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Creativity and Flexibility in the Brain
Editors’ Note: Contrary to what might be expected from common usage, people’s creativity and their flexibility rely on entirely different structures in the brain. Here, a brain researcher describes the recent findings of neuroscience in relation to both qualities. Jendresen shows how the experience of aging (sadly) robs everyone of some degree of mental flexibility. The good news is, the brain can be trained for both flexibility and creativity, and your brain will adapt, altering itself physically to respond to your needs.
Introduction: Negotiation, Creativity and Flexibility
It’s almost universally recognized that a proficient negotiator demonstrates both creativity and flexibility. Indeed the terms are often thrown around in such a way as to make them appear two sides of the same coin (as in, when a negotiation is stuck, one of the negotiators will need creativity to come up with a new idea—while the other will need flexibility to really hear it, and then respond constructively.)
But are creativity and flexibility really related, in how our brains work? And if they are quite different abilities, what does research on the brain tell us about how they develop, and whether they can be managed, or augmented—or even lost? In fact, both classic and recent brain research can tell us quite a bit about these things, and in turn, suggest possibilities for negotiators themselves to maintain and improve their skills in a key area.
What Are Creativity and Flexibility?
“You are such a creative person”. These are words I often hear when I play the piano. My non-musician friends define me as creative only on the basis of my being able to reproduce the work of another pianist. Yet most of us do think of artists and musicians as creative. So what does it actually mean to be “creative”? Is it the dancer, or the choreographer, who is really creative? Are artists and musicians truly creative people? After all, most of these “creative people” have had some sort of training; and they utilize a set of learned skills. In line with this, creativity can be defined as a reorganization of already acquired skills to the production of something new.
Or how about another angle of view: The painter X paints nature exactly as it is, while the painter Y moves trees around to make the painting more appealing. Who is then the more creative person, X or Y? Or should we interpret this as painter Y being more flexible (i.e. less rigid) than painter X?
There is likely no clear answer to these questions—instead they become an illustration that creativity and flexibility are not the easiest concepts to pin down. Sometimes, in ordinary speech, the word creativity is even used interchangeably with the word flexibility. Before going further into creativity and flexibility in the brain, it is essential to let you know how I use these words.
I discriminate between flexibility and creativity. As a negotiator, you might be both flexible and creative. You might also just be flexible, but not creative. Suppose you are stuck trying to negotiate your way to a solution and nobody wants to budge. You need an innovative approach, but cannot seem to find it. Your counterpart then comes up with a fantastic, new idea—so it is he who is being creative. If you decide to shift to his new approach, you are being flexible. We will call this “outcome flexibility”—the willingness to agree to different processes or solutions.
Outcome flexibility can be highly affected by emotions: stubbornness, pride, feelings (good or bad) for the counterpart, what other things happened that day, etc. Outcome flexibility is therefore not easily measured, and it is not necessarily the same as whether your brain is capable of being flexible, but more whether you feel like being flexible at that exact time towards that exact person. For a more brain-relevant perspective, however, flexibility is often talked about as cognitive flexibility. While outcome flexibility is not far from cognitive flexibility, cognitive flexibility can be objectively measured as a function of your brain.
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to shift between tasks and adapt to new situations or rules. In a conversation, cognitive flexibility allows you to focus on more than just one subject and to shift fairly easily between multiple subjects. When you are cooking, you are also using your cognitive flexibility, as you are boiling pasta and cutting vegetables while...
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