Menus Subscribe Search

How the Unconscious Mind Boosts Creative Output

• January 03, 2012 • 1:41 PM

New research finds we’re better able to identify genuinely creative ideas when they’ve emerged from the unconscious mind.

Truly creative ideas are both highly prized and, for most of us, maddeningly elusive. If our best efforts produce nothing brilliant, we’re often advised to put aside the issue at hand and give our unconscious minds a chance to work.

Newly published research suggests that is indeed a good idea — but not for the reason you might think.

A study from the Netherlands finds allowing ideas to incubate in the back of the mind is, in a narrow sense, overrated. People who let their unconscious minds take a crack at a problem were no more adept at coming up with innovative solutions than those who consciously deliberated over the dilemma.

But they did perform better on the vital second step of this process: determining which of their ideas was the most creative. That realization provides essential information; without it, how do you decide which solution you should actually try to implement?

Given the value of discerning truly fresh ideas, “we can conclude that the unconscious mind plays a vital role in creative performance,” a research team led by Simone Ritter of the Radboud University Behavioral Science Institute writes in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity.

In the first of two experiments, 112 university students were given two minutes to come up with creative ideas to an everyday problem: how to make the time spent waiting in line at a cash register more bearable. Half the participants went at it immediately, while the others first spent two minutes performing a distracting task — clicking on circles that appeared on a computer screen. This allowed time for ideas to percolate outside their conscious awareness.

After writing down as many ideas as they could think of, they were asked to choose which of their notions was the most creative.  Participants were scored by the number of ideas they came up with, the creativity level of those ideas (as measured by trained raters), and whether their perception of their most innovative idea coincided with that of the raters.

The two groups scored evenly on both the number of ideas generated and the average creativity of those ideas. But those who had been distracted, and thus had ideas spring from their unconscious minds, were better at selecting their most creative concept.

The second experiment, which featured 68 students, was similarly structured. Participants were given a different assignment (“Come up with as many ideas as possible on how students can earn some extra money”); at the end, they were asked to identify both their most and least creative ideas.

The results replicated those of the first experiment. Those who had employed their unconscious minds were better at selecting both their most and least-innovative ideas.

The researchers aren’t sure how to explain their results; they suggest a “spontaneous tagging process” takes place when an idea is generated unconsciously, alerting us to its level of creativity. While admitting this theory is speculative, they note that — whatever its cause — this sort of discernment is “vitally important for everyday creativity.”

True enough. Knowing which ideas belong in the trash bin, and which deserve to be fleshed out further, is a real gift—one that, according to this research, your unconscious mind is poised to provide.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.