Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 2 • 5:00 AM

Give Us This Day Our Daily Brands

Researchers find identifying with brand-name products reduces religiosity.


October 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Can’t Anyone Break the Women’s Marathon Record?

Paula Radcliffe set the world record in 2003. Since then? No one’s come within three minutes of her mark.


October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription With Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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