The 4 Stages of Creativity

The 4 Stages of Creativity

Forget just getting into the bathtub and waiting to yell "Eureka!" A psychologist explains the long and winding road our brains take to produce a groundbreaking new idea.
8 March 2021

Ask the average Jane or Joe on the street how creativity works and you'll probably hear a few well worn understandings about the genesis of new ideas. Some people are just more attuned to the creative right side of the brain, someone might tell you, or another person might trot out the charming old story of Archimedes in his bath, yelling out "Eureka!" when he realized he'd just discovered how to measure the volume of irregular objects.

Neuroscience has moved far beyond these popular ideas, however, according to a fascinating 10-minute PBS video delving into the latest findings on creativity. In the course of discussions on prerequisites for maximizing creativity and the keys to constructive creative collaboration, the video features psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, offering a quick explanation of the latest neuroscience of creativity.

According to Kaufman, if you're still relying on old standbys like left-brain and right-brain, your idea of the creative process could use some updating. Turns out, more parts of our brain are involved in innovation than you probably realize, and more stages are needed to go from a blank page to a fully executed creative idea. Here are the basic four stages, according to Kaufman:

Stage 1: Preparation

You might think creativity starts with an idea, but the truth is that ideas don't arise in an intellectual vacuum. If you want your brain to come up with innovative notions, you need to feed it materials to work with. This essential but under-celebrated stage of the process is simply called preparation and involves trying to learn lots of things. At this point, rather than searching for magic leaps of understanding, your brain is using attention, reasoning, and planning to gather information.

Stage 2: Incubation

"Then there is this important stage where you let it go," Kaufman explains, stressing that "it's really important." This stage is the one where you might actually want to climb into the bathtub or go for a walk and stop consciously thinking about the problem you're trying to solve. Research shows that letting your mind wander in this way leads to greater creativity.

Stage 3: Illumination

This is the scientific name for that classic "eureka!" moment when "connections automatically, subconsciously collide and then reach the threshold of consciousness," says Kaufman's words. "You're like 'oh my God! That's the idea!'"

Stage 4: Verification

Laypeople may understand creativity as pretty much ending with the thrilling light-bulb moment of the illumination stage, but Kaufman insists that at that point "you're not done." For creativity to reach others and accomplish anything, you need to once again use those critical thinking skills to think about your audience and craft your message or idea. "Some of the greatest creative ideas of all time can easily be lost because they're not packaged in the right way or consumable," Kaufman warns.

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