There has been much empirical study in psychology and cognitive science of the processes through which creativity occurs. Interpretation of the results of these studies has led to several possible explanations of the sources and methods of creativity.


Incubation is a temporary break from creative problem solving that can result in insight. There has been some empirical research looking at whether, as the concept of “incubation” in Wallas’ model implies, a period of interruption or rest from a problem may aid creative problem-solving. Ward lists various hypotheses that have been advanced to explain why incubation may aid creative problem-solving, and notes how some empirical evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that incubation aids creative problem-solving in that it enables “forgetting” of misleading clues. Absence of incubation may lead the problem solver to become fixated on inappropriate strategies of solving the problem. This work disputes the earlier hypothesis that creative solutions to problems arise mysteriously from the unconscious mind while the conscious mind is occupied on other tasks.

Convergent and divergent thinking

J. P. Guilford drew a distinction between convergent and divergent production (commonly renamed convergent and divergent thinking). Convergent thinking involves aiming for a single, correct solution to a problem, whereas divergent thinking involves creative generation of multiple answers to a set problem. Divergent thinking is sometimes used as a synonym for creativity in psychology literature. Other researchers have occasionally used the terms flexible thinking or fluid intelligence, which are roughly similar to (but not synonymous with) creativity.

Creative cognition approach

In 1992, Finke et al. proposed the “Geneplore” model, in which creativity takes place in two phases: a generative phase, where an individual constructs mental representations called preinventive structures, and an exploratory phase where those structures are used to come up with creative ideas. Some evidence shows that when people use their imagination to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of existing categories and concepts. Weisberg argued, by contrast, that creativity only involves ordinary cognitive processes yielding extraordinary results.

The Explicit–Implicit Interaction (EII) theory

Helie and Sun recently proposed a unified framework for understanding creativity in problem solving, namely the Explicit–Implicit Interaction (EII) theory of creativity. This new theory constitutes an attempt at providing a more unified explanation of relevant phenomena (in part by reinterpreting/integrating various fragmentary existing theories of incubation and insight). The EII theory relies mainly on five basic principles, namely

1. The co-existence of and the difference between explicit and implicit knowledge;
2. The simultaneous involvement of implicit and explicit processes in most tasks;
3. The redundant representation of explicit and implicit knowledge;
4. The integration of the results of explicit and implicit processing; and
5. The iterative (and possibly bidirectional) processing.

A computational implementation of the theory was developed based on the CLARION cognitive architecture and used to simulate relevant human data. This work represents an initial step in the development of process-based theories of creativity encompassing incubation, insight, and various other related phenomena.

Conceptual blending

In The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler introduced the concept of bisociation—that creativity arises as a result of the intersection of two quite different frames of reference. This idea was later developed into conceptual blending. In the ’90s, various approaches in cognitive science that dealt with metaphor, analogy and structure mapping have been converging, and a new integrative approach to the study of creativity in science, art and humor has emerged under the label conceptual blending.

Honing theory

Honing theory posits that creativity arises due to the self-organizing, self-mending nature of a worldview, and that it is by way of the creative process the individual hones (and re-hones) an integrated worldview. Honing theory places equal emphasis on the externally visible creative outcome and the internal cognitive restructuring brought about by the creative process.

Indeed, one factor that distinguishes it from other theories of creativity is that it focuses on not just restructuring as it pertains to the conception of the task, but as it pertains to the worldview as a whole. When faced with a creatively demanding task, there is an interaction between the conception of the task and the worldview. The conception of the task changes through interaction with the worldview, and the worldview changes through interaction with the task.

This interaction is reiterated until the task is complete, at which point not only is the task conceived of differently, but the worldview is subtly or drastically transformed. Thus another distinguishing feature of honing theory is that the creative process reflects the natural tendency of a worldview to attempt to resolve dissonance and seek internal consistency amongst its components, whether they be ideas, attitudes, or bits of knowledge; it mends itself as does a body when it has been injured.

Yet another central, distinguishing feature of honing theory is the notion of a potentiality state. Honing theory posits that creative thought proceeds not by searching through and randomly ‘mutating’ predefined possibilities, but by drawing upon associations that exist due to overlap in the distributed neural cell assemblies that participate in the encoding of experiences in memory.

Midway through the creative process one may have made associations between the current task and previous experiences, but not yet disambiguated which aspects of those previous experiences are relevant to the current task. Thus the creative idea may feel ‘half-baked’. It is at that point that it can be said to be in a potentiality state, because how it will actualize depends on the different internally or externally generated contexts it interacts with.

Honing theory can account for many phenomena that are not readily explained by other theories of creativity. For example, creativity was commonly thought to be fostered by a supportive, nurturing, trustworthy environment conducive to self-actualization. However, research shows that creativity is actually associated with childhood adversity, which would stimulate honing. Honing theory also makes several predictions that differ from what would be predicted by other theories.

For example, empirical support has been obtained using analogy problem solving experiments for the proposal that midway through the creative process one’s mind is in a potentiality state. Other experiments show that different works by the same creator exhibit a recognizable style or ‘voice’, and that this same recognizable quality even comes through in different creative outlets.

This is not predicted by theories of creativity that emphasize chance processes or the accumulation of expertise, but it is predicted by honing theory, according to which personal style reflects the creator’s uniquely structured worldview. This theory has been developed by Liane Gabora.

Everyday imaginative thought

In everyday thought, people often spontaneously imagine alternatives to reality when they think “if only…”. Their counterfactual thinking is viewed as an example of everyday creative processes. It has been proposed that the creation of counterfactual alternatives to reality depends on similar cognitive processes to rational thought.

Text Referenced from Wikipedia here