Who Killed Creativity? How Can We Get Creativity Back?

How not to be fooled by magic: 2) Directed attention


By Andrew Grant – author of “Who Killed Creativity? And how can we get it back.”(Wiley)

How to pick pockets in broad daylight – and open up the mind

Derren Brown, the master of mind tricks, is so good at what he does that he can tell a person he is about to pick pocket them and get away with doing it, even after he has raised their awareness that it is about to happen. So how does he do this? If you watch him carefully he overwhelms his victims with a barrage of information that serves as a distraction, for example handing them a drink bottle whilst talking, then asking for the drink bottle back, at the same time as asking for instructions on a map, showing the time etc – constantly changing the conversation and focus.


The brain simply cannot process all the information at once, so it is forced (in this case by the magician) into a specific area. We will call this the box. The brain tries to work with step-by-step linear logic, but the way the world works (and what Derren Brown creates) is not linear. The working memory can only hold about 6 things at once, so when something new is bought to attention something else has to go.

We have been fortunate to work with some of the world’s most creative companies, and yet when we survey our workshop participants only get about 10% of participants say they are functioning to 100% of their creative ability. Often this can be due to the fact that their brains are simply overwhelmed by the amount of information they are exposed to and need to deal with on a regular basis, so they are kept inside “the box”. That is, they remain restricted by such things as current expectations, habitual behaviours, and standard systems and procedures, and never get the chance to explore other ideas and options.

A creative mind must first find the creative space to open up possibilities away from distractions, and then it is possible to look first for solutions outside of the system, for new paths. Getting out of the system, or changing the frame of reference, will help to open up new possibilities. When unfiltered information reaches the conscious awareness of people who are open to being creative, and when they can process this information without being overwhelmed, it can lead to exceptional insights.

Don’t be fooled by the magician’s tricks – or the norms and standard expectations. Start to look outside where you have been directed to look. A whole new world might just open up.

Moonwalking gorillas and survival

A famous experiment design that has been repeated many times in different formats asks the audience to watch a video and count the number of routines performed by a sports team in a certain period of time, eg the basketball passes between a specific team. Typically in this experiment something unusual walks across the screen during the exercise, but the audience misses seeing it completely. For example, in the basketball version a moonwalking gorilla passes right through the middle of the game – but the experiment participants rarely see it as they’re so focused on counting the number of passes! This reveals how our thinking can become limited if our attention is directed in a specific way. Comedian Lawrence Leung ran a whole 30 min documentary on this concept, and had a gorilla appear in every scene. Even though the viewers had been alerted to this concept, most viewers still missed seeing it!


People who are creative are people that can see what’s on the peripheral and not look just where others tell them to look, or where their attention is directed.

Laurence Gonzales takes some implications from this concept beyond creative thinking and applies them to survival. He believes that people who survive while lost in the wilderness, or who survive terminal diseases such as cancer in the face of such a definitive diagnosis, are usually considered notoriously difficult. The medical staff observes that they are “bad patients,” unruly, troublesome. They don’t follow directions, they question everything and they’re generally annoying. And yet these people are the survivors.

Can we teach creative thinking?

People can learn to be creative when they are taught how to think outside the “box”, or outside the norm. When a control group was set up for the moonwalking bear experiment the viewers in this group usually saw the gorilla simply because there were no expectations set. If these viewers were asked, “Tell me what you see?” curiosity was aroused, and they discovered a whole range of interesting things. While being asked to “count the passes or dancers” produced a closed system where over 55% of viewers failed to see the unusual event, when their minds are opened up and the possibilities are created the majority discover something unique.

Researchers point out that people tend to take in information as confirmation of their current mental models, so we keep building on our set expectations rather than building new models from new ideas.

Solving today’s problems requires being open to new ideas. It’s the individuals and organisations that get into this new space first that are the most rewarded. Today’s success is no excuse to sit back, since as soon as one sits back others are ready to overtake. Being creative is not a one off event but a constant vigilant mindset. We have worked with many groups to show how these skills can be trained, and how systems can be built that support innovation in the organisational culture.

Have you learnt how to think outside the norm? Are there systems and structures in place within your organisation that will support open creative thinking and innovation?

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