A Simple Technique to Boost Creativity
The idea of ‘peripheral’ thinking is this: instead of taking a torchlight to explore a darkened room, try taking a lamp.
When there’s so much advice encouraging us to be endlessly more productive and more focused, it’s difficult to hang onto the idea that creativity often works best when the mind is relaxed.
The peripheral mind allows light to spread outwards, not in a fine beam but in a broad illumination. In the right circumstances, when we use our peripheral mind, we let go of the targeted thought; in doing so, we replace the bull’s eye with a focus as wide as the sky.
Thinking widely like this is useful to creativity because some of the best moments of creativity are the unplanned ones. They can’t always be designed — but they can be encouraged. For this to happen, the mind has to remain as open and supple as possible and be willing to appreciate the usefulness of unintended outcomes.
It’s like the serendipitous discovery that happens when you go to a bookshop or an art gallery: intent on finding a specific work by a specific author, you get distracted by the book or artwork that sits next to it. If you are open to a chance encounter, a whole new pathway can spread out before you.
A relaxed attitude and an open mind
We use our peripheral senses all of the time. If you have ever become skilled at playing a sport or a musical instrument, you’ll know that point where the action occurs too fast for the conscious mind to deliberate over. You must rely on your peripheral senses to work in concert with your reflex behavior. Even as we walk down the street, our peripheral senses are perpetually at work, guiding us and helping us make decisions, largely on an unconscious level.
Peripheral thinking inhabits a more flexible mode of thought than deliberate attention. The idea echos principles found in the ancient Chinese philosophical tradition of Taoism. From Chapter 24 of the Tao Te Ching:
‘He who stands on tip-toe, does not stand firm;
He who takes the longest stride, does not walk the fastest.’
He who does his own looking sees little,
He who defines himself is not therefore distinct.
In Taoism, the method of achieving “perfection” is in appreciating the nuance of opposites and learning to be at ease with the unplanned rhythms of the universe. Striving too hard leads to instability. It is about taking a wider view, of yourself and the world around you.
Think of the idea you have of your own identity. It can be captured with specific concepts, but only partially: you might be a mother or a father, a daughter, or a son. You may also be a student, a writer, a doctor, a lawyer, or a politician. You might be a caring person, an eccentric person, happy or optimistic. But no matter how many concepts you might employ to picture yourself, they will only build an approximate image. To capture yourself fully, you must take a wider view. A view as wide as the horizon.
Creative thinking is similar: forget the idea that you are trying to express yourself as a single entity. Instead, open up to multiple identities and let these various perspectives inform your output.
The idea of peripheral thinking is perhaps best considered an attitude or temperament, one of graceful letting go.
Ways to access the peripheral mind for creative thoughts
- Cultivate the art of diversion: be open to finding something more interesting than the thing you were looking for in the first place.
- Let go of your sense of self. Inhabit different identities and play around in those thoughts to see the world from multiple points of view.
- Don’t be afraid to let your thoughts to slow down and wander off at wayward tangents.
- Be patient. The creative thought you are waiting for will always come — at the right time.
- Be happy to bend, like a grass bending in the wind. It is better than snapping like a brittle branch.
My name is Christopher P Jones and I’m an art historian, novelist, and the author of How to Read Paintings. (Click link for Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and other e-reader devices).
Would you like to get…
A free guide to the Essential Styles in Western Art History, plus updates and exclusive news about me and my writing? Download for free here.