Narrative Thinking: What it is and How it Helps Develop Creativity
It is a paraphrase of a great article on why creativity techniques need to be updated and how to do so.
So much has been said and written about developing creativity that it seems complicated to add anything new. But recently, American scientists have proposed a new approach to “pumping up” this skill.
Angus Fletcher and Mike Benveniste are specialists from Ohio State University and members of the university’s Narrative Project. It brings together researchers of narrative theory. Fletcher and Benveniste recently published an article in the international scientific journal Annals of the New York Academy of Science. They proposed a new method of developing creativity — through the training of narrative thinking. Here are the main theses and techniques from this work collected by the authors of wowessays.
Why are standard ways of fostering creativity not very effective?
Creativity is considered a significant source of innovation, growth, adaptability, and psychological resilience. It is why today’s schools and institutions, businesses, and even government agencies seek to develop this skill in young and adult students.
But what is creativity? Researchers cite two definitions that contradict each other:
- In the classical sense, creativity is the ability to generate new valuable ideas. And usefulness, practical results, is precisely the goal for which various structures invest a lot of effort and resources in developing creativity in people.
- Another non-academic approach says that creativity is virtually synonymous with novelty. Its usefulness may be incidental or irrelevant, and the goal of striving for it even contradicts the essence of creativity since an emphasis on practicality may suppress the process of creating something new.
Both approaches are reflected in the study of creativity and the creative process. Still, the question remains of integrating these ideas so that creativity can help progress without being stifled by the requirement of usefulness.
Divergent thinking, which usually refers to the brain’s ability to produce many different solutions based on the same data, is now commonly used to develop creativity. The use of such thinking to teach creativity began in the fifties, and the idea and terminology grew out of the work of American psychologist Joey Paul Guilford.
Guilford saw the human brain, conventionally speaking, as an information processor that perceives data through the senses, stores it in memory in the form of images, words, or symbols, and processes it using logical protocols such as deduction, and inference, association, and analogy.
Such a view has made it possible to systematize creativity as a pretty rational science that can be understood and evaluated and that can be taught. Therefore, although considered creative, divergent thinking primarily trains memory and the ability to create logical and associative connections. And creativity is perceived as a computational process responding to data.
Divergent, as well as convergent, thinking is actively being developed in higher and corporate education systems. It includes brainstorming, reasoning by analogy, and associative fluency exercises.
However, Fletcher and Benvenist believe that while this computational approach has helped remove the cloak of mystery from creativity and has yielded tangible results, it has still resulted in less innovation and growth than expected.
The authors point out a paradox: According to current research, young children have more creative imagination than adults, although memory and logical associations, the skills on which divergent thinking relies, are less developed than in adults. Moreover, there is scientific evidence that children’s ability to perform creative tasks declines after four or five years of schooling. But school education intensively trains logic, memory, and semantics.
This paradox leads to the question: maybe we can develop creativity better if we focus not on divergent thinking but an alternative, creative mechanism? The authors of this article believe that the difference may be significant. What might this alternative mechanism be? Fletcher and Benvenist suggest using narrative thinking techniques.
How Narrative Thinking Can Help Develop Creativity
“The human brain can think beyond logical rules, ‘bytes,’ representations, and other computational methods and materials. It can think in action. An action consists of a cause and its effect. An action causally linked to another action (or actions) is a narrative,” Angus Fletcher and Mike Benveniste write in their paper.
They present narrative cognition as thinking in actions, motives, and results. This model of understanding describes how people imagine causes and effects to come up with new activities. According to the authors, is the primary driver of the brain’s ability to generate original actions and, as a result, invent technology, create narrative works of art such as novels and films, and solve problems.
Although such thinking, unlike divergent thinking, is a non-calculative and non-logical process, it nevertheless belongs to the mechanical operations of the human brain and, therefore, is also trainable. The authors of this article argue that their work with schools, government agencies, and businesses supports this claim.
A narrative approach can partially reconcile the tension between novelty and practical utility in understanding creativity and, hence, developing it. After all, by its evolutionary goals, “seeks useful outcomes without requiring an explicit emphasis on utility,” the authors write. In other words, the narrative method allows people to generate practical solutions without limiting them to ideas that meet the criteria of “relevance.
How to develop creativity through narrative techniques
The idea advanced by Fletcher and Benveniste is based on a thesis from narrative theory (also called narratology or narrative theory), which states that people need stories to make sense of the world. For example, interpreting stories from everyday life often helps a thinker solve a particular problem.
The narrative theory itself has its origins in antiquity. The first work in this field known to modern mankind is Aristotle’s treatise, Poetics, written in 335 B.C. and is devoted to the foundations of drama.
The narrative theory explores narrative art and the tools it has accumulated over the many thousands of years that humanity has invented, collected and told stories. According to Fletcher and Benveniste, the same tools from the arsenal of storytellers, writers, and screenwriters can also be used in developing new methods for developing creativity because they reflect the mechanics of the narrative process, the brain’s natural way of thinking.
Of course, narrative techniques have also been used to develop creativity for quite some time, but, according to the article’s authors, not to the fullest extent. The fact is that narrative cognition has also long been treated as a computational method. But narrative allows one not just to follow some model as an algorithm but to generate new ideas illogically and suddenly.
“To better hone and strengthen the brain’s creativity, a new approach is needed to help the human mind create a richer and more flexible ‘catalog’ of causal actors and actions. And while this approach cannot be derived from logic, it can be derived from narrative theory,” the authors note.
In their article, the researchers identify three categories of narrative techniques:
- changing perspective;
- the creation of action.
“Literature has historically captured audience interest by translating these three natural sources of attention into story worlds, characters, and storylines. The first uses narrative techniques to help the brain imagine a new setting, the second to help the brain imagine different perspectives, and the third to help the brain imagine possible future actions,” according to the study authors.
The authors gave examples of how to use each technique.
Often in fiction, the world in which the narrative unfolds is created by focusing attention on some unexpected event or actor — this encourages the reader’s mind to hypothesize about new possibilities for action. The article’s authors give the following example: if the narrative begins with an enchanted storm, the reader will start to speculate — so is there magic in this world?
The researchers used this technique in a training session for armed forces members. Students were first asked to identify unique events and actors in their operational area. And then, they were asked to think about what threats and opportunities those events and actors created. On the one hand, their task was to imagine a kind of world, though close to reality, with new challenges. And on the other hand, with the help of narrative technique, to find solutions to these challenges and develop their creativity.
Changing (shifting) perspective.
A shift in perspective, in this case, is understood as a change in attitude, that is, an attempt to look at a situation from the outside, with the eyes of another person (another character or narrator, in the analogy with a literary work), to understand his motifs, and to suggest what actions he might undertake.
Such a technique was tried at the training sessions for the heads of Fortune 50, i.e., the most prominent American corporations, banks, and insurance companies. It looked like this: the participants were paired up, and then each executive was asked to solve a problem and explain the reasons for their decision to the partner. Then they had to develop a solution for a new trial, but using the partner’s motives, not their own.
For example, the head of a large firm decided to reduce customer service time in the care center, which included about 300 stores. The article noted that he suggested increasing efficiency by decentralizing processes — a method that wasn’t intuitive. It was one that a second executive needed to adopt to improve the efficiency of a hedge fund or launch a media studio in an emerging market.
In literary work, the creation of action is often achieved by a clash, a conflict of two opposing parties. Usually two characters with different motives. Or the competition can be expressed in the fact that the hero opposes the rules of his environment.
The researchers used this technique with master’s students: they were asked to imagine what would happen if a new actor appeared in general conditions or if a known actor appeared in pristine conditions. For example, what would the famous American biologist Rachel Carson do if she woke up in a world where declining hydrocarbon levels had reversed climate change?
Why it’s needed and how to measure creativity
The authors say there are many more narrative learning techniques listed in their article, and the ones they described are just examples of how narrative theory can be used to develop creativity. In general, such methods are already being used to teach children, but adults would benefit from them. The question is that the benefits will be somewhat different than usually imagined.
“Creativity is not about correctly predicting the future. It’s about discovering completely different possibilities. When you’ve done that, you can respond more quickly and wittily to the challenges,” Angus Fletcher pointed out.
But how do you evaluate the final result of creativity development? The article’s authors developed their method based on the consensus evaluation technique.
In the classic version of this technique, experts evaluate innovative products on several parameters and answer the question of how useful and original they think they are. Fletcher and his co-author have changed the approach and asked experts to assess how confident they are that some new action will work. On the one hand, the focus shifts from some idea or product to act, and on the other hand, it removes the “expert barrier.” It is often found in evaluating creativity because this evaluation relies primarily on logic, data, and previous results. It means that experts often overestimate or underestimate the possibilities of an idea or action. The new formulation of the question allows the evaluators to look at the object of evaluation from a different angle.
There are no studies that have confirmed Fletcher and Benveniste’s theses scientifically and prove that the method of developing creativity through storytelling unambiguously works. Therefore, their article is instead a suggestion for scientists, psychologists, and educators to pay attention to a large, long-established, and well-respected field of research — narrative theory — as another possible source of methods for developing creativity.
It is essential to understand that scientists are not calling for a complete rejection of divergent thinking to develop creativity. They are only suggesting that they acknowledge their insufficiency. It will make room for innovation in the approach to teaching creative thinking and connect other irrational mechanisms of the human brain to use their potential in teaching creativity.