparent, over-thinking will not help and we must be mindful of our thinking and willing to listen to internal inspiration. It is a process to begin tuning-in to intuition, and may come easier to some than others, but through developing self-trust and belief in our creative mind, our intuition can become our biggest ally.